Open air markets are an intrinsic element of most European cities. The Campo dei Fiori market in Rome is one such market; selling all sorts of things including cheeses, flowers, aprons and other wares. The temporary stalls are simple and the square works for a market, with the surrounding shops and trattorie benefiting from the vibrancy generated by the market.
What is it about the market at Campo Dei Fiori that works? First of all, it has been an open air market for several hundred years. In fact the surrounding streets are also named after the wares of parts of the market such as Via dei Cappellari (hat makers) and Via dei Giubbonari (tailors).
Secondly, Campo dei Fiori is not located along an important route within the city but is in a square which can physically accommodate a market, with the hustle and bustle not impeding the flow of people along a busy route.
It would be a great loss to Rome and to our collective memory of Rome, if Campo dei Fiori were to be moved elsewhere.
It is still alive today and the hawkers have, rightly or wrongly, created a thriving business. Ensuring that the open air market is a sustainable venture is important if we are to keep this particular commercial aspect of our city alive.
However, moving it from its historic position in Merchants Street is not the solution to improving it, or to making it sustainable. From a historical perspective, due importance should be given to the fact that for centuries this open air market has existed in Merchants Street. It also forms part of our collective memory of Valletta. It is even referred to as is-suq tal-Monti, or il-Monti for short, taking its name from the Monte di Pietà which stands nearby.
So why move it? It is a street, aptly named, which has sufficient width to accommodate a market and it will complement the imminent revival of the covered market as a food hub. We need solutions for this city which, while focusing on the future, can subtly engage with the past.
To move the market to Ordnance Street is not an eloquent choice. Ordnance Street is at the entrance to Valletta, a route along the ramparts of the city and an integral part of the land front of the 16th century fortifications of Valletta. It was never intended to house a market. Not only is it much narrower than Merchants Street, but it is short and it is out on a limb.
Furthermore, open air markets are found centrally located within cities, with residential areas stretching around. In being temporary in their nature, they are set up within a central commercial area with sufficient space to accommodate them.
It would be a physical challenge to attempt to fit the current number of stalls located along 170 metres of Merchants Street into the narrower Ordnance Street which is only 50 metres long, without seeing them spill into the 65 metres along the Teatru Rjal. We are yet to see a plan of all the stalls within the narrow 50-metre stretch.
Ordnance Street is also an area with a new topography, a changing landscape which now embodies the new entrance to Valletta and our new seat of Parliament. The previous entrance invoked memories of the destruction of WWII. The new Renzo Piano Project has transformed the landscape of this entire area while still bearing the scars of the war in the ruins of the Opera House.
To allow the market to spill onto this landscape and beneath our new Parliament building, to use the words of Stephen Spiteri, “will be an insult to our history, culture and national pride and to all those who have our capital city at heart”.
It is tantamount to locating an open air market in front of the Houses of Parliament in London or in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. The British would not do that and neither would the Germans.
Why should we?
Neil Macgregor, director of the British Museum, presented a BBC programme called Germany: Memories of a Nation. Referring to the Reichstag, with its 1999 Foster dome, he extols the virtues of this architectural masterpiece and how it embodies the pride and spirit of a united nation. It too had those who loved it and those who did not.
Likewise, we in Malta have the pro-Piano building factions and the anti. However, we should all have sufficient national pride to want our new parliament building, the symbol of our democracy, to stand within an elegant, unencumbered majestic space: a space which is not merely commercial, but which embodies our democratic dignity and which belongs to the nation as a whole.
Valletta deserves better. The Maltese nation deserves better.
Maria Grazia Cassar is council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa.