Mar30

Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, Gozo

The largest of the handful of coastal watch-towers erected by the Hospitaller knights of St John in the island of Gozo is that to be found still guarding the entrance to the small bay of Mgarr ix-Xini, situated on the island’s south-west shoreline.

 

This tower was expertly restored by the Wirt Ghawdex, a heritage NGO, over the past few years, and was recently opened to the public as a cultural and touristic attraction.

 

 

360 Degree Panorama courtesy of www.maltain360.com

Although, at first glance, it appears similar to the other coastal towers built around the shores of Malta and Gozo by the Order of St John in the course of the seventeenth century, Mgarr ix-Xini Tower has various unique features that distinguish it from its sister structures.  Mgarr ix-Xini  tower is documented as having been built in 1661, a year after Grand Master Martin de Redin’s death. Although there are no escutcheons or inscriptions on the tower itself to link the structure to this Grand Master, who it must be remembered, had erected the network of thirteen coastal towers in Malta (1658-9), the Mgarr ix-Xini tower follows the same typology of De Redin’s other  watch-towers closely enough to imply that it was designed by the same hand.  Mederico Blondel, the Order’s new French resident engineer during the period 1659-98, is known to have been involved in its construction and, as such,  is considered by most historians as the architect responsible for its design and construction, possibly also of those built in Malta.  Still, this does not in itself fully explain the fact why this tower, like all Hospitaller watch-towers, was very heavily influenced by the towers built along the Sicilian littoral in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed the earlier Lascaris watch-towers, which pre-date Blondel’s involvement by a good 20 years already reflect this heavy Sicilian influence.  The Sicilian connection in Hospitaller coastal tower design, therefore, had already been established well before the arrival of this French engineer. Blondel’s original contribution in the design and layout of this tower, therefore, seems to have been conditioned by Sicilian ideas. Indeed, Blondel may well have been implementing, perhaps modifying, an existing design. Unfortunately, however, nothing is known about the architects of Grand Master Lascaris’ earlier coastal towers and how the design of these Sicilian-style towers came to be imported to Malta. This is an area of study that still requires more detailed research and investigation.

Torre Mpiso Sicily

Hospitaller Coastal Towers

Actually, the Knights of St John were very late in emulating their larger Sicilian neighbour in investing in a network of coastal watch-posts. This was not because the Knights had no faith in the value of coastal lookout posts, after all, they had had already invested in a similar network of coastal towers around Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands throughout the fifteenth century, where they had long learnt  to appreciate the usefulness of an early warning system against unannounced corsair incursions and razzie.  More than anything else, it was the Order’s lack of financial resources and their commitment to build a new fortress inside the Grand Harbour that had prevented the knights from finding adequate resources with which to establish a coastal defence network.

Indeed, up until the beginning of the 1600s, the shores of the Maltese islands were practically unprotected by any form of defensive structure,  and, as a result, the littoral areas remained uninhabited since most of the inhabitants  preferred to live within the safety, or in the vicinity, of the main fortified towns. The remote rural and coastal areas were often perilous places vulnerable to corsair incursions.

Right up to the end of the cinquecento, the Hospitaller knights had continued to rely upon the old system of open-air militia watch-posts that had been employed by the Maltese and Gozitans long before the arrival of the Order in Malta in 1530. This defensive scheme comprised a string of  ‘mahares’ coastal watch stations, all unfortified, which were manned each night by small detachments of local militia.

It was not until the first decade of the 1600s that Order began to invest in the fortification of many of these coastal areas. The first serious efforts to systemize the defence of the islands' shores materialized as a result of a resurgence of Turkish naval activities in the western Mediterranean towards the end of the sixteenth century. The general alarm of 1598, caused by the sighting of over 40 enemy vessels off Capo Passero, followed by other emergencies, and the Turkish incursion of 1614, when 60 vessels under the command of Khalil Pasha put ashore 5,000 men in the then still-unguarded St Thomas Bay, ravaging some villages in the south of the island before being compelled to withdraw by a strong militia force sent out to confront them, showed that these fears of attack were not idle.

The first of the dedicated fortified coastal structures to materialize was St Martin Tower, erected on the island of Gozo in 1605, at Mgarr, overlooking the channel between Gozo and Comino.  The construction of this tower was made possible by the generosity of Grand Master Martin Garzes (1595–1601) who had left provisions in his will for the financing of such a work. The idea had been conceived some years earlier as part of Giovanni Rinaldini’s (an Italian military engineer from Ancona)  original concept for the defence of Gozo. Unfortunately, Garzes Tower, as it was also called, was demolished in the mid-nineteenth century and can only be seen in one rough drawing of the period and a small manuscript plan.

It was the generosity of yet another grand master that enabled the construction of the first set of towers in what was quickly to develop into a chain of coastal strong points. The six towers built by Alof de Wignacourt were erected at St Paul Bay (1609), Marsaxlokk (St Lucian Tower – 1610), St Thomas Bay (1614), Marsalforn (Gozo – 1616; this was paid for by the Order), Comino (St Mary Tower – 1618), and Sta. Maria delle Grazie (1620).

These towers were large squarish structures. With their bastioned turrets, they were more of forts in form and shape rather than simple vedettes and were definitely built to dominate the coastline, mounting batteries of heavy artillery on their roofs, and garrisoned by sizable detachments of troops in times of war.

The characteristic features of these fortini, as they were also called, apart from their massive size, were their corner turrets.  These were rudimentary forms of bastions designed to allow a degree of close-in defence by enabling some form of enfilading fire along the towers' faces.

From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, however, the preference for large garrisoned outposts was discarded in favour of smaller structures which were designed to serve solely as lookout posts. The first six such towers were built by Grand Master Lascaris in the years between 1636 to 1657 at Għajn Tuffieħa,  Lippija, Fomm ir-Rih, St George’s Bay, Nadur, and Wied iż-Żurrieq. The design of these watch-towers reflected a marked departure from the massive structures built earlier.  This was because, primarily, the new structures were intended solely as watch- posts for the militia coast guard, who,  up until then, had performed their night-watch duties either out in the open or from the refuge of small unfortified capanne (rural buildings) or other sentry rooms ‘all’anticha’. The new watch-towers were about 11m high and 36m2 in plan. Internally, each consisted of two single-roomed storeys with external access provided solely to the upper floor, reached either by a wooden ladder or scala di corda (rope ladder).

A reversion to the use of large towers was made in 1649 when Fort St Agatha, or Torre Rossa, was erected in Mellieħa but this was a large and important bay that had to be defended. The Red Tower followed the same pattern as that prescribed for the towers built during the reign of Wignacourt nearly half-a-century earlier.  The chain of Lascaris watch-towers were augmented by another 13 towers erected in Malta in 1658/59 at the expense of Grand Master Martin de Redin.

The coastal towers, which were to be manned by the Guardia Torre, a kind of permanent guard that was paid by the Università (the local municipal body) and kept watch all year round, were designed to replace the system of 60 lookout posts manned each night by four peasants, ‘... il caso é che tutta questa isola tiene nella circonferenza delle sue Marine sessanta Guardie in circa più e in ciascheduna delle quali fanno la guardia quattro uomini, che ogni notte sono due cento quaranta; questi sono i più poveri e i più miserabli di detta Isola’.  Each tower was given a resident bombardier and three gunners, paid monthly at the rate of some 2.5 and 2 scudi respectively.

The Order undertook to supply ‘un piccolo pezzo d’artiglieria ad ogni torre quando saranno fatte’ and, later in the century, it was decided to mount two muschettoni da posta in each of the towers.

Work on the De Redin towers proceeded at a very fast pace so that the first tower to be built at Għajn Ħadid, near Mellieħa, was completed within two months.   Structurally, the De Redin towers were sturdier than their flimsy Lascaris predecessors. Still, the prototype of the 13 De Redin Towers was actually the last of the Lascaris towers built at Wied iż-Żurrieq. The main difference between the two types of structures was that the De Redin towers (including the Wied iż-Żurrieq Tower) were built around a barrel vault and thus capable of mounting  cannon  while the Lascaris-type had roofs resting on wooden beams incapable of supporting any heavy piece of ordnance.

A parallel investment in coastal defences was undertaken in Gozo where a further six towers, built more squattishly and sturdily, (Garzes, Marsalforn , San Blas,  Xlendi,  Dwejra, and Mgarr-ix-Xini, with another tower in Comino) were erected around the middle of the seventeenth century. By 1792, there were, in all, some 20 towers guarding the shores of the Maltese archipelago.

 

Structural Features of Mgarr ix-Xini Tower

In concept, the Mgarr ix-Xini tower is basically similar to the rest of the knights’ coastal towers in that it is a relatively simple two storey structure, with a basic rectangular plan and sloping lower half. Where it differs, however, is in its details and scale.  Blondel, in his report, states that the erection of the tower had been proposed on several occasions before he was commissioned to build it, thereby indirectly attesting to the participation of other military engineers in the design of the tower prior to his involvement. It is not yet clear if he adopted an existing design (as was very often the practice with resident engineers) or if he designed the structure anew.  What is clear, however, is that various features incorporated into its design were copied, or influenced, by the coastal towers found in Sicily and southern Italy.  French  seventeenth century coastal towers, of the type with which Blondel would have been more familiar, as a Frenchman, follow a very different typology from those found in Malta and Sicily. The Mgarr ix-Xini tower, as shown in the accompanying photographs of some examples of Sicilian and South-Italian towers, has many features that reveal it to have been designed by an architect who was heavily influenced and very familiar with coastal tower construction in the Regno delle Due Sicilie.

tower with corbels for corner machicolation sicily

Mgarr ix-Xini’s most distinguishing feature is its profile, fashioned largely by the extended range of rooms which crown the whole landward side of the roof, consisting of a guardroom and powder store. Apart from giving the tower distinctive side and rear profiles, the rooms also served to shelter the terrace platform (which mounted the tower's artillery pieces) from the overlooking high ground to the rear of the tower,  a feature common to many towers overlooked by high ground, such as employed in Torre Mpiso, at Capo San Vito, and Torre Svevo, in Sicily.  The roof level rooms at Mgarr ix-Xini were used to house the sleeping quarters of the guardian and his aiutante  , a small powder magazine, or Santa Barbara, as well as the shaft (Maltese tromba) of the spiral staircase leasing up to the roof terrace battery.

Another unique feature, which gave the tower a particular profile when compared to the other Maltese coastal towers, were the two gallery machicolations which project from the two corners of the land ward side elevation. Again, this manner of equipping towers with corner machicolation strongly echoes that found on many towers along the Sicilian coast line such as at Capomulino, Scolpello, Trapani, and at Torre di Manfria, Gela.

None of these piombatoi, or their supporting corbels, have survived at Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, but a close study of the masonry can still reveal the location where the protruding corbels were attached to the walls. Each machicoulis was supported on seven corbels. Blondel’s report also mentions ‘una guardiola’ (echaugette) but it is not clear if this was ever constructed. The Garzes Tower, for example had two such  vedettes, so again,  it is a feature which Blondel seems to have picked up from an existing tower.

Owing to the high screen wall, the rear facade of the tower, which faces landwards, has a higher elevation than the other three faces.  A central feature of this façade is a wide masonry panel which was intended to be fashioned into a panoply with coat of arms and inscription below, both of which were never transformed into their intended design and remained in smooth ashlar finish, possibly owing to the death of Grand Master De Redin long before the tower was completed.

Access  to the interior of the tower was provided through a main door on the first floor of the tower, approached by a detached flight of steps, a feature usually reserved for only the large coastal towers in Malta but which, in Gozo, was fitted to all the towers – this was served by a wooden drawbridge. The drawbridge mechanism is recorded as having been of the ‘fuso con tamburo’ type, such as can still be seen in sally-ports at Fort St. Angelo and Fort Ricasoli. This type of mechanism was often employed for the small sally-ports and gates of fortifications since it was easy to handle and ideal for raising and lowering relatively light ‘tavolature’.

 

Armament

Up until the construction of the Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, the bay and its adjoining stretches of coastline  had been watched over by two small lookout posts all’anticha, both of which were both unfortified and unequipped with any kind of defensive ordnance to resist any form of incursion into the bay. The construction of the strong bombproof tower, however, now provided a solid platform for mounting guns, which, as Blondel advised, could easily mount three guns – two mansfelde and a demi-culverine. The parapet enveloping the terrace battery was to have 8 ‘cannoniere,(embrasures)  come si puol vedere nella pianta’.  The Order would eventually provide the tower with two 6-pdr iron cannon although these fail to appear in any of the detailed artillery inventories that were compiled throughout the course of the eighteenth century.  

State of Repair

The Mgarr ix-Xini tower fared relatively well over the centuries, and  apart from the damage which was inflicted by vandals in relatively modern times, has survived practically intact with nearly all its features. Its close proximity to the sea and salty sea air was bound to create problems of deterioration of its masonry fabric over time. A routine inspection of the tower on 17 May  1681 by the knight Fra Ugo de Vauvilliers found the tower in ‘ottimo stato’ except  for the drawbridge, which was badly consumed and needed to be changed .  An inspection following the earthquake f 1693 by Blondel in his capacity as resident engineer found it to have been unaffected by tremor but the stonework on lower  sea-facing side of the structure had suffered considerably from erosion since the last inspection of 1681. Blondel’s cure, on this occasion, was to recommend that the consumed and eroded stonework be plugged in with stone chippings heavily pointed with a lime and sand mortar. The tower had been built from a relatively hard stone, with some 110 cubic canes of masonry having been consumed in its construction, the whole work estimated by Blondel, prior to the works,  at 957 scudi.  The Order’s records shed very little light on the state of the tower and its armament after 1693.

Author: Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D for Militaryarchitecture.com

NOTE: The full paper, including references, notes and sources, will be published in the next issue of ARX on-line journal (No. 8 - 2010) which will be available for download along with past issues from www.militaryarchitecture.com

JavaScript is disabled!
To display this content, you need a JavaScript capable browser.

JavaScript must be enabled in order for you to use Google Maps.
However, it seems JavaScript is either disabled or not supported by your browser.
To view Google Maps, enable JavaScript by changing your browser options, and then try again.

 

 

Author:
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri
E-mailPrintPDF

Latest Articles

 

 

 

 

 

Search

Events

Date and Time to be 

announced soon

 

~ Additional Features ~