FAA Visits Fort Manoel

Start Date & Time: 26/11/2017 - 10:00 am

End Date & Time: 26/11/2017 - 12:00 am

Price: 15

Inquire At: 20106428


On the morning of Sunday 26th November, 24 FAA members assembled for a special visit to Fort Manoel led by tour guide Vincent Zammit.  It provided an opportunity to view the restoration that has taken place, hear about the history of the Fort and the island, and admire the views of Valletta on the other side of Marsamxett Harbour.

Before entering the Fort, Vincent summarised the history of the Knights from the time they arrived in Malta in 1530 through to the victory of the Great Siege, and the subsequent building of Valletta. Vincent then spoke about Manoel Island, formerly called Bishop’s Island as it belonged to the Bishop of Malta.  However, during an outbreak of the plague in 1592, the Bishop allowed a temporary quarantine hospital to be built of wooden huts, known as Lazzaretto, to be used until the plague subsided a year later.  In 1624, there was another outbreak of the plague and Grand Master Antoine de Paule wanted to buy the Island, but the Bishop refused.  Subsequently in 1643, during the reign of Grand Master Jean de Lascaris, the Order of St. John made an agreement with the church to exchange an area of Manoel Island for an equal area of land at Fiddien, near Mdina.  And so a permanent Lazzaretto was built in an attempt to control the periodic influx of plague and cholera carried by visiting ships.  The quarantine hospital was protected by two guards who would shoot anyone attempting to escape.  Those quarantined either died from the plague or from hunger.

Mr. Zammit added that the Knights of the Order of Saint John thought that Valletta was still vulnerable to attacks from Marsamxett Harbour, so the Knights brought several architects to Malta in the late 16th and late 17th centuries to propose a design for the construction of a fortification on Manoel Island.  Eventually, the final design was agreed in 1723, based on the work by the French Knight René Jacob de Tigné and a team of French engineers with modifications by his friend and colleague Charles François de Mondion, the Order’s military engineer.

Vincent then led the group through Fort Manoel’s main gate, where inside once stood a fountain, then up the steps to the slanting parade ground which was built sloping so that rainwater would drain into the water reservoir below.  Initially the stone used for the Fort’s construction was locally quarried so the quarry became the reservoir.  From the parade ground visitors could view the Echaugette and the nearby St. Rocco church on the Valletta bastions as well as the St. Rocco bath houses cut into the rocky coastline below.

Next Vincent led the group into the Baroque chapel dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, which was extensively damaged by axis aerial bombs during WW11, but has now been extensively restored.  The chapel’s designer Charles François de Mondion lies buried in the crypt below the chapel.  Behind the altar there is a copy of the titular painting of St. Anthony of Padua.  In the original altar is buried General Corso of Italy.  To the sides of the chapel are arches, pillars, a side altar, and sculptured designs.

Vincent then related to when, in 1715, engineer Tigné proposed a star-shaped low-lying fort design, so as not to be visible from the sea, later refined by Charles de Mondion.  The fort to protect Valletta was built inland on slightly higher ground.  Eventually, the plans were accepted by Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena, who laid the first stone on 14 September 1723.  Vilhena, a wealthy land and property owner, used some of his rental incomes to finance the building of the fort, which was named after him.  At the time, the Knights were pleased as they didn’t have to bear any cost!

The group then entered the Crypt underneath the chapel, where Charles de Mondion and four chaplains were buried.  The Crypt, dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Grace’ was carved out of solid rock.  Each side of the altar, in which de Mondion was buried, were sculptured carvings in the stone walls symbolising purgatory, with a draped curtain above faces and inverted flowers.

After visiting the Crypt, the group walked down steps through the Notre Dame curtain, then via a short tunnel through a Tenaille into the ditch carved out of rock between the inner Notre Dame curtain and the outer Ravelin fortification facing landward.  Here Vincent drew the group’s attention to short tunnels in the rock to store arms and for soldiers to hide in.

Back in the parade ground, Vincent spoke about the St. Helen’s Bastion Polverista, which was a magazine used for storage of gunpowder in wooden barrels.  The Polverista was designed as a single rectangular room with double-lined reinforced walls separated by an air gap so that if there was an explosion, the force would go upwards and not outwards.

The guided tour ended here and all FAA members thanked Mr. Zammit for an informative account of Fort Manoel’s history.

Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer

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