De Guiral Battery spared a restaurant

Military Architecture.com welcomes the decision taken by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA)  on Thursday 1 July 2010 

turning down an application for the construction of a restaurant on the foreshore of Fort  St. Angelo in an area known as De Guiral Battery.

The application, submitted by Cottonera Waterfront plc ., as part of the Cottonera Waterfront Regeneration Project, proposed the restoration of the De Guiral Battery and its conversion into a restaurant that would, if built, have been highly visible from most of the scenic view points around the Grand Harbour, particularly from Valletta and Senglea. The MEPA refusal was based on the fact that the proposed development would have changed the external and internal appearance of a Grade 1 listed building and that it went beyond scientific restoration and rehabilitation.  (Read the extensive Malta Independent coverage)

MilitaryArchitecture.com strongly feels that the proposed conversion of the De Guiral Battery into a restaurant does no justice at all to a historic landmark of such high calibre as Fort St Angelo.  MilitaryArchitecture.com  is of the opinion that commercial activities within landmark and iconic works of fortifications should be always sited and implemented with a greater degree of sensitivity to the historical and architectural context and surroundings.

In today’s world, it is important that the ever-present pressures to render conservation interventions financially viable should not be allowed to negatively influence the visual or physical integrity of historical monuments.  Although, it is true, many historic forts around the world have their own catering facilities, heritage planners  should always seek to incorporate such elements  in a very subdued and sympathetic manner without impinging on the character of the monument itself.   At Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, for example, the Ristorante la Cucineria dei Masi, is often used to cater for the Notti Animate sulle Terrazze (cultural events held on the bastion platforms) but its tables and chairs are hidden behind the ramparts’ high parapets and, when not in use, can be quickly removed without much ado (see photo below). Likewise, the Moat Cafe outside the Tower of London leaves no imprint on the castle’s walls, which serve also as a dramatic backdrop for an ice-skating rink in winter.  A two-year conservation and refurbishment project inside the Tower of London itself, transformed the Armouries building (erected in 1663-4) into a state-of-the-art catering and conference facility that does credit to the historic character of the tower.

In other words, such facilities should not be made to compete with the historical architecture they are meant to serve. Any future proposal for a catering facility at Fort St Angelo should be guided accordingly.

Historical Context & Significance

The De Guiral Battery was originally a small fleur d’eau (i.e. sea-level) battery built prior to the Great Siege of 1565 at the tip of the promontory below the Castrum Maris and designed to protect the iron chain closing the mouth of Birgu creek. It would appear  that this battery was originally fashioned out of the rocky foreshore at the foot of the castle but was enlarged in the seventeenth century to house more cannon and provide a wider field of fire across the harbour. Three rock-hewn embrasures are still visible and most probably date to the Great Siege period.

Historically, the De Guiral Battery was one of the most effective works of fortification ever built by the knights of St John, for it served to defeat, single-handedly, a major Turkish seaborne assault on the neighbouring fortress of Senglea. Named after the Hospitaller knight Francesco de Guiral, who was placed in charge of the battery together with the crew of his galley just prior to the arrival of the Turkish armada, the position was, initially, totally detached from the old medieval castle to its rear. It only came to form part of Fort St Angelo following Don Carlos de Grunenburg’s reconstruction of the fort in the late 1680s. The architect of the original idea for the construction of the battery is not recorded (contrary to what is stated by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna which attributes its construction to De Guiral himself ).  Another knight by the name of De Guiral, Fra Goudisalvo , together with Fra Carlo Durre, had been entrusted by the Order’s Council to oversee the completion of the Ferramolino cavalier in 1547, but there appears to be no link, either, between this earlier knight and the construction of the battery.

Various engineers were operating in Malta prior to 1565, although most of these were, in effect, simply implementing the recommendations made by the renowned Baldassere Lanci in 1562. The sea-level batteries along the shore of the Castrum Maris (there was a second battery at the foot of D’Homedes Bastion nearthe moat of Fort St Angelo – see D’Aleccio)  subscribe to the notions of entrenchments and ritirate that were strongly advocated by Lanci in his instructions to Grand Master Jean de Valette, many of which, like the entrenchment at the Post of Castile in Birgu, were actually constructed.

Either because it was very well concealed (although judging by D’Aleccio’s illustrations -see above - it was surely not hidden from view) or because the Turks had seriously under-estimated its firepower, the Ottoman commanders somehow failed to take into account the effect of the battery on their assault of 15 August 1565.  A timely salvo fired from five pieces inside De Guiral’s Battery ripped violently through a flotilla of large boats packed with Turkish troops as they sought to close in on the Spur of Senglea, shredding them to pieces. Nine of the largest boats were sunk outright, sending some 800 Janissaries and Levantines to the bottom of the sea, and, in the process, saving the hard-pressed garrison of Senglea from a terrible fate.

Eighteenth-century plans of Fort St Angelo show a slightly different , and larger, rectangular enclosure fitted with at least thirteen embrasures set in a thick parapet. Willem Schellinx, earlier in the seventeenth century, depicted the Valletta-facing side of the battery as having been pierced by four vaulted (i.e. roofed – possibly rock-hewn) embrasures and equipped with a small echaugette (Maltese gardjola) on the corner of the enceinte facing Senglea. (see illustration  below).

The present-day De Guiral battery retains the remains of both the original rock-hewn emplacement and the later seventh-century enclosure.  Most of the enceinte, however, has disappeared, and was replaced by a British-period boundary wall.  The British military also appear to have effected various alterations to this part of the enceinte of Fort St Angelo, including the construction of a small magazine which they built into the Grunenburg enceinte, accessed from the sally-port tunnel.  This sally-port only appears  with the construction of the Grunenberg enceinte in the 1680s. A steep ramp, now largely covered with debris, led down from the postern to the battery.

The construction of the proposed restaurant would have interfered with the legibility of all these surviving features.

MilitaryArchitecture.com (C)





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