Sep08

Restoration of Fort St Angelo underway

MilitaryArchitecture.com News Feature on the restorations underway at Fort St. Angelo in Malta.

In a press release dated 3rd September 2010,  Dr Mario Demarco, Parliamentary Secretary  for Tourism, Environment, and Culture within the Office of the Prime Minister informed the media that Heritage Malta has been  implementing  various restoration interventions at Fort St Angelo over the course of the past year and  that the  Maltese government is now also preparing an application for the European Regional Development Fund in order to complete the conservation and rehabilitation works necessary to enable  this fort to be made accessible to the general public as a major cultural attraction.

A full development application was also submitted to MEPA late last year for the carrying out of a number of emergency interventions, namely the repair of the main access ramp, the restoration of the heavily-consumed main gate, the reconstruction of the vaulted entrance way (demolished during the war) and of the repair of the caved-in ceiling of the tunnel leading down to De Guiral Sally-port and battery. These works will also include the demolition of a  swimming pool and water tower built to service a short-lived hotel set up within the fort in the 1980s.  Heritage Malta was allocated the sum of €1.5 million by the central government to enable it to carry out the required repairs. 

MilitaryArchitecture.com  welcomes  these positive developments as it likewise believes that Fort St Angelo has all the elements and potential to make it a successful tourism product. It is one of the most iconographic landmarks within the Grand Harbour landscape. Its unique fusion of medieval, renaissance, and baroque elements endows it with great popular appeal while its many subterranean vaults, passages and  guve all make it  an exciting place waiting to be discovered and explored by many Maltese and tourists alike.

Historical significance

The   story of Fort St Angelo begins in obscurity and although its origins are popularly credited to the Arabs no mention is made of the castle in the terms of surrender of the island to Count Roger in 1091. The castle is first mentioned in thirteenth-century Angevin documents where it was referred to as the Castrum Maris (castle by  the sea). Little has survived, above ground, of the original medieval fortress, however, since most of the structure was replaced by substantial alterations carried out by the knights of St John during the early-sixteenth and late- seventeenth centuries as the Order desperately sought to drag the old and obsolete stronghold into the modern gunpowder era.  The fort’s most famous moment occurred when it served as the Hospitaller keep during the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 even though its ramparts were neither assaulted nor breached by the Turks. The guns of one of its outer batteries, though not strictly speaking part of the fort, helped defeat a Turkish seaborne assault on the neighbouring fortress of Senglea.

The fort’s medieval configuration, which survived well into the seventeenth century,  was only totally overhauled by the Knights in the 1680s, when the castle was practically rebuilt and encased in hardstone, acquiring in the process its present-day appearance.

Drawing by Dr Stephen C Spiteri of Fort St Angelo c.1798, showing Grunenburg’s four tiers of batteries aimed at the mouth of the Grand harbour.

The man largely responsible for these alterations was Colonel Don Carlos de Grunenburg, engineer to Viceroy and king of Spain, who was invited to Malta by the knights to assist them in updating the defences of the island.. His interventions gave the fort a defining angular form and a series of powerful gun batteries aimed at controlling the entrance to the Grand Harbour.  Grunenburg went one step further and even loaned the Order the money to finance the works, given that the knights were then already heavily committed to the construction of the massive Cottonera, Firenzuola and  Floriana enceintes  ̶  a deed which earned him the rare privilege of displaying his coat of arms above the main gateway into the fort.

Throughout the British occupation of the Maltese islands, Fort St Angelo served largely as a naval establishment and depot. British alterations to the fort, luckily, were few and of marginal consequence – the most substantial of which was the construction of a casemated  battery  for three 9-inch RML guns at the level of No.2 Battery.  However, these guns and parts of their emplacements were subsequently removed when the battery was converted into apartments  for British officers in the early twenteeth century.   The British, who at one time renamed the fort HMS Egmont, utilized it largely for its vast storage capacity, provided by its many bomb-proof and vaulted casemates and magazines.

Recent history

Fort St Angelo suffered considerable damage during the Second World War from aerial bombardment. Most of this, however, was made good although the fort still retains a few small scars from that traumatic episode in the island’s history.  Other serious damage was inflicted in relatively recent times when the fort was converted into a hotel and  fitted with a swimming pool.  In one tragic incident, part of the casemated  barrel -vault adjoining the cavalier collapsed under the weight of the heavy machinery which was then being used to construct a bridge and a road leading into the fort across the sea-filled moat that separates the fort from the nearby town of Birgu.  Although rebuilt, the new curtain was constructed in the softer Globigerina Limestone, thus creating a jarring yellow patch in what is largely a structure totally built of greyish-white Zonqor (Lower Coralline Limestone). A number of  windows were cut into the face of this new curtain wall to allow its interior vault  to be used as a restaurant, which, however, never materialized.

Fort St Angelo is unique among all the  forts in Malta because of the fact that it is built totally out of strong ZONQOR stone. Fortunately, this sea-proof and indestructible rock, with its marble greyish-white texture, has endowed the ramparts of Fort St Angelo with tremendous strength and has enabled the structure to weather excellently over the centuries, especially when compared to the heavily consumed masonry and fissured bastions of the fortifications of Valletta, Mdina, Cittadella, Ricasoli and others. Most of the visible scars, in fact, are recent ones and localized, resulting, as already mentioned above, from the heavy battering it received during the Second World War or from the damage inflicted during the hurried development attempts of the 1980s.

Over the past years the fort has housed various entities, including a Pigeon Club. On  the whole, it was allowed to fall into a rather run down state, except for the inner core which was carefully restored  by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta during the 1990s and is now well looked after and managed by the Order.  Currently, ownership of the fort is divided between the latter, and two other entities;  i.e., a private consortium involved in the development of various parts of the fort, and Heritage Malta, the national agency responsible for the management of public historical sites and museums, which control the larger part of the site and the sole access to it.

Recent Interventions by Heritage Malta

Heritage Malta took over responsibility for large parts of Fort St Angelo in August 2007 and immediately set up the required security measures to control access into fort in an attempt to  stop vandalism and other forms of misuse of  the place. It also cleared the fort from tonnes of rubbish dumped there over the decades and put in motion the mechanisms necessary to draw up the studies and projects required for the rehabilitation of the fort, both in terms of short-term rescue interventions and also the more long-term restoration and rehabilitation objectives. 

Over the course of the past months, Heritage Malta has undertaken the repair of various elements and features which required immediate attention such as the repair of the crumbling Great Siege bell-cot, the consolidation of seventeenth century powder magazine, and the replacement of various consumed parapet walls.  The roof of the seventeenth Century Polverista, for example, was cleaned from the debris and vegetation which had accumulated on it over the years, blocking the  rainwater outlets and damaging the ceiling,  while its covering of traditional deffun was re-applied to render it waterproof. These works were carried out with the assistance of the Restoration Unit within the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs. The so-called  â€˜Great Siege’ bell was restored by Heritage Malta’s conservators, and its bell-cot repaired by the Restoration Unit (see photographs below)

Above:  Roof of seventeenth century gunpowder magazine before restoration, and after (below). Photos courtesy of Heritage Malta.

Above: Restored Bell-cot and so-called ‘Great Siege’ bell. Below, restoration of parapet leading to cavalier. Photos courtesy of Heritage Malta.

The restoration of access ramp helped unearth the original drawbridge drop-pit in front of main gate. This original defensive feature was hidden by a modern wall and filled in with debris. Photo courtesy of Heritage Malta.

MilitaryArchitecture.com is informed that works are now also scheduled to begin soon on the restoration of the heavily-consumed main gate, the reconstruction of the vaulted entrance way,  the repair of the tunnel leading down to De Guiral battery, and  the removal of the offending swimming pool and water tower.

Military Architecture.com has also learnt that Heritage Malta is currently undertaking  archaeological investigations within the fort aimed at clarifying the constructional details of various sensitive sections of the ramparts prior to the commencement of the projected repair works. These excavations, apart from serving to guide the type of structural interventions required, will also help shed important new light on  hidden aspects of Fort St Angelo’s medieval origins.

Ferramolino’s towering cavalier contains three large casemated barrel vaults that make an excellent museum.

Rehabilitation and Re-Use 

While applauding the authorities’ significant efforts in repairing and rehabilitating Fort St Angelo, MilitaryArchitecture.com  augurs that in converting the fort into the desired  major tourism attraction , Heritage Malta does not to fall into the temptation of turning the place into some sort of commercial ‘theme park’.  A work of military architecture  of the calibre of Fort St Angelo needs no gimmicks to be appreciated and understood. Fort St Angelo has enough historical and architectural GRAVITAS to demand and capture attention on its own terms.  Indeed, it provides the perfect setting for narrating the dramatic history of the Hospitaller knights in Outremer, Rhodes and the Maltese islands.  The three adjoining casemates within Ferramolino’s Cavalier, for instance, are perfectly suited to house a museum dedicated to such an important theme, one still so sorely missing and yet so necessary to help place the knights of St John within their proper historical context and long military tradition. To this end, the established presence of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta at Fort St Angelo should be seen as a great asset and a unique opportunity to help weave a fascinating educational and cultural experience for Maltese and foreign visitors alike.

MilitaryArchitecture.com (C)2010

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