Water and Hospitaller Fortifications

Valletta's System of cisterns

By the end of the sixteenth century the collection of rainwater alone was no longer sufficient to meet the everyday needs of the inhabitants of Valletta. With a growing urban population, however, the demand for water also became a problem in times of peace.  As a result the knights began to consider the possibility of utilizing alternative sources of supply situated well outside the city itself particularly those located in the highlands around the Boschetto area to the north of the island.

In 1596, a Jesuit by the name of Padre Giacomo was brought in to advise on this matter. His proposals were immediately accepted and work taken in hand on the construction of an aqueduct although this had soon to be suspended once it became evident that the resulting cost was going to be far in excess of the original estimates. Works, however, recommenced in 1610 on the advice of another Jesuit by the name of Padre Natale Tomasucci and was continued under the direction of Bontadino Bontadin, a hydraulic expert from Bologna, assisted by Giovanni Attard amongst others, a local capomastro who had indicated how the aqueduct could be carried across certain depression in the ground.

The new aqueduct, commenced and completed during the magistracy of Alof de Wignacourt, became operational in 1615 and provided a more reliable and plentiful supply of water to the relief of the inhabitants of Valletta as well as the military authorities who could not have contemplated the water situation with confidence in the event of a another siege, particular at a time when the Turks had once again begun to venture deep into the western Mediterranean. The Order’s military administration entrusted all matters related to the provisioning of its fortified places to a special commission of knights known as the Congregation of War and Fortification. Among its members was the resident military engineer whose duty it was to look into the question of the supply of water. Mederico Blondel, for example, was frequently instructed to inspect the water supply of Mdina and the harbour towns.

In 1708, this task was entrusted by Grand Master Perellos to the Italian architect Romano Carapecchia. His first task was to carry out a preliminary survey of all public water cisterns within the fortified enclaves of Floriana, Valletta, Fort St. Elmo, Fort Ricasoli, Fort St. Angelo, Vittoriosa, Bormla, Senglea and Cottonera. It would seem that the ageing Grand Master had been perturbed with the vulnerability of the aqueduct built in the previous century with the objective of supplying fresh spring water to Valletta, particularly in the event of a siege. Details from Carapecchia's Work

The overriding concern then was for the quantity of stored water viz-a-vis inevitable leakages and the quality of the drinking water, particularly so in the hot summer months when contaminated water could very easily cause all kinds of diseases. The information requested of Carapecchia included a detailed assessment of the number of water cisterns in each of the inhabited fortified areas, their estimated maximum capacity and their existing capacity. Carapecchia’s report was completed by 24 May 1708 and the results of his survey were presented to the Grand Council of the Order in the form of report entitled Distinta Relazione di tutte le gebbie descritte nel infra Luoghi dal Cavre Fra Romano Carapecchia. Again, in 1723, Carapecchia was asked by the newly elected Grand Master’s, Antonio Manuel de Vilhena, to compile a detailed assessment of the water storage situation in the Grand Harbour area. Unlike his previous report on this subject, Carapecchia’s ‘Ristretto generale di tutte le Cisterne e Gebbie publiche e private con I’acque ritrovate nelle medesime, tanto in questa cittd Valletta come nelle cittd di Vittoriosa, Senglea e Bormola. Ordinato dall’Emmo e Revmo Sigre Gran Maestro Fra Don Antonio Manoel de Vilhena e dalla c Vda Congregazione di Guerra, per la conservatione della Sua Sacra Religione, e i Suoi Popoli’, consisted of a meticulously compiled volume containing detail description of all public and private water containers in the indicated areas as

which suggested a series of measures designed to address the water storage system of the harbour towns, namely:

• The need for frequent inspections by the Maestri Fontanieri to ensure that all public and private wells were filled up in the rainy season;

    all rainwater from the streets and house roofs and terraces was to be collected, these were therefore to fitted with proper parapet walls and adequate pipe connections to the wells;

    excessive use of rain water for irrigation purposes in gardens and cotton fields was to be prohibited; the need to construct a number of large reservoirs adequately protected from artillery fire;

    the necessity for the constant supervision of private wells to ensure that they were in a good state of repair; and finally,

    the need to ensure that the supply of water for the large gardens at S. Antonio and S. Giuseppe would not be made at the expense of the regular flow of water to Valletta where it was more urgently needed.

The construction of wells and cisterns was a very straightforward exercise. The pliable and easily worked Globigerina limestone made the excavation of wells an easy, albeit laborious task. The porosity of the rock, however, necessitated that such subterranean containers had to be lined with a waterproof coating, a process known as bittumaura, which involved the application of a cementitious layer of a lime-based mixture added with pozzolana (imported from Naples) and deffun ( made from crushed pottery). Not all rain water, however, was seen favourably by military engineers. Indeed, where fortifications were concerned, a perennial cause of spoliation and destruction were the torrential rains. Francesco Marandon’s journal records, under the year 1745, how heavy rains brought down some walls at Mdina. Similarly destructive was the torrential downpour of the previous winter when the revetment of the counterscarp wall at Birgu gave way under the weight of water. Especially vulnerable to torrential downpours were the earthen-filled ramparts and glacis. In 1738 Marandon complained of the continual repairs that were necessary to replace the earth that was washed away by heavy rains. Unfinished works, too, were particularly susceptible to damage by the winter downpours. Frequently, orders were issued to the gangs labouring on the various sites to complete unfinished buildings before the onset of the rainy season so as to ensure ‘che le pioggie non deteriorino il gia fatto’.

The most vulnerable were the exposed fills of ramparts set in an earth mortar, without lime, which quickly washed away with the rain. The winter rains also prevented lime-mortar from setting. Being simply an uncovered packing of earth, the bastion’s terreplein tended to absorb rain water and thereby cause damage to the enveloping revetments. The most harmful were the torrential rains and to this end a number of culverts were generally built into the earthen packing of a rampart and these were made to open out into the face walls so as to drain out the water into the ditch as quickly as possible. At Fort Chambrai, for example, Marandon intentionally left a small gap (‘un piccolo voito [vuoto] di un palmo’) between the terreplein and the inner rampart wall (scorcia interiore) to help channel the seeping rainwater out through the flanks of the bastions.

Blondel, on his part, recommended that the uppermost layer of terreplein (‘il massicio della superficie della terra’) was to be constructed with a rubble fill made of large stones (‘con mazzacani e terra grivata mischiata al solito,’), thereby making it more difficult for the rain water to wash away.

An important consideration during the excavation and formation of a dry ditch was the need to drain off rain water collecting inside it. Apart from defensive considerations, this was also important for health reasons as pools of stagnant water soon became breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes. The draining of rainwater was usually affected by tilting the ground towards the mouth of the ditch and the open country or, in the case of the harbour fortifications, towards the sea. A common practice was to cut a cunette (cuvette), a v-shaped trench which channelled the water in the centre of the ditch. Pietro Paolo Floriani’s written instructions to his assistant Francesco Buonamici prior to his departure from Malta in 1536 mention a ‘cunetta ... accosta alla muraglia, e falsabraca larga da 30 in 35 piedi e profonda non meno di 15’.

To conclude this short presentation, it is also important to understand that as much as the Order was conscious of guaranteeing its garrisons with adequate supplies of water, it was likewise concerned with denying an invading enemy the possibility fact of tapping outlying water sources. This situation is well illustrated by the events of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the island was invested by a 24,000 strong Ottoman armada for more than three months. With such a huge army was access to adequate supplies of water was a principal concern for the Turkish commanders. They solved the situation by encamping near the springs in Marsa. Unknown to the Turks, however, the knights, had taken the precaution of poisoning this and nearby sources of water. The flax, hemp, and ordure that were thrown into the waterholes contributed much to the dysentery, typhus, and other infectious illnesses which quickly began to afflict the Turkish troops. Exhaustion, heat, and poor nutrition did the rest.

Culverts and channels for run-off rainwater at Kassisu Entrenchment (from top left), Armier Entrenchment, Polverista Curtain (Floriana) and Fort Chambrai (bottom).

Ironically the very dryness and bleakness of Malta, if appearing initially extremely disagreeable to both L’Isle Adam and the eight commissioners before him when compared to the larger and more fertile Rhodes that had left behind, was to prove its very salvation. Malta was a natural fortress.

Sources Denis De Lucca, Romano Carapecchia: Master of Baroque Architecture in Early Eighteenth Century Malta (Malta, 1999) Alison Hoppen, The Fortification of Malta by the Knights of the Order of St John

(Edinburgh, 1979). Roger de Giorgio, A City by an Order (Malta, 1985) Stephen C Spiteri, The Art of Fortress Building in Hospitaller Malta (Malta, 2007/8) Stephen C Spiteri, Fortresses of the Knights (Malta, 2001)

Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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