St Anthony Battery

Din L-Art Helwa, Malta’s voluntary heritage organization, and the Local Council of Qala are collaborating in a joint effort aimed at restoring St Anthony Battery at Ras il-Qala, in the island of Gozo.

This structure, one of the few remaining eighteenth-century coastal works of fortification erected by the Knights of St John to have survived down to the present day, has long been in need of a serious rescue intervention. The two organizations have been campaigning hard over the past years both to have the battery returned to the public domain and also to muster the necessary resources with which to undertake the desired restoration works.

Built in 1731-32 by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, the Qala Battery (known locally as ‘Ta’ Sant’ Antnin’ or simply ‘it-Trunciera’) is actually one of only two coastal batteries from the Hospitaller period to have survived in Gozo (the other is situated at Il-Qbajjar, outside Marsalforn) and one of only a handful still to be seen in a relatively unadulterated form throughout the whole of the Maltese archipelago. Despite its heavily battered state of preservation, St Anthony Battery has nonetheless retained most of its authentic and unique features as well as its original relationship with the surrounding landscape and the sea, given that the site on which it stands at the western-most tip of the island  (one of the remotest spots on Gozo) has remained practically unchanged and devoid of any modern developments since this work of fortification was first erected in 1732.


Historical Context and Signifiance  – The Order’s defensive strategy

By the early decades of the eighteenth century, coastal fortifications had become an indispensable component of the Order’s strategy for the defence of their island-realm. The initially early-warning scheme of coastal towers and watchposts which fulfilled this role throughout the seventeenth century was replaced, by the beginning of the settecento, by a more aggressive and wider network of fortified defensive positions – gun batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments – all designed to serve as physical obstacles to invasion. The most critical element in this active defensive scheme were, undoubtedly, the coastal batteries, or gun-platforms, designed to mount the heavy cannon necessary to fire on, and keep at bay,  approaching enemy ships intent on disembarking their invading troops.

Although many of the batteries which took root around the islands' shores materialized in the years 1715–16, the initial idea for these French-style coastal defences had been first mooted in 1714 by the  Commissioners of Fortifications, Jacques de Camus d’Arginy and Bernard de Fontet and a French secondary engineer by the name of François Bachelieu. This coastal defence strategy then found a great exponent in the Prior of France, the Balì de Vendôme, and it was mainly through his insistence, and the generous loan of 40,000 scudi which he presented to the Order, that the construction of the network of batteries and redoubts was able to materialize.

Even though greatly ambitious in its intent and scope, the 1715-16 scheme of coastal defences had, nonetheless, omitted many strategic places around the islands’ shores – undefended areas which soon came to be viewed by military strategists as the Achilles’ heel of the whole coastal defence master plan. Among those places left out were Delimara Point, Tombrell, Mistra Bay, Mgarr harbour, and Ras il-Qala in Gozo. All these locations would eventually be fitted out with some sort of defensive structure in the course of the eighteenth century, some as late as the 1790s, but even so there still remained many areas which were never addressed. The first to draw attention, however, owing to its great strategic importance, was Qala Point, since the position enabled the local militia to command the entrance to the channel between Gozo and the island of Comino, a coastal passage which led directly towards the important harbour of Mgarr.

Design and Construction

It would appear that the first proposal for the fortification of the Qala location was put forward in 1730 and the work on the battery, named St Anthony Battery in honour of the then-reigning Grand Master, Antoine Manoel de Vilhena (reigned 1722-36), who had offered to build it his own expense, was began in 1731 and brought to completion in the following year, as recorded by the date and inscription which once stood above the small main gate into the fort. This is also confirmed by the following extract taken from the Recapitalazione delle opera di fortificationi fatte nelle isole di Malta et Gozo dall’anno 1722 fin all’anno 1732,  which records that in 1731 ‘… furono fabricate e stabilite due nuove batterie al Gozo …. una di dieci pezzi di cannone, sulla punta chiamata della Cala, quale non solo diffende la costa vicina, ma anche potra’ impedire i bastimenti nemici d’accostare nel canale o’ ristretto  di mare fra detta isola  e quella del Comino. Questa Batteria assicurata con un fosso, ha nell’ interiore gli allogiamenti necessarij con cisterna’. The second battery was erected ‘in mezzo spiaggia della Ramla’.  The 1715 list of coastal fortification works, however, already records a redoubt in the middle of Ramla bay, flanked by two batteries, built for the cost of 840 scudi.  It is not clear, therefore, where the 1731 battery was located exactly. An undated plan of the defences of Ramla Bay shows both 1715 Batteries, and the 1715 redoubt in the middle of the bay, linked together by a neauvoux retrenchemens which also contains a pentagonal shaped projection that may, in fact, be the 1731 battery mentioned above.

The major structural work on St Anthony Battery seems to have been completed by early December of 1732 as evidenced by the fact that the remaining surplus quantities of pozzlana (a type of volcanic ash used in the mixture of lime mortar) were removed from the battery on 28 December 1732, and transported back to the Gozo citadel, a task which cost the Governor of Gozo 8 tari ( ‘per trasporto della puzzolana avvanzata in detto fortino, nel Castello’).  Many of the finishing touches, however, were still under way during 1733 and continued as late as April 1734 when the escutcheons on the main gate were finally carved out. In August 1733, the master carpenter Antonio Mallia and the master blacksmith Saverio Dimech received payment for the manufacture and fitting of the doors and windows of the blockhouse while towards the end of that year Mastri Ferdinando Vella and Domenico Bigeni were paid for other unspecified works carried out at the battery. By this time, the battery was already in need of some repairs. Two large stones supporting the drawbridge had to be replaced, for the cost of 1 scudo, after being damaged during the transportation of the heavy cannon into the battery on 20 December 1732 (‘per rimetter due ballate al ponte di detta batteria (qala) quail furon rotte quando vi si trasporto l’artigliaria). The roof of the block house had to be repaired twice, in February and September 1733 respectively.


Shape and Form

The Ras il-Qala battery was one of the largest coastal batteries constructed locally in terms of its typology and dimensions. Its design is also unique in many ways. To begin with, its polygonal plan departed from the standard semi-circular configuration which was nearly universally applied to most coastal batteries of the time, particularly those erected by the knights during the course of the 1700s. The platform has a demi-hexagonal plan with a large musketry wall and triangular redan closing off the gorge, complemented by a sizeable centrally-placed blockhouse occupying the rear of the platform. The design of the battery is attributed to the resident military engineer, the Frenchman Charles Francois de Mondion, which would make it one of his last works, given that he died in 1733. As resident military engineer, Mondion would have been responsible for all new works of fortification but the construction works would have been supervised by his assistant, the Italian second engineer Francesco Marandon, who would later go on to become the resident military engineer in his own right and see to the construction of the large fortress on Ras-e-tafal (Fort Chambrai) in 1749.

Record plan purporting to show St Anthony Battery at Ras el Cala as built in 1732.  The drawing itself is undated. The only feature that corresponds to the present battery is the sloping nature of the site and the redan, which, however, also has one musketry loophole less on its right face.  The plan may actually have been wrongly labelled and could have been meant to show one of the other semi-circular coastal batteries built around the shores of Malta. See text for further details. (Illustration, courtesy of the National Library of Malta).

The initial design of the Ras il-Qala Battery, however, is something of a mystery for the only existing plan of the work to survive shows a totally different battery than the one now standing on site. This plan, entitled  Batteria Sant Antonio fabbricata nel 1732 sulla punta Ras el Cala dell’Isla del Gozo shows a battery built on a heavily sloping terrain and constructed in the manner of the other coastal batteries erected around the shores of Malta in 1715-16 such as Ghzira Battery, Elmniech Battery, Ferretti Battery, etc., that is, with a semi-circular battery platform and a gorge closed off by a system of two blockhouses linked by a redan. In other words, totally unrelated to the present structure.

There are various possible explanations for this curious discrepancy.  The simplest and most obvious being that the plan may have been wrongly labelled by the draughtsman responsible for executing the finished drawing and may actually be showing one of the other coastal batteries.  By this period in the Order’s history, the office of the resident military engineer employed a number of draughtsmen and surveyors who were tasked, amongst many other things, with preparing presentation and record copies of plans of the various defences. With so many works of fortifications underway in the mid-eighteenth century, such a mistake would have been more than possible.  An alternative explanation is that the design of the battery was altered and rebuilt at some later stage. However, the plan is what would be described as a record plan, showing the structure  ‘as built’ and not as proposed. The Ricapitalazione of 1743 states clearly that it was completed in 1732 and fitted out with allogiamenti.  An entry in one of the Order’s records, listing repair works carried out in 1733, does speak of ‘due terrazze …della batteria’, implying two rather than one blockhouse. However, one has to keep in mind that the blockhouse had three large rooms, each with its own terrazzo, so this entry does not necessarily mean that the battery had two blockhouses.

A careful examination of the site does not reveal any physical evidence for a major rebuilding programme that such a significant reconstruction would have entailed.  A more plausible explanation, therefore, may be that the design of the battery was actually revised and altered half way through the construction of the work. Indeed, a close examination of the battery’s masonry fabric does reveal two distinct building styles. The first, reserved solely for the redan and the musketry loopholed wall, involved small masonry blocks placed in 28cm-high courses. The second – involving the rest of the enceinte of the battery, i.e., its flanks and faces, and parapets – is built with large rusticated blocks laid in the 41-cm course, the standard building block for most defensive works. The tell-tale sign for the two distinct phases comes from the rough manner in which the two different masonry skins were crudely brought together and grafted at the junction of the wings of the musketry wall and the flanks (see photograph below).  Further study and research, however, are required here before the matter can be satisfactorily resolved.

Detail of the junction of the flank and musketry wing of Qala Battery, showing the crude amalgamation of the two different sizes of stones used in its construction. (Image source: Author’s collection).


The Anatomy of St Anthony Battery

Despite its unique plan, the Ras il-qala Battery still conforms to the basic arrangement of most coastal outposts, in that it comprised three main components - the battery platform, a defensive redan, and a blockhouse to shelter men and supplies.

Undeniably, St Anthony Battery’s most impressive architectural feature is the redan.  This V-shaped projection and its lateral wings, served internally by a solid banquette, were heavily pierced with twenty-four musketry loopholes. Unfortunately, a large part of this defensive wall (with many of its loopholes) had been demolished (largely by vandals) and has to be rebuilt. The restorers are being careful to re-utilize many of the original hardstone blocks and lintels from the original structure which still litter the site. The restored product will surely be an impressive defensive architectural feature which is not found anywhere else around the shores of the Maltese islands. Slightly similar, though less impressive redan-and-blockhouse arrangements can still be found at Qawra Point Battery (unfortunately, here these features have been rendered illegible and obscured by modern accretions and layers of cement) and at Ferretti Battery in Marsaxlokk (recently restored).  The only other large concentration of Hospitaller-period musketry loopholes to provide the same sense of defensive fire-power can be found in the two-tiered arrangement of the tour-reduit (keep) at Fort Tigné, built in the 1790s.

An interesting and unique feature in the design of St Anthony Battery is the manner by which the side walls, or wings of the redan, were reinforced and transformed into veritable traverses. These side walls (the so-called  ‘muro per impedire la vista dalla parte di terra’ found in many forms in various batteries and redoubts) were built  to shield the interior of the battery as well as to intercept and absorb any incoming shots fired by enemy cannon seeking to enfilade the battery either from the higher ground to the rear of the work or from ships approaching along the coast.

View of the redan, with demolished gateway, and adjoining wings prior to restoration. (Image source: Author’s collection).

View of the redan, demolished gateway, and adjoining wings prior to restoration. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Above, the shallow rock-hewn ditch to the rear of the battery. (Image source: Author’s collection).


Detail of the musketry loopholes prior to restoration. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Detail of the musketry loophole, in plan, prior to restoration. (Image source: Author’s collection).

View of the right wing and flanking traverse, with musketry loopholes and masonry banquette. (Image source: Author’s collection).

The battery contains eleven large embrasures separated by thick merlons built along the common ‘gabion’ principle found in most Hospitaller works, that is, consisting of a thin masonry shell filled in with a packing of rubble and earth, bound together with a soil mortar. Unlike in most other parapets, the superior slopes of the merlons at Qala battery were not capped with masonry flagstones but covered with a thin layer of deffun and lime mortar (a cement-like mixture which had water-proofing qualities). Most of this covering has disappeared leaving only a few traces of the original application and an exposed infil that now needs to be resurfaced and sealed off to prevent the seepage of water into the interior of the structure. This covering layer was first applied more than a decade after the construction of the battery, for an inspection of the site carried out by the resident military engineer, Francesco Maradon, in 1749  records that the merlons were still incomplete (in the sense that these were uncovered). Marandon went on to recommend that the remblai inside the merlons be levelled out and paved with capstones. This intervention, however, was never carried out and the superior slope was covered with a layer of deffun instead, perhaps for want of money.

View of the superior slope of the battery parapet and embrasures. Note the exposed terreplein. This was originally covered with a layer of deffun. (Image source: Author’s collection).

One of the battery’s embrasures, showing a mizieb, or spout, for draining rainwater. (Image source: Author’s collection).

The guns behind the parapet were served by a thick continuous platform of tal-qawwi flagstones, slightly inclined towards the parapet. This allowed the cannon to be easily manhandled and moved from one embrasure to another all round the perimeter of the battery platform as the tactical situation dictated. A culvert situated in one of the embrasures ensured that the platform was quickly drained from any rainwater accumulating inside the battery (see photo below).  The battery was also served by a small cistern, which was situated next to the central blockhouse.


The Gateway

The left-face of the redan contained the main entrance into the battery – an arched opening cut into the wall and crowned by a semi-circular pediment decorated with two escutcheons. The two shields bore the ensign of the Order (a plain Latin cross) and the coat of arms of Grand Master Vilhena. A short inscription, surmounted by the date 1732, commemorated the building of the battery during the governorship of the knight Fra Paolo Antonio de Viguier, who was in charge of the island in 1732-24. The inscription, carved in stone, reads ‘NEL GOVERNO DEL  CAV FRA PAOLO ANTONIO DE VIGUIER’.  The coat of arms were carved out by the Maltese scalpellino Mastro Carlo Fabri who was sent to Gozo, together with his assistant, on 15 April 1734 to execute the work. The task, which was completed by the 27 April, cost the total sum of  23 scudi 5 tari and 7 grani, inclusive of the sculptur’s return fare (4 tari) to Malta.  This would probably mean that the escutcheons were carved in situ, with the unworked blocks themselves already forming part of the gateway panoply – a common practice at the time. There are many surviving examples of unworked rectangular escutcheon blocks fitted to the facades of buildings and fortifications (example Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, the Cavalier of Fort St Angelo etc) which remained uncarved. The carving of  the blocks in situ would have required some sort of scaffolding to be erected and, indeed, we find that  the sum of 8 tari was disbursed on the transportation, to and from the battery, of ‘gli legni e altre cose necessarie al scultore’.

The arched opening itself, unfortunately, fell down a few years ago in the course of a violent storm but, thankfully, the structure had been well documented photographically by various individuals, including the photographs reproduced below, which were taken by the present author around 1991. A few of the carved blocks which formed part of the panoply have been identified among the rubble on the site and will undoubtedly be re-utilised in the reconstruction of the archway. The gateway itself, which would have been fitted with a wooden door, seems to have been served by a small drawbridge. A few rectangular cuttings along the crest of the rock-hewn counterscarp suggests that a wooden palisaded gate (such as that shown in the reconstructed 3D model shown in the video below) was used to control access to the drawbridge.

The gateway of St Anthony Battery, around 1991, prior to its collapse. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Detail of the panoply of arms crowning the gateway of St Anthony Battery, around 1991, prior to its collapse. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Detail of inner arch of the gateway of St Anthony Battery, around 1991, prior to its collapse. (Image source: Author’s collection).

The gateway of St Anthony Battery, after its collapse. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Slab with inscription among the rubble of the collapsed gateway. (Image source: Author’s collection).

Rediscovering the Blockhouse

An important aspect of the present restoration intervention is that it has helped to determine, once and for all, the true layout and shape of the demolished blockhouse. The restoration works provided the opportunity to clear the ruins of the rubble stone and debris and this in turn has allowed the restorers to expose the remains of the lower courses and foundations of the original building. This has revealed a large rectangular structure divided into three rooms. Each room was provided with a relatively large doorway, most probably arched, which opened frontally onto the gun-platform. The rear wall, facing the redan, on the other hand was pierced by windows, except for the central room, the smallest of the three, which was also accessed by a rear doorway.  One of the three rooms is known to have served as the Santa Barbara (i.e, artillery magazine and powder store).

The unearthed evidence has shown that the layout of the blockhouse, unlike that adopted in all the other blockhouses erected in the earlier 1715-16 coastal batteries, employed roof-supporting arches which were not placed transversely to the line of the façades, but, discharged their weight laterally instead.  In the absence of any original plans of the building, this structural feature could only be determined once the dimensions of the individual rooms were revealed with the removal of the rubble heap and debris covering the remains of the blockhouse. This observation was then also supported by the remains of the surviving sloping northern side-wall, which on closer and more detailed examination, revealed that this was actually a lateral buttress that had been grafted onto the original side wall - evidently an attempt to counter a lateral movement created in the side wall by the weight of the arches.

View of the interior of the battery showing the remains of the blockhouse. (Image source: Author’s collection).

It is not known at what stage it was necessary to prop up the northern side wall with this delfin or contraforte (as these buttresses were then often called), but the masonry itself seems to suggest a date sometime during the Hospitaller period,  rather than the early decades of the British rule over the island. No information in the Order’s records has been traced to-date that hints at any repair works carried out to the blockhouse other than those mentioned above, which refer to the roof.  Initially, and up until the commencement of the present restoration works, this remnant of a sloping wall was thought to form part of the original shape of the structure, but on more detailed and closer examination, made possible only by the removal of the mound of debris, this view has had to change.  In fact, no remains of a similar sloping wall were found at the base of the remains of the opposite lateral wall on the south side of the structure.

The roofing of the blockhouse seems to have been a constant source of concern. Its maintenance, which as shown above, was already on the agenda as early as 1733, continues to feature in many of the later reports. Marandon’s inspection  of 1749, for example,  underlined the need for the plastering and pointing of the roof and the cracks therein and the laying of six new water drainage pipes to channel the water away, and more efficiently, from the roof of the blockhouse and down into the cistern.

Reconstruction of main façade of the blockhouse in progress. (Image source: courtesy  of Col. Eric Parnis, DLH).


The Battery Walls - Rustication Techniques

A look at outer revetments of the battery walls along five of the main faces shows these to have been constructed of drafted masonry in an attempt to create a rusticated texture, a common finishing technique employed in most of the small coastal works of fortification built by the knights in the eighteenth century, including the much larger Fort Tigné.

A closer examination of the battery’s outer walls, however, shows that rather than being constructed throughout of drafted and embossed masonry, the rusticated blocks of stone were randomly interspersed among other ordinary smooth-faced ashlar blocks, including blocks of soft stone. This tends to imply that builders had both a limited supply of rusticated masonry and that they made use of different sources for their supply of materials. This was a common practice in Hospitaller times, particularly in the late1700s. The Order’s records reveal that stone required for the building of a work of fortification often came from pre-existing stocks of masonry (‘buona provisione anticipate)’ and at times, was even cannibalized from other buildings.  Most of the stonework at Qala consists of hardstone blocks, intermixed with the occasional softer blocks of Globigerina.  The rocky terrain in the vicinity of the battery provides ample evidence for surface quarrying, most of which would have provided the larger part of the hardstone employed in the construction of the work.

View of the scarp walls along two of the battery’s faces, showing the masonry texture. (Image source: Author’s collection).


Armament and equipment

Initially, it was intended to arm the battery with a good number of heavy guns, including among others, two 36-pounders (then amongst the heavies pieces in the Order’s arsenal), together with other 24-pounders. Indeed, the ammunition for these guns had already been transported and deposited inside the battery by the end of 1731 when it was suddenly decided to arm the battery with guns of a smaller calibre. In December 1732, the extra sum of 9 scudi had, as a result, to be incurred ‘per portare palle di ferro nella batteria d Ras il Cala in lugo di quelle divenute inutile allorche furono mutate i cannoni’.

For most of its history, Qala Battery was to have an armament of eight guns. By 1785, these included five 8-pounder iron cannon with 420 rounds of roundshot and 58 rounds of grapeshot; and three 6-pounder guns with 175 rounds of roundshot and 61 rounds of grapeshot. The importance of the battery can be gauged by the fact that it was one of the few coastal works to have held its own supply of gunpowder permanently on site; which in turn also meant that the outpost was manned round the clock, all year round.

An inventory of the equipment inside the battery, compiled by the out-going commander of artillery, the knight Fra Giovanni Francesco de St. Felix, lists the following armaments, munitions, tools, and equipment as found in 1785:

Restoration works in progress. The side wall shown in the photograph (centre) is actually the delfin, or counterfort, which was built to provide lateral buttressing to the structure and was the only part of the blockhouse to have remained standing. (Image source: courtesy  of Col. Eric Parnis, DLH).


DLH’s Restoration Works

The restoration of St Anthony Battery is not the only restoration project undertaken by Din L-Art Helwa. Another important coastal battery restored by Din l-Art helwa is Sta. Maria Battery on the nearby island of Comino (a special feature on this battery with 3D computer graphics is currently being prepared by MilitaryArchitecture.com). Din l-Art Helwa has also salvaged the nearby Sta Maria Tower (already featured ) and the Hospitaller towers at Nadur (Torri Sopu), Dwejra, Mellieha (Torre Rossa), Ghallis, Qalet Marku, and St Paul’s Bay, and Torre Mamo in M’Scala.

At Ras il-Qala, however, the logistical problems alone, posed by the remoteness of the location and the difficulty of vehicular access to the site were some of the many challenges that had to be, and were, overcome by Din L-Art helwa and its team of restorers. MilitaryArchitecture.com takes this opportunity to congratulate Din L-Art Helwa and the Qala Local Council, and all those involved in this restoration project for their noteworthy contribution towards the preservation of yet another important historical asset, and looks forward to the final completion of works and to the eventual opening up of the battery to the public, Maltese and foreign visitors alike, so that it can be appreciated and admired for its interesting features.

The video below shows a graphic 3D computer-generated reconstruction of St Anthony Battery c.1798, prepared by the author. The blockhouse is shown with a partial cut-away in order to reveal the interior of the structure, with its roof-supporting diaphragm arches.

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Text, Images & Reconstruction: Dr. Stephen C Spiteri PhD - MilitaryArchitecture.com - (C)2010

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