The Department of History of Art is organising a lecture by Dr Roger Vella Bonavita entitled 'Before Valletta: The Career of Capitano Francesco Laparelli da Cortona in Tuscany and the Papal States'. The lecture will be held on Wednesday 5 April at 18:30 in the Church of Santa Catherina d'Italia in Valletta.
Synopsis of Lecture
Francesco Laparelli was born in Cortona, in Tuscany in 1521. He was an architect, a soldier and a military engineer. Many of his his surviving papers (especially those relating to Malta) were returned to his family in Cortona most probably by his faithful servitor after his master died in 1570 while serving with the papal naval squadron off Crete. However the Laparelli family archives and others also contain papers relating to his career in Tuscany and the Papal States. These constitute a fascinating, though sadly by no means complete, record of his life, education and training; his work on fortifications and, to a much lesser extent, his architectural projects
Laparelli’s career as a first class military engineer really started, took off would be more accurate, around he early 1550’s when he was just over forty years old. Little is known about his early life and professional career. He managed his extensive properties and estates in and around Cortona and studied civil architecture (he was familiar with the works of Alberti and Serlio) and military engineering . He wrote treatises on estate management and fortification. A dispute with another wealthy family during the 1540s landed his lawyer and quite probably Francesco himself, as well as members of his family, in prison for several months for they were denounced as sympathisers of the Strozzi faction; mortal enemies of the Medici dukes of Florence. They were cleared and Francesco went on to serve as an ensign in Cortona’s militia. Duke Cosimo de’ Medici arranged for his ‘election’ as citizen of Florence in 1555, most probably in reward for his services as an officer and engineer during the Guerra di Siena where he probably first met Gabrio Serbelloni (his future patron) . Il Gran Gabrio, as he came to be known, Serbelloni was a born leader of men: a fine general, artillery commander and military engineer – and he was well connected. Laparelli went on to serve on Cortona’s city council and worked under Serbelloni and other engineers on the Fortezza del Girifalco high above the city. Cortona’s contemporary and later chroniclers bitterly criticised him, not entirely justifiably, for his part in the demolition of extramural suburbs to make way for new fortifications on Cortona’s main front and for the cost of building the fortress and other works on the city walls. These eventually bankrupted the city.
Laparelli moved to Rome in the spring of 1560 possibly to seek work there as an architect; but in May that year soon after his arrival there was an invasion scare when the Turks wiped out a Christian armada at Djerba in North Africa. He was appointed captain of a company of infantry and posted to Civitavecchia, Rome’s principal port. Duke Cosimo having permitted him to remain in papal service, he returned to the Eternal City in the autumn determined to make a career for himself. In June 1561, thanks to Gabrio Serbelloni, one of Pope Pius IV’s nephews and now his patron, he was given charge of massive fortification works at Castel S. Angelo and the Vatican. These were major projects: the fortified enceinte around the Vatican alone was over three kilometres long. He also built the defences of a new suburb called the Borgo Pio (named after Pius IV) and designed its street plan. The Borgo Pio was the first major suburb to be added to Rome since imperial times. Periodically he visited Civitavecchia to oversee the completion of the fortifications there. Early in 1562 he was commissioned to visit many of the fortified places in the Papal States, to report on their defences and to recommend improvements. These visits continued until at least 1564. He also designed fortifications for papal strongholds to the South East of Rome.
Somehow Laparelli also found the time to work as an architect. He worked on private residences and large country houses; even it appears on the Palazzo Farnese. The high point of his career in Rome as an architect was his appointment as Michelangelo Buonarotti’s sosituto or deputy in the summer of 1563. This meant he could expect to succeed the aged genius as architect of St Peter’s and in particular to build the huge dome of the new basilica designed by Michelangleo. At the time this was the largest and most prestigious architectural project in Europe. Francesco advised on the state of St Peter’s old nave and also undertook to build the dome to Michelangelo’s specifications. But he was passed over (twice) after Michelangelo died in 1564, perhaps because he had briefly fallen out with his patron, thereby also displeasing the pope, or more probably because in the summer of 1565 Pius almost certainly intended to make him responsible for another, truly breath-taking, fortification project. In May the Ottoman Turks sent a huge armada to Malta in order to capture it from the knights of the Order of St John and then to attack Italy and even Rome. To meet this threat the pope planned to extend the (not quite complete) fortifications of the Vatican. Massive state of the art fortifications would envelop Rome replacing Emperor Aurelian’s ancient eighteen kilometre long enceinte around the city. A truly massive (and hideously expensive) project. The new defences would also enable the papacy to stand up to pressure from Spain. Pius remembered the Hapsburg Sack of Rome in 1527 and more recently the humiliation suffered by his immediate predecessor Pope Paul IV at the hands of Spain during the so called Guerra di Napoli only a few years earlier.
Malta survived the siege but the Order’s efforts to obtain the services of Baldassare Lanci the principal engineer of Duke Cosimo of Florence and supplies and labourers from Sicily in order to build a new city on Mount Xiberras failed because the Order and the pope belittled Spain’s efforts to relieve Malta by Spain in general and those of Don Garcia de Toledo (tSpain’s Viceroy of Sicily) in particular. Cosimo’s wife was Don Garcia’s sister. Lanci (not surprisingly) was not made available to the Order and no supplies or labourers reached Malta from Sicily either - nor money from Spain for that matter. Pius IV despatched Laparelli to Malta but, although the engineer surveyed the ground on Xiberras and developed his concept for the projected city, nothing could be done without supplies, labourers and (lots of) money. Fortunately diplomatic work by the new pope (Pius V) and Serbelloni persuaded the Order publicly to acknowledge Spain’s contribution (and that of Don Garcia de Toledo) to the relief of Malta. Supplies, money and labourers and troops came to Malta in sufficient quantities to enable Grand Master de Valete to authorise work on building the new city of Valletta to Laparelli’s design.
Roger Vella Bonavita was educated at St Edward’s College, Cottonera. Here he studied history under Roderick Cavaliero. He took his Bachelor’s degree (with honours in history) and his Master’s degree (by thesis) at Manchester University. He lectured in history at the University of Malta from 1964 until 1982 when he moved to Perth in Western Australia where he had a very varied career as an executive in industry, commerce, government and universities. He retired in 1996) to return to his books and researched the career of Francesco Laparelli and the background to his work in great depth. He was fortunate to consult with (and learn much from) Professor Quentin Hughes and Dr Albert Ganado to whom he acknowledges a great debt of gratitude. In 2011(aged 71) he took his doctorate at the University of Malta. His thesis “A gentleman of Cortona: the life and achievements of Capitano Francesco Laparelli da Cortona (1521-1570)” is supported by three volumes of Laparelli’s papers in facsimile, transcript and translation. A book version is in preparation and it contains new materials.