Mattia Preti, the Knight of Calabria
The artist Mattia Preti was born in 1613 in a small town in Calabria, in southern Italy, and honed his craft in Rome and Naples. In 1659, Preti, having been made a Knight, travelled to Malta in search of patronage, and lived here for the rest of his life. He undertook the decoration of St John's Co-Cathedral, which had been very plain beforehand; after he painted an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Langue of Aragon, Grand Master Raphael Cotoner commissioned him to decorate the vaulted ceiling of the church with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. Completed over six years, the work transformed the church. He died in 1699, and is buried in the cathedral.
Over the last few years, Valletta has been undergoing a renaissance. From its construction until WWII, the city was home to the nobility and businesspeople. However, WWII resulted in a lot of damage, and after the war, the city's empty houses were used for social housing, with around 3000 units spread across the empty mansions. The demographic changed – the rich all moved to their seaside homes in Sliema, and by the 1980s and '90s many of Valletta's beautiful houses were empty and falling apart.
People began to buy up Valletta's houses with views first, but now even inner-city ones are selling and increasingly being repurposed as boutique hotels or short-term apartment accommodation. Prices have gone up, real estate agents are sprouting, and like other heritage cities around the world, some long-term residents are being priced out of where they have spent the majority of their lives.
Renzo Piano's 2015 designs, including the Parliament Building and the City Gate, have also given Valletta a different feel. As renowned local architect Chris Briffa says, 'The last time we had something of that scale and detail and that technically advanced were the 18th-century bastions… It’s a statement that Valletta is not just a museum city, but it's vibrant and a city of the 21st century'.
Looking ahead, there are plans to redevelop and restore Valletta's City Gate ditch garden, including opening the former Farson's Brewery as a museum and eating and drinking precinct. A €24-million framework to regenerate lower Valletta in the proximity of Fort St Elmo is also on the cards. Currently more undeveloped than the upper parts of the city, the plan includes social housing, accommodation for retired locals – both vital to offset the area's Airbnb-inspired gentrification – and improved green spaces and access to the water.
You'll notice that on almost every corner of Valletta there is some kind of statue or monument. When the Knights of St John planned Valletta, they issued regulations, called capitoli, that all corners had to be embellished by statues or niches.
Caravaggio in Malta
The Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi (1571–1610) is better known by the name of his home town, Caravaggio, in northern Italy. His realist depictions of religious subjects and dramatic use of light shocked and revolutionised the 16th-century art world.
He made his name in Rome with a series of controversial works, but was also notorious for his volatility and violence. Numerous brawls culminated in Caravaggio murdering a man during an argument over a tennis game. He fled Rome and went into hiding in Naples for several months. Then, towards the end of 1607, he moved to Malta.
Here, Caravaggio was welcomed as a famous artist and produced several works for the Knights of St John, including the famous Beheading of St John the Baptist for the Oratory of St John's Co-Cathedral. In July 1608 he was admitted into the Order as a Knight of Justice, but only two months later he was arrested for an unspecified crime, and imprisoned in Fort St Angelo.
He escaped to Sicily, but was expelled from the Order and spent the next two years on the run. He created some of his finest paintings – ever darker and more twisted – during this period. He died in Italy; the cause of his death remains unknown.