Fort Manoel, Malta

Inside Marsamxett harbour lies a small leaf-shaped island once known as the Isoletto.  Its strategic value emerged with the construction of Valletta on Mount Sciberras, when the threat it posed to the western flanks of the new city began to feature prominently in the engineers’ reports. 


The earliest scheme to fortify this little island appears to have been proposed in 1569, in a report ‘Discorso sopra le fortificatione’ signed ‘Cavagliere di Malta’, written by an anonymous foreign member of the Order who realized that the enemy would attack Valletta from Marsamxett Harbour and bombard St Michael’s bastion from the Isoletto. To deny the enemy this possibility, the ‘Cavagliere di Malta’ proposed the construction of a ‘piatta forma’ with ‘due teste dipendente, affine che nella batteria che vi si facesse sempre vi restasse piazza di buona forma.’ This small fort, consisting of a cavalier surrounded by a detached low battery, was to be surrounded by a glacis but this work was never taken in hand even though the threat posed by the ‘Isoletto assai eminente’ was again demonstrated by Scipione Campi in 1577 and by Giovanni Battista in 1582.


360 degree panorama of Fort Manoel, Courtesy of Maltain360.com. A panorama of the Fortress's Piazza can be viewed here.

In 1643 the land on the Isoletto, which then belonged to cathedral chapter of Mdina, was acquired by the Order in exchange for an area of land known as Tal-Fiddien, in the vicinity of Rabat, in order to enable the knights to build the Lazzareto, a quarantine hospital. It was only in the late seventeenth century, however, that the Order seriously began contemplating the fortification of the Isoletto













In 1760 Maurizio Valperga  produced a scheme for the defence of the harbour in which he included a design for a fort to defend the Isoletto.  Francesco Collignon’s plan of the harbour, dated 1688, probably shows Valperga’s fort.  This depicts an irregular hexagonal work with four bastions and one demi-bastion facing Valletta.  A small hornwork protected the fort’s land front while a small tenaille, connected to the covertway by a small caponier, was so designed to command the harbour.

Valperga’s proposed fort was criticized both by Count Vernada and Blondel in 1671, as being too small. This prompted Grunenberg in 1682, to design a larger fort with a ‘falsabraga, assi a los dos flances, como a la cortina, su fosso abierto, ravelin, estrada en cubierta, y explanada, y la demas obra que la revine’. At that time, however, the Order was already heavily committed to the construction of the Cottonera lines and Fort Ricasoli and, consequently, the erection of yet a new fort fell well down the list of its priorities.

The next recommendations came in 1715 when the French engneer Tigné designed a small square fort with four corner bastions and a ravelin on its land front with which the knights could deny an enemy la facilité des’establir, d’on ne parroit por in commander la Cité Vallette et attaquer la Religion dans son centre.’ He estimated that this would cost 25,000 scudi.  Philippe Maigret, on the other hand, proposed a small casemated redoubt with covertway and polverista, to be situated in the middle of the Isoletto and connected by a long caponier to a large battery covering the narrow strip of water separating the island from the mainland for the cost of 2,600 scudi.  Contemporary plans reveal that both these proposals were incorporated in another elaborate scheme, whereby troops inside the battery could retreat safely in stages through the long caponier to the separate outerworks, i.e. to the redoubt, through the lunette, and up to the place-of-arms, and into the fort.  The large casemated redoubt, roughly in the centre of the island was a perfect square in design and was to be surrounded by a dry ditch and a covertway with two places-of-arms.  The centre of the redoubt was to be occupied by a conical  polverista similar to the one later built inside Fort Chambrai.  The stretches of caponier linking the various works were reinforced at intervals by short traverses with  crochets,  i.e. short and narrow passages  made round the head of the traverse to enable troops to bypass the traverse when moving along the caponier or covertway.












The fort designed by Brigadier rene Jacob de Tigné was a star-shaped work with four corner bastions, a large ravelin, and tenaille in the ditch.  One version of his design shows an asymmetrical fort contorted to one side.  Both engineers, however, classified this project as being non-urgent and were ready to postpone the building of the fort until the Order’s financial position rendered itself more favourable.  The opportunity presented itself during the reign of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena.  The decision to fortify the Isoletto was finally taken in 1723, and this was only made possible by the grand master’s generosity.  Charles François de Mondion, the Order’s resident engineer, was commissioned to design the new work, but in effect Mondion only modified and elaborated Tigné’s original design (‘le Forte Manoel execute par MM. le Chev. Mondion d’apres les projets de M. le Chev. de Tigné’).

The first stone was laid with due ceremony by the grand master on 14 September 1723, in the presence of molte Gran Croce e da una grande comitiva di Cavaglieri, affinchè ben fosse in sua presenza collocata la prima pietra in detta fabbrica, come seguito dopo aver l’Emin. Sua lasciato a futura memoria diverse monite.’  Vilhena offered to pay for the fort and established a fund of 6,000 scudi to provide for its garrison and maintenance ‘con intenzione altresi di stabilire una rendita annoale e sicura che basta a mantenere un competente presidio.’  Work on the fort progressed rapidly and, by 1732, the ditch had already been excavated. The date on the main gate reads 1726.











The design of Fort Manoel, as it was called, encountered no criticism.  Its low silhouette and system of bastioned trace, making the widest use of crossfire to sweep the approaches, was then in line with the latest developments in the art of fortification.  In 1761 Bourlamaque described Fort Manoel as ‘un model de fortification fait avec soin, et fini dans toutte ses parties. In plan, the fort was a square with four corner bastions, a tenaille, and a ravelin in the ditch facing the land front and a small demi-lune (couvre porte) facing the sea.  The bastions on the land front were strengthened by two low cavaliers joined together by a long curtain wall fitted with eleven embrasures and containing large bomb-proof barrel-vaulted casemates.  These were designed to accommodate the garrison in times of siege.  The outer bastions facing the harbour were each provided with a large gunpowder magazine or polverista built à la Vauban.










Inside the fort, the space was occupied by a large piazza, or parade ground.  This was flanked on three of its sides by barrack blocks and a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua.  A marble slab in the chapel has the date 1755 inscribed on it.  The design of the chapel is popularly attributed to the Italian architect Romano Carapecchia who was also responsible for designing the Notre Dame gate on the Cottonera lines but may have actually been designed by Mondion himself. Two of the four barrack blocks were built on either side of the chapel.  The one adjoining the chapel housed the chaplain and the fort’s second-in-command.  The other block, to the left, housed the commander of the fort together with a large armoury.  Beneath the piazza, two huge underground cisterns provided the fort with its own water supply.  A life-size bronze statue of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, commissioned by Chevalier Savasse, was erected in the middle of the piazza.  This may have been the work of the Maltese sculptor Pietro Paolo Troisi.

The main entrance to the fort was through a baroque gateway in the centre of the east curtain between the bastions of St Anthony and St Helen.  Internally, the gateway was flanked by two guardrooms, each fitted with two musketry loopholes facing the approaches to the gate.  In front of the gate, was a small drop-ditch defended by a wooden palisade.  The fort was flanked on three of its sides by a deep rock-hewn ditch.  On top of the counterscarp ran a wide covertway fitted with traverses, places-of-arms, and cuttings that enabled the defenders to sally forth onto the glacis.  Three sally-ports and caponiers connected the fort to its outerworks. 











The glacis was elaborately countermined.  The ravelin in the ditch contained a large vaulted chamber which was intended to serve as an assembly point for a company of about 100 troops. In 1757 it was decided to build a coastal battery at Qala Lembi on the promontory opposite Fort Manoel, some distance away from Dragut point. This was intended both to prevent an invading army from bombarding the northern flank of the fort and also to command the entrance to Marsamxett Harbour.  During the military exercises of 1760, the garrison of Fort Manoel was augmented with soldiers from the Battaglione delle Galere and the Qala Lembi battery was garrisoned and provided with the necessary munitions at the expense of the Fondazione Manoel. In 1761 French military engineers proposed that this battery be connected by ‘une communicatione pour faciliter à la garrison de retirer au Fort Manoel, quan elle ne pourroit plus tenir.’

Perfect in design as it might have been, the security of the fort was jeopardized by its proximity to two large buildings already existent when the fort was built.  The first was a large abandoned magazine situated roughly in the centre of the Isoletto, and the second, the one which posed the greatest danger, was the Lazzareto, a  quarantine hospital.  The latter was difficult to remove and replace, and it is easy to understand the Order’s reluctance to demolish this building, despite the engineers’ many persistent recommendations, ‘demolizione progettata come indispensabile sià dal tempo che si fabrica il Forte Manoel al quale il magazino sudetto darebbe comodo al nemico di avvicinarsi.’









The maintenance of Fort Manoel was provided for out of a special fund, the  Manoel Foundation, which was set up by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena out of his Quint, that part (1/5) of his property which he was permitted to dispose of by will.  This had an annual income of some 10,000 scudi and enabled, apart from many other things, the purchase of a new gun every three years.23 Normally the garrison of the fort was composed of 19 officers and men, together with two boatmen.  In an emergency the fort was designed to accommodate up to 500 troops in bomb-proof barracks.  During the invasion of Malta by Napoleon on 10 June 1798, the fort was garrisoned by 200 men from the  Regiment of Cacciatori (1777-98)  under the command of the knights Gourgeau and La Tour de Saint Quentin.  The garrison of the fort was then joined by the Birchircara militia which had just retreated in disorder from its encounter with the French troops at St Julians Bay.  Shortly afterwards, the French columns under Marmont surrounded the fort and thrice attempted to seize it by assault, but each attack was repulsed by the loyal Maltese troops.  The garrison only surrendered after the capitulation was signed on board the French flagship.


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Fort Manoel, Malta by Military Architecture
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Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri (C) 2010

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