Until the arrival of the Knights of St John, Mount Sceberras, on which Valletta stands, lying between two natural harbours, was an arid tongue of land. No building stood on its bare rocks except for a small watchtower called St Elmo, to be found at its extreme end.
When the Knights arrived in 1530, they settled in the small village of Birgu on the eastern shores of Grand Harbour, which, at that time, had the advantage of being protected by the bulwark of St Angelo in the main harbour.
Aerial view of Valletta
As an invasion of the island by the Turks was considered imminent, the Knights hurriedly reinforced the few defences available, and built a stronger fort at St Elmo to guard the entrance to the harbour.
The Turkish invaders struck in May 1565. The besieged Knights and the Maltese defenders rose valiantly to the occasion. Their loss of men and property was considerable, but the Turkish invaders suffered so many more deaths and causalities that after four months of assault, they decided to call it a day and return to their land.
Grand Master La Valette, the gallant hero of the siege, soon realised that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, it had to provide for adequate defences. Therefore, he drew up a plan for a new fortified city on the Sceberras peninsula. Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain showed interest in the project. They both announced financial aid and the Pope lent the Knights the services of Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer, who drew up the necessary plans for the new city and its defences.
Work started in earnest in March 1566 - first on the bastions and, soon after, on the more important buildings. The new city was to be called Valletta in honour of its founder, Grand Master La Valette.
La Valette died in 1568, and his successor, Pietro del Monte continued with the work at the same step. By 1571 , enough homes were completed and the Knights could transfer their quarters from girgu to their new capital.
Architect Laparelli left Malta in 1570. He was replaced by his assistant Gerolamo Cassar, who had spent some months in Rome, where he had observed the new style of buildings in that great city.
Cassar designed and supervised most of the early buildings, including the Sacra Infermeria, St John's Church, the Magisterial Palace and the seven Auberges, or Inns of Residence of the Knights.
By the turn of the 16th Century, Valletta had grown to a sizeable city. People from all parts of the Island flocked to live within its safe fortifications. Mdina, till then Malta's capital, lost much of its importance when the new city of Valletta became the island's capital.
In the ensuing years, the austere mannerist style of Cassar's structures gave way to the more lavish palaces and churches with graceful facades and rich sculptural motifs.
The new city, with its strong bastions and deep moats, became an impregnable bulwark of great strategic importance. The Knights gained the gratitude of Popes and foreign rulers for their achievement. Grand Master La Valette christened his city The humble city of Valletta.