Gnien is-Sultan

One finds that most studies on the fortified city of Valletta are primarily concerned with the history and development of the city’s military architecture.

The fortifications are nearly always analyzed for their significance as defensive elements and their ability to wage war. Little thought, however, is given to understanding how a fortress truly functioned in times of peace. And peace, rather than war, was the experience of Valletta throughout the greater part of its existence under the Knights of St John. In the 240 years of its existence as a Hospitaller fortress, Valletta was never attacked and subjected to a destructive siege. Even during the lightning French invasion of 1798 and the two year blockade which followed, the fortress survived practically unscathed. Although, one must admit that throughout the Hospitaller period there were various instances of real threats of attack – the so called alarme generale or periods of defensive crises when the fortifications were readied and prepared for impending attacks – these events were relatively few and spaced far between, leaving the city more than ample breathing space to develop its social and urban functions.  In these periods of relative military inactivity, the fortified structures and spaces allocated for defensive purposes frequently fell victim to urban and social pressures both from without and within the fortified enclosure.


One such place along the Valletta enceinte, which, although intended solely for defence, was instead quickly recruited to serve for recreational purposes, was the rampart ‘à tenaglia’ that once stood at the foot of the Upper Barracca. Known later as Ġnien is-Sultan, or as ‘Giardino della Marina’, this section of the enceinte was taken over soon after its construction in order to serve as the Grand Master’s summer getaway – a veritable pleasure house fully equipped with its lavish gardens and fountains.

The section of fortification on which this magisterial building was constructed was not part of the original defensive perimeter as laid out by the Italian military engineer Francesco Laparelli in 1566. Indeed, the rampart on which the Grand Master’s summer house was founded was not begun until well into the early decades of the seventeenth century. The need for this new addition to the original bastioned enceinte was born of the realization that Laparelli’s solution to the design of his land front had not dealt effectively with the problem posed by the very high ground on the left flank of the Sceberras promontory. On the Grand Harbur side of Valletta, Laparelli’s land front terminated in a large two-tiered demi-bastion, called SS Peter and Paul Bastion (also known as the Post of Italy and, today as the Upper Barracca Garden). This bulwark, however, had remained very high up on the hill overlooking the harbour. Later military engineers, as a result, were highly critical of its inherent defects and, by the early decades of the 1600s, had long been calling for various kinds of interventions to resolve the issue. The last of these solutions involved the refashioning the sloping rocky foreshore at the foot of the bastion (i.e., at the foot of the Upper Barracca) into a sort of faussebraye complemented by a rock-hewn ditch stretching all along the face of the adjoining Cortina della Marina and its Del Monte Gateway. This rampart came to be known as Lascaris Bastion, named after the reigning Grand Master Jean de Lascaris-Castellar (reigned 1636-1657) who decreed its construction and, also, because of the summer house which Lascaris ordered to be built some years later on the same site.


Conceived as a type of trincieramento, work on Grand Master Lascaris’ new lateral antemurale of Valletta was begun in the early decades of the 1600s. The construction works were entrusted into the hands of a local building contractor by the name of Maestro Xara who secured the bid to  execute the project:

‘fabricare e fare tutti li mura, parapetti et altro che sarà necessario per trinciare il porto qual defende la parte che guarda il mare ... il quale distende sotto la Posta d’Italia e gira fino al muro nuovo che si é attaccato alla chiesa della Madonna di Lies’.

Shortly after it was finished, however, the new tenaglia was requisitioned by Grand Master Lascaris and turned into a magistral summer house and garden – a veritable palace, inspired perhaps by Lascaris’ predecessor, Grand Master Antoine de Paule, who had built a lavish country villa on the outskirts of the hamlet of Balzan with its own large garden (San Anton Palace). Undeniably, one factor dictating this turn of events must have been the new bulwark’s location down by the water – a veritable piece of real estate with breathtaking panoramic views of the harbour, and open to the cool breezes which circulated down by the shore. By the end of the Lascaris’ reign, the whole area had been transformed into one of the most pleasant spots around Valletta, draped in lush vegetation, fountains and belvederes. Indeed, the summer house and its garden, together with the surrounding area spanning from Wignacourt’s Neptune fountain to Ta’ Liesse Church and Del Monte Gate, became one of the most picturesque spots favoured by practically all artists drawn to the city. Foremost amongst these were Willem Schellinks, Louis Ducros, and Charles Brockdorff, all of whom have left us with excellently detailed views that help shed light on the layout of the various buildings and gardens.

Author’s three-dimensional computer simulations of the layout of Lascaris’ ramparts and summer house as these may have appeared in the 1670s, shown in relation to the adjoining ramparts of Valletta, with the Bastion of SS Peter and Paul towering above to the rear, and, adjoining it, the Marina Curtain and Del Monte Gate (Source of Images: Author).

 A mid-eighteenth century plan of the layout of the grounds of Ġnien is-Sultan or, as it was also known, ‘Giardino della Marina’ (Source of Image: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta).

Unfortunately, both the summer house and its gardens were unceremoniously swept away in the mid-nineteenth century, leaving preciously little behind, when they were replaced by a large casemated coastal gun battery (named Lascaris Battery) which was erected by the British military to defend the inner reaches of the Grand Harbour and the then newly-built drydock.

A full discussion of this is subject, documenting, chronologically, the development of the area and its diverse uses in Hospitaller times, will feature in a paper entitled Ġnien is-Sultan: A case study of the non-military use of fortifications by the Knights of St John in the Maltese Islands scheduled for publication in the forthcoming issue of ARX, the online journal of Military Architecture and Fortification.


Author: Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D. 2016 (c)

Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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