Unearthed features at the Cittadella

Ongoing conservation works unearth important original features.

The ongoing works at the Cittadella, part of the European Regional Development Fund, 2007-2013, which involve the implementation of the Cittadella Master Plan Recommendations, have led to the unearthing of two important original features related to the land front fortifications and the approach road into the old Hospitaller fortress. These ‘rediscovered’ elements were all visible up until the remodelling of the approaches to the Cittadella by the  British around the middle of the nineteenth century, when many parts of the ditch separating the land front curtain from the ravelin were filled in and hidden away to accommodate the present road configuration leading up into the old fortress.

The first of the features to be brought to light was the sally-port situated in the right flank of St. Michael Bastion. This is one of two sally-ports that provided the garrison of the Cittadella with a passage down into the ditch of the fortress. The second sally-port is situated in the left flank (flanque couvert) of St. Michael Bastion, facing St. John Demi-Bastion – it is currently blocked up with masonry. The images below show the unearthed sally-port and the interior gallery leading down to it from within the fortress.

This unearthed sally-port, unlike its sister postern in the left flank of the bastion, however, does not open in the short flank of the bastion, but is concealed behind the reverse of the rounded orillion (i.e. the projecting shoulder of the bastion), and as such, can best be described as a traditor (see Antoine de Ville, Les fortifications… avec l'attaque et la défense des places - Lyon, 1629).  This sally-port, which does not appear to have been fitted with a drawbridge, was accessed from inside the Citadel via a short vaulted tunnel opening in the gorge of St. Michael Bastion (presently the courtyard behind the Museum of Archaeology).  In Hospitaller times, most sally-ports of this kind were generally kept walled-up to prevent unauthorized persons and the public from using them as an alternative means of entering and exiting the walled enclosures.

A close examination of the tunnel entrance leading down to the sally-port shows it to have once had a heavy wooden door. The upper end of the tunnel, where it opens into the gorge of the bastion, was also originally closed off by a wooden gate.

The second feature that has been unearthed, and is perhaps of even more interest, is the revetment of the original ramp which once led to the Citadel’s main gateway –  the official entrance into the fortress. The main fascinating feature here is the interruption, or cutting, roughly two-thirds up the ramp, which served as a form of drop-ditch. This was a defensive feature that was designed to be spanned by a wooden drawbridge.  It is a unique arrangement as far as Maltese Hospitaller fortifications are concerned, and was a direct result of the awkward positioning of the main gate, which was pushed close to the right end of the curtain in order to shield it from the line of enemy fire by the flank and orillion of St. Michael Bastion. As a result, the main gate was denied the possibility of accommodating its own drawbridge, since, owing to the narrowness of the ramp, there was not enough space for the tavolatura of the drawbridge to be deployed frontally.

The photographs below show the ramp as re-exposed during the various stages of the excavation works.

The ramp in question formed the last leg in a tortuous approach leading up to the Citadel from the square in Rabat, via the gorge (rear) of the ravelin and across an arched bridge spanning the width of the ditch. Jean-Pierre Houël’s famous drawing of the antique Roman statue on the walls of the Cittadella shows the junction of the bridge (behind the ravelin) and the foot of this ramp where it began its last final upward climb towards the gate, skirting the curtain wall.

The author’s 3D graphic reconstruction, shown below, shows the manner in which this unearthed ramp and its drop-ditch may have functioned.

The positioning of drawbridges outside the main gates of fortifications was a common feature of many European seventeenth century fortifications although it is not encountered elsewhere in the Maltese islands. These type of free-standing drawbridge mechanisms were particularly employed in the outermost gates (or advance positions) of fortification systems. A vaguely similar method was employed at St. Mary Tower in Comino, where the drawbridge was placed on the plinth (i.e., faussebraye) of the tower in line with the masonry flight of steps, but offset from the tower’s main entrance (see http://issuu.com/arkitettura/docs/arx_op_3_2014_4web )

It is not clear, however, when this feature was first introduced into the fortifications of the Cittadella, but it was certainly in place by 1670, as can be seen from Antonio Maurizio Valperga’s plan of the Citadel (detail from which is shown below courtesy of the National Library of Malta). The plan from which this detail is extracted is the earliest known detailed planimetric representation of the Citadel’s fortifications following the reconstruction of this stronghold’s medieval enceinte and its partial transformation into a bastioned enceinte, undertaken in the first two decades of the seventeenth century.  The new bastioned enceinte followed the designs of the Italian military engineer Giovanni Rinaldini, and was executed under the supervision of the Maltese resident military engineer Vittorio Cassar, son of the renowned Gerolamo Cassar, assistant to Francesco Laparelli, the architect of Valletta’s bastioned enceinte.

The three diaphragm arches shown in the photographs above, spanning the gap in the unearthed ramp, were introduced sometime during the mid-nineteenth century when the wooden platform of the drawbridge had begun to deteriorate and had to be supported from beneath. This practice was employed in many of the gateways, in some instances even during the late Hospitaller period as documented by various entries in the Order’s records. Indeed, the wooden platforms of drawbridges were frequently in need of repair. The archives of the Università in Gozo, for example, reveal that the wooden drawbridge serving the main entrance into the Cittadella was dismantled and repaired in 1701, a task which was undertaken by Simone Cassar and his son, assisted by four other workers and carried out  over a period of two days, all for the cost of 1 scudo 6 tari and 10 grani (See Rev. Dr. J. Bezzina, Il-pont u t-triq fuq il-foss taċ-Ċittadella, in Il-Ħajja f’Għawdex (NOVEMBER • 2001), Paġna mill-Arkivju Nazzjonali - 99).


Dr. Stephen C Spiteri PhD.




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