Wignacourt’s Bastioned Towers

Wignacourt Towers, Arx Cover

A new volume in the series Arx Occasional Papers, dedicated to the early seventeenth-century coastal fortifications built by the Knights of the Order of St John in the Maltese islands,

will be published online in the coming weeks by This new illustrated monograph, entitled In Defence of the Coast – Part 1 : The Bastioned Towers is a detailed study by Dr Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D. of the design and construction of the first coastal towers built during the reign of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt and his successor, Grand Master Lascaris.


At the turn of the seventeenth century, these fascinating towers represented a new phase in the Order’s defensive strategy, one that would lead, eventually, to the fortification of the whole archipelago, and the transformation of Malta into a veritable island-fortress. Up until this time, the Knights of St John had been unable to construct any but the most essential defensive works, and these efforts, were exclusively confined to the Grand Harbour area and the Hospitaller knights’ need to establish a secure and heavily fortified convent and naval base. This did not mean that the Order was unaware of the dangers of such a course of action, which left the larger part of its tiny realm and its rural population exposed to the predatory activities of the Turkish and Barbary corsairs but the acute lack of financial resources which plagued the Order’s government in those early years meant that no money could be spared for fortification schemes that diverted resources away from the most urgent priorities and these, at least up until the beginning of the seventeenth century, all focused around the task of securing the Grand Harbour enclave and the Order’s naval facilities.

So when the first coastal towers did finally materialize in the early decades of the seventeenth century, it was only due to the personal contribution of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (as well as that of a couple of successive grand masters who followed his example) who went out of his way to finance the works from his very own pockets. The claim in Grand Master Wignacourt’s funerary memorial that ‘con la Sua Magnificenza [aveva] cinto Malta di Turri (formidandum illius magnificentia cincta Turribus Melita)’ was surely not a hollow one. His handful of towers had laid the foundation for a new network of coastal defences.

The type of coastal defences which Wignacourt and his military experts opted to construct, and the manner in which they positioned these elements around the shores of the archipelago, were carefully chosen to fulfill clear defensive roles that combined the need for continual vigilance with the capacity to offer some resistance to invasion. Wignacourt’s large towers were designed to act both as sentinels and physical barriers to incursions, capable of holding their own against attack as well as commanding the surrounding areas and seaward approaches with their heavy firepower. The cost of their construction and equipment, as a result, proved expensive. In all, seven large coastal towers were built during Wignacourt’s reign, although the first was actually commissioned by his predecessor, Grand Master Martin Garzes (reigned 1595-1601) and paid for by the money left in his will. Of the six towers attributed to Wignacourt, on the other hand, only five are documented as having been financed directly by the Grand Master. An official document in the Order’s archives only lists five of the towers and omits the one in Gozo, which appears to have been financed directly by the Order. For many years, this sixth tower, i.e., Marsalforn Tower in Gozo (the fourth in the chronology of the towers constructed during Wignacourt’s reign) was considered something of a mystery until a specific mention of its date of construction, fixing it securely within Wignacourt’s reign, was discovered by the late Brig. A Samut-Tagliaferro and published in his book, The Coastal defences of Gozo and Comino (Malta, 1993). Together, the five towers cost Wignacourt some 55,519 scudi, which amounted to around one-eight of his total benefactions to the Order. Another turretted tower (Mellieħa Tower or Fort St Agatha) was built in 1647-49 during the reign of Grand Master Lascaris. This was very similar in its design to Wignacourt’s towers and can be considered as forming part of the same typology of structures and, as such, is included as an important element in this study.

Certainly, it is the presence of the corner turrets in all these towers which was to characterize the first generation of dedicated Hospitaller coastal works of fortification. It was these bastion-like corner turrets which set them distinctly apart from other tower typologies to be found around the shores of the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

It was the late Prof. Quentin Hughes, in his pioneering studies on Maltese fortifications, who was the first scholar to recognize the uniqueness of the Wignacourt tower design and the fact that their corner turrets were actually veritable embryonic bastions, calculated to allow a limited degree of flanking fire along the faces of the intervening faces, making the towers, in essence, bastioned forts. This quality is most evident and pronounced in St. Thomas Tower at Marsascala (1614) where the turrets actually project outwards from the base to form true corner bastions, unlike in the other towers where they rise from upper half of the faces of the scarped walls to form turrets. Hughes, however, did not delve into the issue of the authorship or the evolution of such a design, largely because at the time it was traditionally assumed that the towers were the product of the genius of the Maltese resident military engineer Vittorio Cassar, son of the renowned Girolamo Cassar and assistant to the Papal military engineer Francesco Laparelli during the building of the fortified city of Valletta. This attribution was put forward in the seventeenth century by the historian Gio. Francesco Abela (1647), and was never challenged. Actually, Abela was only referring to the Comino Tower which was the fifth of the Wignacourt towers (1618) but this has been taken to imply Vittorio’s authorship of the design of all Wignacourt’s towers.

Nowadays, however, Abela’s claim is somewhat problematic, if for nothing else, simply on the basis of the fact that Vittorio Cassar is now known to have died before the building of the first of  Wignacourt’s  towers.  Dr. Spiteri’s monograph, which is heavily illustrated with author’s own graphic reconstructions and drawings and 3D models specifically created for this publication (a sample of which is shown here with this article),  examines the origins of this typology of coastal tower design within the wider context of the Spanish and Italian military architecture of the time and the various attempts that were then being made by Italian engineers to address the redundancy of the traditional tower form and the need to apply to it the solutions prescribed by the bastioned trace. The study shows that Wignacourt’s bastioned towers were heavily influenced by similar towers constructed by Italian military engineers in Spain, and other parts of  the Mediterranean and in the New World.


NOTE:  None of the images and no part of the text can be used or cited in other publications, brochures, museum information panels, and other audio or visual media, etc., without the prior written consent of the author.

Stephen C Spiteri PhD

Latest Articles








~ Additional Features ~