St George's Square, also known as Palace Square (Misraħ il-Palazz) is Valletta's largest and most prominent square, located at the very heart of the city right in front of Valletta's most magnificent palace – the Grandmasters' Palace. The appearance of the square has changed as the years have passed since it first started taking shape in the 17th century, but it has remained one of the most important venues, where many a notable occasion or event happening on the island have been held or celebrated.
Apart from the Grandmasters' Palace, which flanks the square on its South-Eastern side, just across Republic Street, three beautiful baroque buildings flank the three other sides. The palace previously known as the Casa del Commun Tesoro sits on the South-West side of the square, just across Old Theatre Street. On its North-West side, and sitting directly on its periphery, is the Main Guard Building, while the last remaining side is flanked by the Hostel de Verdelin just across Archbishop Street.
The Grandmasters' Palace
Since the building of the new city, in 1565, the Grandmasters' Palace has always been the seat of Government of the Maltese islands, becoming the British Governors' Palace when the French were ousted from Malta and, finally, the Palace of the President of Malta.
In 1571 Grandmaster Pietro del Monte saw and liked the site, and convinced the Order to buy the site to build the palace. As he died soon afterwards, it was during Grandmaster Jean de la Cassiere's reign (1572 - 1581) that the original palace was built. The architect entrusted with the prestigious job of designing and overseeing work on this beautiful, baroque palace was Gerolamo Cassar. Grandmasters who came later obviously redecorated and enlarged it until it reached the size and magnificent level of embellishment which we see today.
The Casa del Commun Tesoro
This is a large, two-storied corner building, and was originally built to have shops at ground level, as was the custom with large buildings built during the 16th and 17th century. It was originally built by the Knights to be, as the name implies, the house of the national treasury. During early British rule it became the Chief Secretary's Office – which means that it would have housed the offices of the British romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, for some time, held down the post of Chief Secretary to the Governor. It then successively became the Government Treasury, the British Packet Office and was again converted into the Grand Hotel by the late 1800s. In 1914, it was taken over by the Casino Maltese.
It suffered significant damage during the war, and in 1944 the legendary Caffe Cordina took over a large part of the ground floor – which is where it still is today.
The Main Guard Building
This building was originally built by the Knights, and it housed the Palace guards. The building was originally built without the prominent portico which one sees today. This was added onto the facade in 1814 by the British. They continued using the building as a Guard House and Officers' Mess.
The Main Guard is built in a particularly sober style, but the British portico is topped by a very beautiful coat of arms of Great Britain, carved in stone.
At both the far ends of the facade of this building are two decorative, baroque fountains.
The Hostel de Verdelin
The Hostel de Verdelin stands just across Archbishop Street, flanking the last side of the square. This was originally built as the residence of the Grand Commander of the Order Fra Jean Jacques de Verdelin, who was the nephew of Grandmaster de Verdale. The facade was given a very decorative treatment, very reminescent of Spanish baroque – so much so that the building is also known as the Casa delle Colombe (House of the Doves), a name which reflects the carved figures on the facade.
After de Verdelin's death the property eventually became the property of the Order of St John and was used as a hostel. For a time, this building was used as the Civil Sports Club.
The Square – Wignacourt Fountain and the Verdale Column
After the Grandmasters' Palace was built, there was subsequent embellishment of the square over the years. When the Wignacourt Acqueduct was completed in 1614, during the reign of Grandmaster Fra Alof de Wignacourt, water was finally brought into Valletta from Rabat. To celebrate this achievement, a lovely fountain with a circular basin and a three-tiered scultpure, embellished with dolphins, supported on a cone-shaped pedestal was erected in the middle of the square. This was known as the Wignacourt Fountain, and it was inaugurated in April 1615. It was the first fountain to be built in Valletta after the completion of the acqueduct.
This fountain is now to be found in St Philip's Gardens, in Floriana. After the Knights left Malta, the British moved the fountain to the square in front of the then Auberge d' Auvergne - which stood in the position of the present Law Courts, and which was destroyed during the war - to enable St George's Square to be used for military parades. It was then, later, moved from there to St Philip's Garden, in Floriana.
Another interesting monument which stood on the square, but which can no longer be seen, is the Verdale Column. This was erected by Grandmaster Hughues Loubenx de Verdale, when he was appointed cardinal, by Pope Sixtus V. At the top of the column, strangely enough, Grandmaster de Verdale had ordered the sculpture of a wolf in the act of defaecating. Some years ago, a friend of mine told me of this interesting and hilarious anecodote she had found in a book by Dr Giovanni Bonello, while she was browsing through some lots of books which were due to go up for auction ...
In 1587, Grandmaster de Verdale – whose coats of arms prominently featured two wolves rampant - had been summoned to Rome to be appointed cardinal by Sixtus - though gossip-mongers of the time held on to the opinion that he did not deserve the honour. While in Rome, he had been invited to a banquet given by a certain Cardinal Colonna who, in jest, had a wolf chained to the table placed at de Verdale's feet - obviously indicating that Hughues de Verdale's new post would keep him on the straight and narrow in one way or another. Grandmaster de Verdale was enraged by this gesture, and when he got back to Malta he immediately ordered a column (kolonna) to be erected on Palace Square, on top of which was to be placed a large stone sculpture of a defaecating wolf. He was so serious about this slight to Cardinal Colonna, that he even left a legacy to ensure that the sculpture would be maintained in a pristine conditions, even after his death.
The column was positioned on the periphery of the square, close to Archbishop's Street, and became known as "Tal-Fama", probably referring to a rather bad reputation which De Verdale had among the people. It is known, with certainty, that Grandmaster Pinto actually saw to a restoration of the column during his reign (1741 - 1773), but it is said that it was Grandmaster Ximenes (1773 -1775) who ordered the removal of the column from the square.
The Square as a venue and witness to Malta's most important events
Being the main and most important square in Valletta, St George's Square has obviously been the most prominent venue whenever anything of any importance happened on the island.
From the celebration of Carnival during the time of the Knights, with the young, peasant dancers congregating under the Palace balcony awaiting the go-ahead, from the Grandmaster, for Carnival to begin ... to the French celebrations of the Quatorze Juillet during the two, short years of French occupation.
From the colourful Carnival float défilé and dance items of later years (20th Century), with audiences watching intently from the enclosure on the square itself, or crowded on the balconies of the Casino Maltese, the Civil Sports Club and the Palace itself ... to the many British military parades held on the square during the years of British rule.
From the enthusiastic greeting, by the crowds on the square, of successive rulers: initially the grandmasters, then British royalty, British governors, and finally successive Maltese prime ministers and presidents as they traditionally greet the crowds from the Palace's main balcony ... to more momentous occasions like the presentation of the George Cross to the people of the island, in September 1942, held in a square partly destroyed by enemy bombs.
It was also St. George's Square which mainly witnessed the tragic events of the Sette Giugno 1919, and where - until some time ago - a monument stood in memory of the victims who were killed in the riots on the day.
Author: Christine Tanti
Sources and Acknowledgments:
“Houses of Valletta” by Victor F. Denaro (Malta, 1967)
History of Casino Maltese – Brief History of the Club. http://user.orbit.net.mt/fournier/TCMhistory.htm
We would like to thank the Imperial War Museum for their permission to reproduce the photos showing the presentation of the George Cross to the people of Malta in September 1942 (© IWM (GM 1765) ) , and the presentation of the Gloster Sea Gladiator Fuselage “Faith” on St George's Square (© IWM (CM 5347).
Thanks go to Dr Doreen Galea Vincenti Zarb for her information re the Verdale Column anecdote. Also, thanks go to Dr Galea Vincenti Zarb for allowing the reproduction of her grandfather's – Com. Henri Zarb's – watercolour of the celebration of the Quatorze Juillet on St George's Square. More information about the artist can be found in International Dictionary of Artists who Painted Malta (2nd edition; pages 504 -505).
Sincere thanks also go to Mr Joseph Piccinino and Mr Ray Pisani for their help with information about the Hostel de Verdelin, and Mr Frank Portelli for information about the De Verdale Column.