Sep06

Porta dei Mortari


 

St Helen’s Gate in Bormla is one of the most exquisite of the eighteenth century Baroque gateways that adorn the gunpowder fortifications built by the Knights of St John in the Maltese islands. It stands in the middle of the long descending curtain wall known as St Helen Curtain, an important section of the enceinte of the Sta Margherita lines which defended the landward approaches from the south to the maritime cities of Senglea, Birgu and Cospicua . This massive enceinte, begun under the reign of Grand Master Jean de Lascaris-Castellar in 1638, remained largely incomplete throughout most of the seventeenth century and was only truly completed in the first half of the 1700s under the direction of the Order’s French military engineers.

Also known in its time as Porta dei Mortari, because of the stone mortars crowning its pediment, it was one of the many gateways which appear to have been designed by the Frenchman Charles Francois Mondion in the course of his long career as the Order’s resident military engineer. The date inscribed on the gate shows it to have been built completed in 1736 but it seems that the works were still underway well after Mondion’s death. Its building coincided with the final phase of the completion of the Sta Margherita enceinte, begun in the 1638 but left abandoned for want of funds for nearly eighty years, when the project was once again reactivated by Grand Master Ramon Perellos.

Today, St Helen Gate constitutes a unique architectural landmark for its fine architectural proportions and rich artistic symbolism that adorns it.

Author’s drawing showing the Santa Margherita (Firenzuola) enceinte enclosed by the much larger Cottonera screen of bastions and the land fronts of the cities of Senglea and Birgu to the rear. The location of St Helen Gate is indicated in red

Detail of one of the two marble mortars.

Description

St Helen Gate is one of only two gateways in Malta which incorporate life-size artillery pieces in their decoration, the other being Porta dei Cannoni (later known as Porte des Bombes) which stood on the faussebraye of the Floriana enceinte. At St Helen Gate these decorative features consist of two bomb-throwing mortars carved in the round in marble. They were set up to crown the porta, with their muzzles facing in the direction of the exterior of the fortress, thereby representing, symbolically, the garrison’s readiness to defend the fortress. The mortars are very realistically carved out in the round and are shown charged with a large spherical bomb fitted in the muzzle, both of which seem to have lost their handles.

In between the mortars, the space is taken up by a central pediment with a small, but pleasing, panoply of arms enveloping two defaced marble escutcheons. These once portrayed the cross of the Order and Grand Master de Vilhena’s coat of arms, the two separated by a sword.

The main façade itself is very similar to that of Fort Manoel, designed a few years earlier by Mondion, and consists of embossed panelling of alternate plain and vermiculated hardstone courses, a form of chamfered rustication that served as a dramatic backdrop for a pair of half-columns supporting a cornice. The columns are also enhanced by the alternation of differently carved stone.

In the centre of this facade stands an arched recess, the central keystone of which is embellished by a richly carved corbel.  A pair of pedestals engaged to the sides of the gates – these, two are similarly rusticated and support to large scrolls.

Detail of marble plaque with Latin inscription. The date reads 1736.

The entrance way itself is surmounted by a semicircular marble inscription enclosed within a moulded frame, scrolled at the bottom. The inscription, in Latin, reads as follows:

 

MUNIMENTUM HOC

AD MAJUS HORUM PORTUUM TUTAMEN

SECUNUUM GRAPHIDEM

A CARDINALI DE FLORENTIOLA INSTITUTUM

SUB M. MAGISTRO LASCARIS INCHOATUM

DEINDE EMERGENTE

COTONERI.E ARCIS  ÆDIFICATIONE INTERMISSUM

MM. MM. RAYMUNDUS PERELLOS, ET M. ANT ZONDADARIUS

ALTER CONTINUARI, ALTER IN ALIAM FORMAM REDIGI CONSUERUNT

TANDEM EM. M. M. FR. D. ANT. MANOEL DE VILHENA

COETERIS MUNIMENTIS ABSOLUTIS, IPSUM PERPICI CURAVIT

JUXTA AMPLIOREM

INSIGNIUM MACHINATORUM DEFORMATIONEM

UNIVERSO MILITARI ORDINE PLAUDENTE

ANNO MDCCXXXVI

Inscriptions of this type were a central feature of most gateways, and were often fitted above the doorway for all to see and read. Generally, they commemorated the construction of the fort and the glory of its founder, the grand master, whether as prince, protector, or benefactor.  Here, at St Helen Gate, the inscription relates the history of the fortifications of the Sta Margherita enceinte and Grand Master de Vilhena’s role in its completion. Roughly translated, it reads:

‘This fortress, built to the design of Cardinal Firenzuola, for the greater defence of these harbours, in the reign of Grand Master Lascaris, was suspended owing to the building of the Cottonera defences. Grand Masters Raymond Perellos and Marc Antoine Zondadari decided respectively to proceed with and to alter the construction. Finally, His Eminence Grand Master Brother Lord Anthony Manoel de Vilhena, in the same way that he completed the other forts, ordered that these defences be completed to a larger design by more skilled architects, with the approbation of the whole Military Order in the year 1736.’

Detail of Gate after restoration. Courtesy of Restoration Unit

Detail of escutcheons and panoply-of-arms

The two marble escutcheons, defaced by the French in 1798, were carved in low relief and carried the cross of the Order and the coat of arms of Grand Master Vilhena. Standing between the two escutcheons, and partly hidden by them, is a large sword, probably representing the Stoc presented by the Pope Benedict XIII to Grand Master Vilhena in 1725.  The design and execution of such escutcheons was a specialized craft that called for talented sculptors, the scalpellini and marmisti mentioned in the documents. So far, however, historians have not yet identified the names of the craftsmen who undertook the commission for St Helen Gate. Among the known sculptors who worked on the coat of arms of fortifications during this period are Francesco Zahra (he produced the coat of arms on the Torre dello Standardo in Mdina), and Maestro Gerolamo Fabri e suoi Figli scultori who worked on the decorations of the main gateways of Mdina including the ornamentation of the friezes, the vermiculation of the pilasters, and the carving of effigies of the three saint-protectors placed on the interior façade of the gate. The Fabris were a family of prominent sculptors from nearby Birgu and may have been involved in carrying out this commission too. Hopefully further research will eventually solve the question.

Eighteenth Century Gateway Design.

By the eighteenth century, the main gate, or Porta Reale as the Italians called it, was the only element in the fortification which defied functional considerations and the only feature to really break up the austerity of the bastioned trace.  In the design of gateways, military engineers were highly influenced by Leone Battista Alberti’s (c.1404–1472) ideas. His De Re Ædificitoria, although published after his death in 1485, had remained highly popular with architects throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - it was reprinted in many editions, the latest of which was a folio one at Bologna, in 1782. Although largely dependent on Vitruvius, Alberti’s treatise was the first modern work on architecture in the renaissance and included important new material.  In the design of gateways in particular, Alberti sought to combine decorative elements with the physical force of ramparts to create symbols of power and authority. His ideas found their real force of expression in the baroque idiom where a clear display of power became a requisite of military architecture. In the age of absolutism, and the grand masters of the Order were veritable autocrats, fortress gateways assumed a distinctive political role - a means of propaganda and a way of communicating the power, might, and authority of the ruler to his subjects. The elaborate ornamentation - the trophies-of-arms, inscriptions, heraldic devices, and other elements of martial symbolism - all served as a direct visual language designed to awe and subdue a society that was still largely illiterate. 

Gateway design, therefore, encapsulated the synthesis of what fortifications stood for – magnificence and military power.  In Alberti’s words, there was ‘no greater security’ than ‘through beauty and dignity’ and, although his claim that beautiful architecture could disarm an enemy’s anger was somewhat overly optimistic, there was no divided opinion among architects and military engineers about the dramatic effect of artistically designed fortifications on the human eye.  In the hands of competent engineers, like Charles Francois de Mondion, all this was achieved with a great sense of aesthetic sensitivity and spatial grace. As a result the gateways of many of the fortifications in Malta were transformed into sublime monumental works of art, sensuous and refined in their proportions and ornamental composition. Mondion was responsible for the design and building of the four gates of Birgu (including the no-longer existing Porta Marina), Mdina (two), Fort Manoel, Floriana (two) and Fort San Salvatore (a minor gateway). 

The Drawbridge 

An essential feature of St Helen Gate, as in all fortress gateways for that matter, was the drawbridge. This feature, however, has long been removed while old photographs show a simple chain-and-tackle arrangement that, as was discovered in recent research, was not original device employed in Hospitaller times. In fact, as with all gates designed by Mondion, St Helen Gate had a type of drawbridge mechanism then known as à la Vauban. This was a type of drawbridge which, as its name implies, was of French design and was introduced in Malta with the arrival of a French military mission in 1715. 

The à la Vauban drawbridge consisted of a simple, counterbalanced platform which pivoted on itself roughly in the middle, and which, when pulled up, swung downwards inside the gateway’s passage and into an underground chamber, called the cantina del ponte levatoio. (See diagram below). 

In Malta, however, these rotating platforms did not prove to be very popular. For one thing they required regular maintenance and secondly, when not properly secured, they had the tendency to sink into the pit under the weight of those passing over the bridge. One such comic incident, much to the chagrin of Grand Master Pinto, involved the grand master’s own carriage and occurred at the Porta dei Cannoni in 1744.  It appears that by the end of the eighteenth century, and certainly throughout the nineteenth century, most such pits of these type of drawbridge had been roofed over with stone arches and then paved over. The drawbridge of the Birgu main gate is one such documented instance - after 16 years, its wooden platform had rotted away, making it quite dangerous to the heavy carriages passing over it. The chosen solution, rather than having it replaced, was to support it from beneath with a vaulted arch. The same seems to have occurred at St Helen Gate, where however, the internal pit was simply filled in and packed with earth.

Author’s graphic depiction of St Helen Gate and its original drawbridge mechanism a’ la Vauban.

An important functional element of St Helen Gate, now no longer evident, comprised the two corpi di guardia, the sentry-rooms, which were fitted inside the adjoining casemates and were designed to house and accommodate the soldiers watching the gate. These were simple casemates, one on either side of the entrance passage way, whose outer walls were usually pierced with musketry loopholes to help defend the immediate approaches to the gate.  It is not clear if the two side casemates at St Helen Gate were fitted with slits as the walls were demolished to enable the passage of vehicular traffic. One nineteenth-century photograph does show, however, a narrow slit, but this is placed too high up the wall and may have been a ventilation opening.

Outerworks 

Originally, St Helen’s Gate was protected by two important defensive features; one was a large triangular lunette that guarded the approaches to the gate and curtain – the other a large tenaille.  These two structures are very poorly and often inconsistently documented. The lunette, for its part, was sadly dismantled during the course of the nineteenth century to make way for a new road (see photo below). The tenaille, if ever actually built, is more of a mystery, as it appears in some plans but fails to feature in many others. Nothing is really known about it and no traces of it survive.

Graphic reconstruction of St Helen Curtain and its outerworks - tenaille and lunette.

Nineteenth-century photograph showing the dismantling of the lunette in front of St Helen Gate just visible through the arched passage way.

Restoration 

After many years of neglect, St. Helen’s Gate was restored in 2004 by the Restoration Unit (RU) of the Works Division  in the then Ministry for Resources. The project was carried out under the direction of Chief Arch Hermann Bonnici (RU) with the works being undertaken by private contractor.  The project also involved an archaeological investigation aimed at locating and recuperating the cantina of the drawbridge. In the course of these excavations, it was found that the drawbridge pit had been filled-in during the early British period when the knights’ original drawbridge was dismantled and a chain-and-tackle type of mechanism introduced in its stead.

Once cleaned, the restored gate revealed the designer’s intended decorative effect produced by the used of different types of stone and their finishing.

Above, Two photographs showing St Helen Gate during restoration works in 2004. Courtesy of the Restoration Unit.

 

Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri - MilitaryArchitecture.com

Author:
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri
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