The Malta Independent 21 October 2021, Thursday

Like A newsreel of the Great Siege

Malta Independent Sunday, 4 January 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

The Malta Historical Society has chosen “Rediscovering the Great Siege 1565” as the theme for this year’s monthly lectures and a fair audience trooped into the Sala del Gran Consiglio (the throne room) of the Palace of the Grand Masters last Monday to hear Salvatore Mousu’s very interesting explanation on the Matteo Perez d’Aleccio depictions of the Great Siege painted on the hall’s walls.

As usual, Mr Mousu was inimitable in his descriptions and the audience relished every word of it, so much so that while it began sedately seated listening to the explanations, first one, then some, then most, of the audience stood up and moved around the hall so as to get the best view of what Mr Mousu was describing, as there was no way one could get the best view from where one was sitting.

It has to be said that the villain of the evening was the unnamed British governor who covered the 13 frescoes, only to be reprimanded by none other than King Edward himself when he visited Malta. Even so, one fresco was completely destroyed, the one at the back of the hall, over the musicians’ balcony, which was taken from the Gran Carracca. Instead of the fresco we have the coat of arms painted by Giuseppe Cali.

Yet another British ‘gift’ is the rainwater that was allowed to seep in. One can clearly see traces of the rainwater in the last fresco of the cycle, which is the second one on the left facing the throne; the one that depicts the Turks fleeing Malta after being defeated, and thus the most important fresco of all.

It must also be said that the fresco cycle in the Sala del Gran Consiglio forms part of a wider cycle, which starts in the Pages’ Room and continues in the Ambassadors’ Room, which is next to the Sala del Gran Consiglio. The frescoes in these rooms depict the history of the Order before it came to Malta, their expulsion from Jerusalem, their stay in Rhodes and their wanderings before they were granted Malta as their headquarters.

Before he came to Malta, Matteo Perez d’Aleccio was already renowned in Rome, where he is reported to have helped Michelangelo with the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Contrary to what many think, he was not born in Lecce, but in Alesio to parents who may have had Spanish origins. Alesio is situated in the southwest of Italy and Matteo was born there in 1547, hence he was 18 at the time of the Great Siege.

He seems to have come to Malta in 1576, on the run after having been involved, it seems, in some mischief in Rome. The cycle in the Sala took him five years to complete and can be considered as his magnum opus.

Matteo Perez did not look at his work as that of an artist, but more as that of a narrator to depict the glory of the Order.

One aspect he excels in, however, is in his portrayal of Turkish costumes. When a team from Turkish television visited Malta, a Professor of Costumes from the University of Istanbul who accompanied them said the depictions of Turkish military costumes in the fresco cycle is even better than anything the Turks have in Istanbul.

The 12 big frescoes are separated from each other by an allegorical painting of a corresponding virtue, the last being appropriately that of Fame, next to the (damaged) fresco which portrays the Turks fleeing Malta.

One starts to view the frescos from the last one on the left wall, as one sits facing the throne.

This is a huge map of Malta and it is interesting in that it contains names of villages that are no more, such as Casale Hal Dwil, Hal Millieri, Gnien is-Sultan, In-Nixxiegha, Ras il-Pellegrin, two San Nicolas, Santa Maria in Loreto (Gudja?), and so on.

The date on this fresco is 18 May 1565, when the huge Turkish fleet (one can count up to 200 Turkish vessels on the map) surrounded the western side of Malta. One can also glimpse Maltese running to hide in caves or to take shelter in the towns.

The Turkish fleet stopped first at Gnejna Bay, and one can see some knights and Maltese who confronted the small number of Turks who disembarked. It was by then late, and the Turks retreated to their ships and disembarked the next day at Marsaxlokk.

The second fresco shows the displacement of the Turkish forces, as they build earthworks, put up tents at Marsa and place an enormous gun in the area one can think is near the Upper Barrakka, to attack Fort St Elmo.

One can also see Senglea and Birgu and also a group of people with pickaxes trying to mine the bastions and blow them up. In the lower corner one can see Janissaries and Spahis, the elite troops of the invading army.

The third fresco shows the beginning of the attack on Fort St Elmo, on 27 May. The delay must have been to allow the troops to settle in and for the ferrying of the guns and placing them in position, around what today is the Presidential Palace. The delay may have also been caused by differences between the two Turk commanders, Mustafa Pasha and Ali Pasha as to which strategy was to be adopted.

St Elmo has been called Malta’s Masada, as all who were in it were killed at the end, except for four Maltese who jumped into the sea and swam to safety.

One can also see how the Turks reinforced their frontline troops by passing on the Strait Street level, thus being protected from the shooting from Senglea and Birgu.

On 29 May a group of knights and some Maltese inside the fort made a surprise sortie and took the Turks by surprise, until the Janissaries were called in and forced them back into the fort.

Some days later, Dragut was hit by a splinter at what is now known as Dragut Point and died.

The fourth fresco depicts the fall of St Elmo on 21 June, the siege having lasted around one month. The Turkish flag flies over the destroyed fort. Piali is said to have asked: “If the son cost us so much, what will the father do?”

The fresco abounds in cruel details, the carnage by the Turks once they entered the fort after a siege in which 6,000 missiles were hurled against the fort’s walls every day for nearly a month. In the sea between Fort St Elmo and the other side of the Grand Harbour one can see the bodies of the six knights who were beheaded and, according to some reports some even had their hearts cut out while still alive in the Atzec manner, floating towards Birgu. One can also see the Maltese swimmers escaping while the Turks shot at them.

The fifth fresco shows the attack on Fort St Michael and Senglea on 27 June. Once again, the delay here is due to the hard work to transport the guns on Mount Sceberras to face Senglea, and around the back to what today we call the Cospicua heights.

One can also see how the bastions surrounding Senglea were still incomplete on the side facing Birgu. Across the creek from Senglea to Birgu one can see the chain to stop galleys from entering the creek, the all-important bridge of boats between the two towns and the palisade to stop the Turkish boats from invading by sea.

On Senglea one can see the square tower of Fort St Michael, not a strong fort at all, a round tower and further in the two windmills around which the knights and the Maltese were to make their last stand.

The sixth fresco shows the arrival of the Piccolo Soccorso on 5 July when some 700 mercenaries arrived from Sicily. They landed at Mellieha or at Gnejna and were led by Maltese hero Toni Bajada through secluded areas and arrived undetected by the Turkish lookouts at Rinella. There they hurriedly boarded boats plied by the Maltese and crossed over to Birgu.

The dark fresco vividly shows the frantic urging by the boatmen to the soldiers to hurry up and cross. The Turks only got to know when they heard the wild cheering of the Maltese inside Birgu.

The seventh fresco shows the big Turkish attack on the Post of Castille in Birgu. Mustafa here offered the knights an honourable surrender and offered the Maltese to “free” them from the knights, as Turks and Maltese were “blood brothers”. But the Maltese replied they preferred to remain the slaves of the knights than the sons of the sultan.

We are now at the back wall of the hall, where two vertical frescoes are on either side of the minstrels’ gallery.

The eighth fresco shows the big assault on Fort St Michael on 15 July in very graphic detail. Hundreds of Turkish boats had crossed over from Marsa and carried hundreds of Turkish soldiers to the shores of Senglea. Unbeknown to them however, a gun battery had been hidden among the rocks at sea level and, when the boats arrived, they were met by the full onslaught of the battery.

Folklore embellishes this battle with some humour, that a boatload of mullahs had been leading the onslaught but when the guns opened fire the mullahs turned and escaped. How a knight fell and Maltese and Turks battled for his body, with the Turks being left, in the end, with just his boots.

The ninth fresco shows the second attack on the Post of Castille (in Birgu) on 29 July, the nearest the Turks came to entering Birgu and also the one where de Valette’s courage and heroism carried the day.

The 10th fresco is a rather static one offering an overview of the Turkish displacement around the harbour and Mount Sceberras. One can also see some Turkish activity near and on what we call today Manoel Island, then called Il-Gzira tal-Isqof.

One can also note two bodies hanging at Gallows Point, today’s Ricasoli.

The 11th and penultimate fresco shows the arrival of the Gran Soccorso on 7 September when the Turks were once more caught napping as 10,000 soldiers crossed over from Sicily, entered the Gozo Channel and landed at Cirkewwa whence they made their way to Mdina. The Turkish leaders seem to have thought the Soccorso was double its actual size, arriving when some Turks thought they were on the verge of victory.

The last fresco shows the Turkish troops in full retreat. Actually, however, it wasn’t as simple as that. Mustafa seems to have realized the Soccorso was not all that big and, having already embarked on his ships, forced them into St Paul’s Bay and Salina Bay and ordered them to disembark and march on Mdina.

But the Maltese and the knights inside Mdina, scenting final victory, as well as the Gran Soccorso eager to taste blood, disobeyed de Valette’s orders and rushed down from Mdina to attack the Turks who broke and ran, in great confusion. Hundreds of them were cornered in a valley and butchered. Two thousand Turkish soldiers were killed on land in that day, and a further 1,000 were killed in Salina Bay. It was said that for months no one could approach the bay due to the very strong stench of decaying bodies.

The next lecture in the series will be held on Monday, 26 January at the Ambassadors’ Hall in the Auberge de Castille at 6pm when Dr Stephen Spiteri will speak on the Maltese fortifications at the time of the Great Siege.

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