MALTESE CITIES, VILLAGES AND SITES
By: Peter Prictoe
Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities of the Cottonera District, is still rich in history despite the damage suffered in the bombing of World War Two. Originally known as Birgu, derived from "Borgo" the Mediterranean term for a coastal village under the shelter of a fort or castle, its honorific name of Vittoriosa was granted as a result of its victorious stand in the Great Siege of 1565.
A temple of Astarte is reputed to have stood on this peninsula in Phoenician times but when the Order of St.John arrived in 1530, the walls of this small fishing village and its protecting Castello del Mare were semi-derelict. Under constant threat of attack by the forces of Islam the fortifications were restored and enlarged and Birgu became the headquarters of the Order and a separate municipality from the equally ancient inland capital of Mdina. In May 1565 the Turks attacked and battle raged around Birgu, the central point of the Order's defences. After the siege, in which the walls were badly damaged, the fortifications were restored to the original plan and two cavaliers facing Bormla, St.John's and St. James's, were added in 1588.
Later development was spasmodic according to the state of the Order's finances and the threat of Turkish attack. Three fine early eighteenth century gateways are most impressive. The Advanced Gate of 1722 is ornamented with some of the most impressive carvings on the island, though many were damaged by the egalitarian fervour of the Revolutionary French in 1798. The Couvre Porte (1723) is graceful whilst the Gate of Provence (1727) is plainer.
The Knights built the new capital of Valletta across the Grand Harbour after the siege but Vittoriosa remained the base of the Knights' Galleys and their dockyard that was taken over by the British in the 19th Century and so attracted the attention of the Axis bombers during the second siege in the 20th.Century. Mostly a residential area today, with little in the way of industry or shops, traces of history can be found in its narrow winding streets. One can walk along the French Curtain where the Knights of France, Auvergne and Provence stood between those of Aragon and Castille at the extremities. It was at the Post of Castille that the Turks broke through but were repulsed by the defenders led by the 74 year old Grand Master in person and where he was wounded. Close by is the post of Genoa that was defended by the crew of a Genoese vessel. After the Post of Castille one can walk along the eastern side of the ramparts by the Posts of Germany and England and a glance downwards will show some interesting examples of military architecture known as hornworks. Continuing along the walls one eventually arrives at Fort St Angelo across a bridge that affords a view of the Manderaggio where the Galleys of the Knights were sheltered.
The devastation of World War Two cost Vittoriosa many fine buildings but a substantial amount remains. There is only a window to show what the Normans constructed but some auberges of the Knights still exist and there are several other churches. The Palace of the Inquisitors in Main Gate Street survived the bombing, though scarred, and is now a museum.
Down on the Marina beside Dockyard Creek will be found old establishments concerned with the Galleys of the Order. Modified by the British Navy, badly damaged by bombardment, they are being restored. The Old Bakery that provided biscuits and bread for the sailors is now a Maritime Museum whilst outside the entrance opposite the Conventual Church of St. Lawrence is a statuary group commemorating the closing of the British base in 1979.
The Church of St.Lawrence (1696), Conventual Church of the Order, and that of the Dominican Fathers wee reconstructed after war damage. Chapels near the St Lawrence Church act as museums or storage for statues and floats used at festa time Amongst the other churches is that of Santa Scholastica (designed like St Lawrence's by Gafa) which is attached to a cloistered Benedictine nunnery that was the first Infirmary of the Knights. The Square of Vittoriosa is much changed from the medieval aspect it bore before 1941/2 and, in particular, the watch tower has gone. There are still statues commemorating St.Lawrence and the victory of 1565 and note a crucifix by the entrance to the collachio that commemorates the place of execution of criminals.
The auberges of the German and English knights once backed on to each other but the German building was a victim of the bombing. Its site is marked in the square near the bollard that delineated the Collachio whilst the English auberge can be found in the street behind the square. The sites of the Auberges of Castille and that of Italy that were also war losses are marked but the auberges of the French-speaking Knights survived. The Inquisition in Malta was not that as seen in Spain but it remained significant and two of the occupants of the imposing Inquisitor's Palace in Vittoriosa went on to become Popes themselves.
Greatly expanded in population but restricted in space within encircling walls there were bound to be clashes between its multi-national inhabitants besides the ever present threat of invasion and revolt from the large number of galley-slaves held in dungeons under the fort. There was a particularly dangerous clash between the French and Spanish knights at one period with bloodshed on the streets and even artillery employed. The Bishop maintained a palace in Vittoriosa as did the Inquisitor and together with the Sovereign Order, who only recognised the authority of the Pope himself, there were bound to be arguments over precedence.
Shipbuilding and repair provided work for the artisans of Vittoriosa up to the second World War but the bombing of that time and the decline of the naval establishment has changed the nature of Vittoriosa which only comes to colourful life at the time of "Festa" when the rivalry of band clubs comes to the fore. The streets are decorated, churches illuminated and fireworks light up the sky as processions wind down streets that have seen so much history.
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Last Updated: Friday, April 30, 1999 7:16:33 PM
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