The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Exhibiting A forgotten national monument

Malta Independent Sunday, 28 February 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

Malta’s fortifications represent one of the finest collections of military architecture to be found anywhere in the world and, in the words of Professor Quentin Hughes, constitute a monumental heritage “for sheer concentration and majesty quite unmatched.”

Yet, to date, this vast heritage of unique structures has gone largely unnoticed, and unexplained. It is difficult to understand why a country that boasts such a rich concentration of fortifications, (60 kilometres of them) has never had a Fortifications Information Centre dedicated to military architecture.

Now all that is being changed. Work has begun on the rehabilitation of what was known as the Biagio Steps Examination Centre in Valletta (at the end of St Mark Street, very close to the road leading down to the sea passenger terminal from Sliema).

The Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs has designed the site to house a Fortifications Information Centre dedicated specifically to expound and showcase Malta’s unique patrimony of fortresses, forts, towers and batteries.

This centre will serve as:

• a permanent exhibition/museum

• an educational resource

• a national database on Maltese fortifications.

It will present Malta’s fortresses, forts, towers and batteries, as well as the manner in which they were constructed – the building methods and techniques employed and the role of Maltese masons and craftsmen.

Why use the Biagio Steps Examination Building?

Because it is:

• a strategic location inside Valletta – the most important fortress in Malta, both architecturally and historically

• linked directly to the Valletta fortifications via St Andrew’s Bastion, with excellent panoramic views of Fort Manoel, Fort Tigné and the Valletta enceinte along Marsamxett.

• an ideal, manageable size: the building’s spacious vaulted interior provides excellent exhibition space. The Centre has been designed to exploit both these spaces and computer technology, to create a unique experience that combines rich multi-media and traditional displays

• an imposing building that was unused and rapidly deteriorating, and required restoration. Until recently, part of the building served as an examination hall, while the uppermost floor, level with Melita Street, was demolished during the Second World War and was never rebuilt.

Little is known about this majestic building itself, with its sombre, if somewhat plain, façade. Escutcheons with the coat of arms of Grand Master de Verdalle suggest that it was constructed, or completed, some time during his rule.

It was used as a warehouse for merchandise offloaded from vessels berthed in Marsamxett, and its location close to the Falconeria (used as an ameria di rispetto from the mid-1700s onwards) suggests some form of military use; indeed, the upper floor (with adjoining bastion platform) was also used as an artillery school (scuola per gettare bombe) by the Knights. It served as barracks during the British period.

The museum will have five areas:

a permanent display on the Hospitaller (1st floor) and British fortifications (2nd floor).

a children’s interactive area (ground floor) and

an audio-visual theatre (ground floor)

a resource reference library (2nd floor)

curatorial and administrative offices (on three floors)

a retail/catering outlet (3rd floor).

There will also be a vertical link – a lift – open to the public, which will link the lower level of the building with Melita Street, even after office hours.

Announcing the project – which will cost e2.5 million and is due to be completed by the end of 2011 – Minister George Pullicino also referred to the restoration of six kilometres of fortifications: three kilometres from St Andrew’s Bastion to City Gate and on to below Castille, one kilometre at the Gozo Cittadella, one at Vittoriosa and another at Mdina, costing e36 million in total.

The restoration of the fortifications will also prompt a new lighting system, said Mr Pullicino. The much vandalised lighting system used at present was installed in 1989 and is now outdated. The Ministry’s experts are studying alternatives that will enable the lighting to be varied, according to ambient conditions.

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