Imagine walking down memory lane and not getting lost in the process. It could easily happen if you could revive a city you know well, like Valletta, shake its bones and bring it back in shape to a time and space wherein you had never stepped, except in your wildest imagination. But then, you would know Valletta immediately anyway. Or would you?
Perhaps you wouldn't have realised that Porta del Monte is no longer there but that we have Victoria Gate instead. And you surely wouldn't recognise the fountain just outside the gate if you saw it, although that Triton perched on top
would look vaguely familiar.
If you thought this was all nigh impossible, you'll be surprised to discover it is all happening through Virtual Valletta, a new project the likes of which Malta has never known. Jean Paul Mifsud meets me after another sleepless night spent at his computer but his enthusiasm is as wide awake as ever. "It all began quite casually from an idea which I had while helping my son on a school project. It then all fell into place following a conversation I had with Joe Piccinino.
Both Jean Paul and Joe are Valletta boys, one generation apart. Jean Paul is practically the motor behind YMCA Malta and an assiduous believer in the rights of the homeless and people in need. To most people in Malta and Gozo, he is better known as a media person, interviewer, and producer. Joe Piccinino is a businessman based in Valletta; a man with a burning passion for all things within the City walls.
"Back when we first met," says Jean Paul,"Joe told me how he wanted to recompose images of all the old Valletta shop fronts. I told him I wanted to recompose all of Valletta. I reasoned it was possible to compile all the information we had both individually accumulated, draw on a variety of resources to beef up what we already had, and come up with something really special. Which is how we came up with the idea of a walk-through experience. Today more than twenty people and varied entities are involved in the project which has excited them so much that it doesn't look like work at all. In fact it's all done in people's spare time and late nights.
"We are enjoying it so much. The beauty of it is that we are discovering the mysteries of Valletta, with new findings coming up every day. We are gleaning so much from the contributions of varied individuals who offer literature, documents, photographs, plans and maps. The final outcome is something re-created to scale. This virtual experience will make Valletta accessible to all."
Many old aspects of Valletta are well documented, such as the World War II shelters. Much else is strongly missing and a great deal of research is ongoing to collate whatever is possible. Especially since the Virtual Valletta program is not only about Valletta above ground but also about Valletta underground. Many believe there exists a complete thoroughfare network of roads beneath the surface, but Jean Paul has his reservations.
"When I was a kid, I used to roam the subterranean passages with my pals, and quite frankly I have never come across these wide underground streets people mention. Some of the passages are quite long, others are blocked off. Still, there's a lot of mystery down there. However some of the mystery has been alleviated thanks to old reports such as those by Carapecchia and by Denis de Lucca which indicate all the underground wells belonging to individual houses, and all interlinked between them. New reports have also provided huge insight, such as the documentation by Architect Edward Said which sheds light on the underground waterways.
Meantime, the Royal Opera House has already come alive in virtual wonderland and more is yet to come. Sporadic activities materialised in connection with the virtual Valletta project. Last summer saw school children getting to grips with Valletta in a dynamic manner. "We gave kids a camera each and asked them to go around Valletta, taking pictures of what they perceived as beautiful, abandoned or ugly. The results have been phenomenal and have allowed us adults to perceive a different angle to the experience called Valletta.
The two year project is now in its sixth month. Funding is trickling in, allowing the project to employ a professional 3D Modeller. Meantime the aim is to issue a DVD and launch an official website, all in aid of the YMCA Homeless. "It ties this whole idea in with a social aspect adds Jean Paul. "At YMCA we see a number of individual cases daily, many new, most recurring. Our home gives shelter to some 22 people every night. Many of the homeless are actually children or women coming from broken families, the children being assigned to YMCA through a court order. As I roam Valletta in hi-tech mode, I learn more about the original doorway into the City, get to see whatWignacourt's fountain looked like and walk in and out of the backstage area of the Royal Opera House. Valletta has never been such an exciting city.