Replica palisade at Birgu

Visitors to the fortified city of Birgu, in Malta, during an ‘open weekend’ held on 25 and 26 October 2014, were able to see, amongst various other things, a replica of a wooden palisade du chemin couvert 
placed along a section of the parapet of a caponier located in the main land front ditch of the fortress. The public event was organized by the Restoration Directorate, Ministry of Justice, Culture and Local Government, as part of the ERDF 039  project involving the restoration of the fortifications of Birgu.


These restoration interventions had brought to light, a couple of years back, the remains of an extensive system of a caponier of communication, erected under the direction of the French military engineer, Charles François de Mondion in the course of the 1720s. This is the only extensive caponier of its kind to survive from the eighteenth century. Similar caponiers are known to have once stood in the main ditches of Mdina and Valletta, as well as smaller versions in the ditches of the Floriana and Sta Margherita enceintes.  The Birgu caponier was discovered and unearthed by Restoration Directorate personnel during the early stages of the restoration interventions on the fortifications of Birgu.

The parapets of the Birgu caponier, like those of the covertways of all the outer works built by Mondion in the eighteenth century, would have been protected by a wooden palisade designed to prevent enemy soldiers from entering the outer defences. In eighteenth-century Malta, these wooden palisades were constructed in the form of a fence made of wooden stakes with pointed tips, held together by means of  timber cross-pieces, and accommodated in culverts that were either cut out into the rock (as at Fort Manoel) or built in masonry (as at Birgu). The palisades were paid for and administered by the various foundations; those at Birgu, for example, fell under the Fondazione Cotoner.

Above, Details form Hospitaller fortification plans of the 18th century, showing examples of palisades as employed in the Maltese islands, similar to the ones which were used in the caponier at Birgu (Image source: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta). 

The Order’s records show that the palisades du chemin couvert, as these were known, were made of either castagno (chestnut) or rovere (oak) and consisted of vertical pales some 1.95m high, fixed to horizontal spanners (known as traverse), and supported at intervals by buttress posts or colonne. The dimensions of such palisades varied considerably from country to country and from period to period. In most European countries, such palisades were generally planted into earthen banquettes but the system adopted in Malta in the course of the early eighteenth century made use of culverts some 16cm wide, shaped by stone blocks or cut into the rock. Both the dimensions of these culverts and the few depictions of the palisades found in some of the period plans in the Hospitaller records (see images above) suggest that the knights preferred thick pales of square plan rather than rounded ones or those shaped more crudely from the stems of young trees. The palisades appear to have been usually kept in store during the wet wintery months and were only mounted in place along the covertways and caponiers during the open sailing season. This exercise was usually undertaken around May, as evidenced by an entry in the records of the Manoel Foundation referring to the work of ‘piantare ... palesate nel Forte’ [Manoel] in 1782.

The records of the knights of St John also reveal that palisades were imported in huge quantities. Being of wood, and generally left unpainted, they often needed to be replaced. In 1714, for example, an order was placed for the importation of some 4,000 palisades and 2,800 colonne, together with a couple of thousand traverse.

Below, Various views and details of the reconstructed palisade erected along a small section of the extensive caponier at Birgu (Image source: Author’s private collection).

Author: Dr Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D 

MilitaryArchitecture.com (C)



Dr. Stephen C Spiteri

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