The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

The Vision for a restored Fort St Angelo

Malta Independent Sunday, 5 September 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Although these are early days and the work of urgently needed restoration is just about to begin, thought is being given to creating a vision for the restored Fort St Angelo and how it will be used.

The media were taken around the badly-dilapidated fort in driving rain on Friday by Heritage Malta (HM) and afterwards met Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco in the more congenial atmosphere of the Maritime Museum.

The fort, parts of which pre-existed the Knights of St John (1530), was hurriedly strengthened before the Great Siege but really rebuilt in the succeeding century.

The British used it as a seabase (HMS St Angelo). It suffered the worst damage during World War II, especially in the massive attack by German bombers on the HMS Illustrious which was berthed alongside. One plane is said to have been flown right into the bastions over the quay.

At that time the British were using the former Polverista (munitions store) as a sick bay. They dug into the rock and created a huge hospital right underneath the fort, where the wounded and the dying especially from the dockyard were rushed to. They even had bars down there and could stay underground for long periods, since they had a system to filter air down there.

But since there was a war going on and the place was needed, when bombs shattered the vaults at the entrance to the fort, these were hurriedly repaired by iron beams that shored the walls up.

Unfortunately, further depredations followed after 1979 when the fort was returned to Maltese hands. In what today is seen by all to have been a misguided use, a hotel was set up and a swimming pool was created on top of the most ancient part of the fort. A Chinese restaurant did business in another part.

Then all was allowed to close down, the fort was open to all and fireworks enthusiasts let off petards from the topmost Cavalier.

Heritage Malta was given overall responsibility for parts of the fort in August 2007 and immediately stopped the letting off of fireworks. It had to cart out tons of rubbish from the site.

The fort is now shared by three bodies – the Knights of Malta (SMOM) have been given the top part where the Resident Knight now lives. However, not all the buildings allocated to SMOM have been restored so far, as the members of the media could see.

There is an agreement between the government and the Cottonera Waterfront Consortium, that was reached at the time of the Cottonera waterfront restoration. The agreement includes the building of a thalassotherapy spa and hotel on the side of St Angelo facing the breakwater. It also included the De Gurial battery on the shores of the fort, facing Valletta. But last month Mepa turned down an application to turn this battery into a bar and restaurant. It argued that this battery is a very important part of Malta’s history since it marked the turning point of the Great Siege when guns hidden at sea level opened up on Turks advancing to attack Birgu and decimated them.

What brought matters to a head was an accident which involved a heavy construction truck that seems to have caused a collapse, possibly helped by rain and also by the way that debris on top of the tunnel leading to the De Gurial Battery was probably bulldozed in place.

This led to the fort being closed to all visitors due to the dangers on site. As was explained at the Mepa hearing and again last Friday, the entry vault is in danger of collapsing, and the low parapet walls also present a hazard since successive ‘restorations’ have raised the road around the fort and it is now dangerous to take children there.

So far, three rather small restoration projects have been concluded. The roof of the 17th century Polverista was cleaned from debris and vegetation and the deffun layer was redone. The parapet wall of the ramp from the lower to the middle part of the fort, which was in a very dangerous state and partly collapsed, was restored. And the bell misnomingly known as the Great Siege bell (it is not the same bell and the actual bell was somewhere else) and its bell cot were restored.

Three full applications have been submitted to Mepa and an application is being drawn up for EDRF funds from the EU, hoping to get some €10 million in all. Meanwhile, last year’s Budget allocated €1.5 million for emergency work.

There is no timeline for the emergency work: the work is painstakingly slow and the fort’s access problems mean that most supplies and machinery have to either be lifted by crane or else by hand. Besides, before something is removed, a full archaeological investigation must be done.

This has already led to results: while removing the wartime debris from the ditch outside the fort’s main gate, the restorers found a stone crown from the elaborate baroque niche facing the main gate. In all probability, the crown had been hit and dislodged in the air raid, which brought down parts of the vault and was swept out among the debris in the war rush.

During the tour on Friday, the media were also shown the ‘guva’ the bell-like cistern where in all probability Caravaggio was incarcerated before he managed to escape from Malta.

The attention which this detail engendered in the motley media crowd shows that the fort could be extremely attractive not just to those interested in forts and fortifications but also in historical events.

Later on, at the Maritime Museum, Ruben Abela and Godwin Vella from Heritage Malta explained the outline of HM’s vision for a restored fort.

Following the restoration, HM intends to craft an engaging and multifunctional cultural experience for people visiting the fort.

Among the themes which may be of interest to visitors to the fort there are:

• the development of the fort

• interpreting the fort in the context of the Grand Harbour.

The fort, at the centre of Malta’s most prized natural resource, is an irreplaceable icon. It can also be used to host outdoor events such as a son et lumiere.

The general plans call for an orientation point to be created in the Polverista building. In British times, this building, as explained above, was turned into an infirmary and the additional structures will not be removed for that is also a historic artifact. In fact, HM also intends to preserve the British wartime hospital underground in honour of those who defended Malta and in so doing, many times, met their death.

A second attraction will be the ‘Oubliette’ or ‘guva’ where Caravaggio was incarcerated, just opposite the Nativity chapel.

The two barrack blocks, one dating from the mid-19th century and the other from mid-20th century will be retained for retail and public utilities.

It is also planned to use the Knights block to offer a real experience of life in a fort in the times of the Knights. People will be able to sleep there, with just rudimentary facilities.

The vaults under the Cavalier will be the main display areas offering a walk-thro’ experience about the history of Grand Harbour, the early legacy of the Knights, the evolution of Cottonera, St Angelo as the key to Malta and Grand Harbour as the main stage of Malta’s history.

Phase 1 of the restoration will focus on the top part of the fort with the removal of the swimming pool and all post-1979 accretions. A chairlift will be installed thus providing access to all areas. Electric cars will also supplement mobility.

Phase 2 will focus on the former pigeon club, which in reality is a British-built cinema complex dating from 1916. Two important walls which used to segregate the fort into different parts will be restored.

Phase 3 will see the restoration of all the bastions. Even here, some work needs to be done urgently – the bastion on top of the Ghar tal-Paggi is in real danger due to sea erosion and a rather soft rock. Even installing supports to shore up the bastion will need to be done from the sea.

Hopefully, the restoration will be done before Fort St Angelo suffers the same fate as Fort Ricasoli where part of the bastion collapsed into the sea.

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