In search of Fort St Elmo 1565

Undeniably, the most fascinating aspect of Fort St Elmo's long and chequered history is the heroic role it played during the Great Siege of 1565.

All other episodes in the fort's saga pale in comparison. Yet, whilst the story of Fort St. Elmo's epic resistance against the might of the Ottoman war machine is well known, the same cannot be said about many aspects of the structural and architectural elements that made up the very work of fortification itself. The fact of the matter remains that very little has actually survived, above ground, of the fabric of the original fort that took on the might of the Turkish onslaught during the initial stages of the Great Siege.



Indeed, there are only but a handful of elements throughout the present enclosure that can be securely dated to 1565. In simple terms, few of the present day features actually witnessed the events of 1565. Work on Fort St Elmo began in 1552, following a Turkish razzia in 1551, and by the time of the Turkish investment in 1565, the fort had acquired a cavalier, a covertway, a tenaille and  a ravelin, the last having been very hastily built in the months before the siege. Although the present day fort occupies much of the same footprint as the original structure, most of the 1552 fort and its outworks disappeared over the course of subsequent centuries. This was not only the result of the heavy Turkish bombardment, which pulverized whole sections of the revetments, scarps, and cavalier, but also the direct consequence of Francesco Laparelli's rebuilding efforts in 1566 and, more radically, because of the heavy and significant alterations and additions that were made to enlarge and adapt Fort St Elmo in the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which interventions produced the present layout and feel of the place.

Detail from Matteo D'Aleccio's palace frescoes showing Fort St Elmo after its capture by the Turks. ( Image source:Author's private collection).

 Most of our information on the original 1552 fort, therefore, has come to us from documentary sources - a few laconic entries in the Order's records, a couple of plans in the Simancas archives, Matteo Perez D'Aleccio's colourful and artistic representations of the fort in his palace frescoes and prints, and Francesco Laparelli's critical report prepared immediately after the siege. Although historians have managed, throughout the years, to cull and extract much important clues and information about the fort's original structure from these records, there is still a limit to what these documents can reveal. In short, there are still many big question marks - questions that need to be answered before we can reconstruct a reasonably reliable and faithful picture of Fort St Elmo at the time of the Great Siege. What were, for instance, the thickness of its walls, the gradient of their slopes and their form of construction (i.e., the type and composition of their fill, the frequency of counterforts and casemates)? What were the height of the ramparts in relationship to the ditch and their relief above the covertway (i.e., degree of exposure to enemy guns)? How solidly built were the ramparts ( i.e., the ratio of built-up masonry elements to the rock-hewn sections of the scarp)? The answers to these and many other similar questions of a technical and architectural nature are essential in any proper assessment of Fort St Elmo's real power of resistance as a work of fortification. Only by knowing how fort St Elmo was put together can one really evaluate its performance under fire and, hence, the true part it played in enabling the garrison to hold out aslong as it did against the punishing and unrelenting month-long Turkish onslaught.

Short of discovering some unknown new document hidden away in some obscure library, complete with detailed plans and sectional elevations, our only hope of shedding any new light on some of these issues and of learning something new about Fort St Elmo is by resorting to archaeology.Up until very recently, instances of archaeological investigations at Fort St Elmo have been non-existent, to say the least. Since 2009, however, the picture has slowly started to change. The preparatory works leading up towards the ERDF restoration and rehabilitation of Fort St Elmo and the enveloping Caraffa enceinte ( known nowadays more popularly as Lower Fort St Elmo) have provided the opportunity for a series of small archaeological investigations. And these trial excavations have now started to open up the picture. Indeed, what they have begun to reveal is that various parts of the present fort still retain elements of the original structure hidden belowground, just a few feet below the surface, waiting to be re-discovered.

The area between the cavalier (right) and eighteenth-century barrack block (left) formerly occupied by a ditch.


One area of great archaeological potential is the open parade ground situated between the rear of the eighteenth-century barrack block and the south face of the cavalier (see image above). This area was originally occupied by a rock-hewn ditch that separated the 1552 fort from the detached triangular 'torreon' which was added in 1554. Towards the late seventeenth century, the knights sought to enlarge the internal space inside the fort by linking it to the cavalier. They did this bypulling down those walls of the fort facing the cavalier and filling in the intervening section of the ditch with rubble, creating in the process one large levelled piazza. Two short ailes ( i.e., wing walls) were then constructed to enclose the sides of the extension and link the fort to the cavalier (see plan below).

An eighteenth century plan of Fort St Elmo showing the modified interior of the fort. (Image source: Courtesy ofthe National Library of Malta)

Laparelli's plan of Fort St Elmo drawn after the siege. The area highlighted in colour is the section of the original fort which was buried beneath the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century alterations.

View of the area beneath the cavalier showing the basic footprints of the ditch and berm.

What this late seventeenth-century filling of the ditch actually means today, however, is that it would have helped preserve an extensive section of the scarp, fosse, and counterscarp of the original fort. More importantly, the walls and features surviving within this sector would more than likely still have retained their original fabric and features, for this part of the original enceinte (shaped in the form of a tenaille) had been relatively well shielded from the brunt of the Turkish bombardment. In 1565, the Turkish siege batteries could only hammer away at the land front (the bastions facing Valletta) and at the Marsamxett side of the fort and cavalier. Those parts of the enceinte facing the cavalier and the Grand Harbour, as a result, would have remained largely unscathed. Although we do not know how much of the fort had to be rebuilt by Laparalli and his assistant, Cassar, in the aftermath of the siege, it is unlikely that the walls in these two areas would have needed to be replaced since both time and money were very scarce. So, more likely than not,any surviving remains of the walls found here would still date back to 1565. Of these two sections of the enceinte, however, the walls facing the Grand Harbour are the ones that are still standing, but here, unfortunately, the ramparts were exposed to the full force of the sea and the natural elements and their consumed fabric has had to be repaired continually. In fact, their present outer revetment consists largely of relatively modern cladding. Furthermore, the ramparts ( as well as the Porta del Soccorso) themselves were also heavily remodelled to accommodate a church and governor's quarters in the early eighteenth century. In other words, the Grand-Harbour-facing front is not a representative section of the original fabric of the fort. If any portions of the original ramparts still exist, then the best chance of finding them is buried within the filled-in ditch beneath the cavalier!


This same area at the foot of the Cavalier mentioned above also contained two other important features that dated back to pre-1565 fort. One of these was a wide berm which stood at the foot of the cavalier, separating it from the ditch. This unusual feature, the actual purpose of which is still unclear, seems to have been designed as a sort of place-of-arms, intended to provide the garrison with a means of accessing the narrow covertway which enveloped the fort along its west and south sides. The second feature was a secondary gateway (or sally-port), with its bridge, which spanned the ditch and provided the sole link between the fort and the cavalier, and between the fort and its rudimentary outworks, consisting of a narrow covertway, and ravelin. At the time of the GreatSiege, Fort St Elmo lacked any other sally-ports opening into the ditch - any of the defenders wanting to reach the covert way or place of arms on the land front had to travel all the way round from the rear of the fort via this secondary opening. The exact location of this gateway, which isdocumented as having had a drawbridge, is not known with certainty as it is omitted from most maps but some artistic representations of the fort do show it placed roughly in the centre of the tenaille trace, near the re-entrant angle ( see plan below).

Plan of Fort St Elmo showing the location of the sally-port and bridge linking the fort to the cavalier.

Basic diagram showing the manner in which the original ramparts ditch and berm would have stood in relation to the present-day structures and cavalier.

The berm, which was largely rock-hewn, would have been incorporated into the piazza – the actual alterations to its original level depending on its height vis-a-vis the level of the parade ground inside the fort. It is not clear, however, if the bridge was still standing by the late seventeenth century for it is not featured in Grunenburg's detailed stone scale model which he presented to the Order's Council as part of his Caraffa enceinte project (now on display at the Palace Armoury). One of the trial pits dug in 2009 was exactly in this area and the archaeological excavation did actually turn up part of an arched structure (possibly a part of the bridge) but this was, nonetheless, difficult to interpret and required further investigation. What Grunenburg's stone scale model does purport to show (see image below), on the other hand, is that a large causeway had by then ( i.e., by the 1680s) been constructed further out towards the north-east salient. This structure was clearly built to provide a comfortable link between the fort and its cavalier and also doubled up as a battery of sorts designed to plug in the mouth of the ditch and seal off any access into the fosse up from the rocky shore inside the Grand Harbour. This wall would eventually disappear beneath the heavy alterations that were made to the fort, as described above, and its enclosure within the massive Caraffa enceinte.

Grunenburg's scale model of fort St Elmo around the late 1680s showing the causeway which had replaced the bridge to link the fort with the berm of the cavalier. (Image source: Courtesy of Heritage Malta – Palace Armoury Museum)

The latest investigations in this area, carried out in June 2012, have now revealed important discoveries that confirm both the potential of the site vis-a-vis the 1565 features of the original fort,as well as the complex stratigraphy that resulted from its continued development over the subsequent centuries. Indeed, the discovery of a shaft cutting right down to the floor of the ditch, located within the right aile ( wing wall) that joins the fort to the cavalier has revealed a small but nonetheless significant and well-reserved potion of the rock-hewn scarp and masonry revetment of what appears to be the rampart of the original fort ( see photograph below). The opening has also revealed two massive revetments cutting across what was once the rock-hewn ditch. The innermost wall may turn out to be the outer face of the causeway shown in Grunenburg's model while the outer one, which is vaulted, appears to be a load-bearing structure designed to take the weight of the wing wall itself but may also be connected to the structure of the Caraffa enceinte. Further research and investigation are necessary before a correct interpretation of these structures can be arrived at.

View from below (within the shaft) showing a portion of the rock-hewn scarp and masonry rampart of Fort St Elmo. ( Image source: Courtesy of Ms. Ella Samut-Tagliaferro).

View from above ( down into the shaft) showing the masonry revetment resting on the pronounced rock-hewn scarp (footing) of the rampart (Image Source: Author).

View of various late 17th-century walls and vaults abutting the original fortress wall on the right (Image Source: Author).

Aboe, Two views of the heavy seventeenth-century walls cutting across the dicth of the cavalier one of which rests on a vault that could have served as a sally-port through the caraffa enceinte (Image sourc: Ms E. Samut-Tagliaferro).

Author's graphic reconstruction of Fort St Elmo c.1565, showing the location of the newly discovered section ofRampart, revetments and ditch.

To the student of the Great Siege, it is undoubtedly the discovery of the practically intact section of scarp wall that is the most exiting find. Although it has still to be confirmed whether or not this section of rampart was rebuilt after the Great Siege, it validates the historians' suspicions that the ditch which isolated the fort from the cavalier, and its scarps, are still intact. At this stage the issue can only be resolved through further study and the opportunity should be taken to extend these investigations further. But at prima vista there are already a number of features which hint at the rampart forming part of the original fabric of the 1552 fort. Amongst these is the very rough nature of the rock-hewn lower portion of the scarp, which extends outwards forming a significantly pronounced footing at the base of the rampart. This was a common feature of the early Hospitaller bastioned forts carved out of the rocky harbour landscape after 1530. This feature is also inconsonant with the very hurried nature in which Fort St Elmo is known to have been constructed way back in 1552, when many short cuts were taken to have structure in a state of defence within the shortest period of time – a job which was completed in a record span of six month. This sense of urgency would also explain why there was no attempt at smoothing out the rocky scarp, as one finds for example, in the scarps of the ramparts of the Caraffa enceinte itself, which were built at a much more leisurely pace during the course of the late 1680s.


Undeniably, this is a very important and exciting find. If this wall turns out to belong to the original 1552 fort, then it will provide another tangible link to the events of 1565. It is the present author'sopinion that further archaeological investigations should be carried out in the area under review in the hope of re-discovering and unearthing as much of the original features ( the scarps, ditch and berm) as is possible and incorporating these features as an integral and salient part of the visitor experience. The Great Siege is Fort St Elmo's greatest asset.

Being able to look upon the real and authentic fabric of history is what an experience to a historic fortress should be all about.

Dr Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D.


The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Ms Ella Samut-Tagliaferro (Archaeologist) and Mr. Christian Mifsud (Archaeologist working at the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage), for their information and photographs, as well as the management of the Fort St Elmo ERDF restoration project (GHRC) for their assistance.

Keywords: Fortifications,Excavation,Conservation,Fort St. Elmo,Malta,Great Siege of Malta


Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D

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