The Malta Independent 18 September 2019, Wednesday

Manoel Island Lazzaretto To be restored, reconstructed and to include a casino

Malta Independent Friday, 20 January 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Its most ancient part, called to this day Palazzo Vecchio, was built by the Knights of St John to serve as a quarantine where anybody and everybody coming by boat to Malta had to stay for 40 days until that person was clearly out of danger and was not suffering any sickness or plague.

Among the many forced guests it listed, two stand out – one Walter Scott took it in his stride but one, Lord Byron, who had to endure it twice, could not stand it and wrote some bitter poetry about it.

He even carved his name in stone on the terrace of the Palazzo Vecchio but some 20 years ago, when the entire building was completely unguarded, someone broke in and carried away Lord Byron’s signature.

This, unfortunately, is only one aspect of the neglect of this historic building.

Later on, under both the Knights and the British, more halls were added so that today there are nine divisions, as they are called, each with its own access to the sea and mostly independent of each other.

After the Knights, the British took over Manoel Island and added their own buildings, housing officers and men. At some point, its buildings were used as a hospital.

During World War II, the Lazzaretto housed and tried to hide it was the headquarters of the submarine arm of the British forces but the Germans got to know about it and thus bombed it relentlessly.

This bombing heavily damaged the building but much worse was to come when the British departed and the buildings were left in complete abandonment.

Now, MIDI having practically finished its construction on the Tigné Point side of its development, and having already restored the Manoel Island Fort, with its beautiful church and gateway to the sea, has turned its attention to the Lazzaretto.

In a riveting presentation to the Mepa board yesterday, Professor Alex Torpiano described the present state of the building and explained what MIDI aims to do with it. The application was later approved.

Practically every building is heavily damaged. In Palazzo Vecchio, today a Grade 1 protected building, someone set a large number of car tyres on fire and the fire damaged the fabric.

Other structures have lost their ceilings, savage dogs were bred in the vaults and there were even squatters in residence.

Behind the buildings, a misguided clearance project in the 1960s dug away part of the glacis, the slope leading to the fortress (an important part of every defensive work) so as to erect a Navy Pay Office, which is now as derelict and abandoned as the rest of the buildings.

In the post-war years, some sporadic attempts were made to repair damaged vaults but this was done with cement and steel beams and with no respect for the fabric of the building.

Later some buildings were used, even at water’s edge, by Medserv.

Prof. Torpiano explained what MIDI intends to do. Basically, it intends to fully restore the groundfloor vaults to all their original glory and to re-use them as commercial outlets for catering, cultural and communal uses.

In some places the quay has been extended, thus losing the close relations between the buildings and the sea. This will be cut back to its original width.

The diagrams Prof. Torpiano showed the board also displayed a breakwater jutting out from near the former Royal Malta Yacht Club and another one further down with a number of yachts moored in the resulting yacht marina. This however, did not form part of the proposal that was approved yesterday.

As for the upper storeys of the two-storey buildings, MIDI is proposing their pulling down and entire reconstruction into duplex apartments with a third storey well recessed from the sea.

But one issue that rather surprisingly saw different Mepa heritage bodies at odds with each other regarded the proposed parking area for 292 cars.

MIDI is proposing to carve out this parking space behind the vaults in an area which used to form part of the glacis but which had been disturbed in the 1960s when that part was excavated.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was dead against this proposal but MIDI argued this parking will be reserved for residents and customers of the outlets. Although another parking area is envisaged nearer the Manoel Island bridge and the island is intended to be a mainly car-free island, it would be unfair to make people walk all the way from the bridge to the Lazzaretto.

Besides, MIDI intends to clean and keep the tunnels inside the glacis dug by the British as more defensive works.

The SCH also argued that the proposed excavation could damage the big British-built reservoir also at the back but MIDI replied it has enough experience not to damage the reservoir, and that in the original Development Brief and Outline Approval, the parking was proposed to be right instead of the reservoir.

As for the Grade I building, the Palazzo Vecchio, with its very attractive central courtyard and staircase, it is proposed to convert this into a casino.

The other buildings, including one for some reason called the Nunnery, are scheduled Grade 2.

When the car park is dug, the glacis will be re-rolled on top and re-instated.

Quite surprisingly, no representation from the public was received regarding this application, and when the chairman called for comments from the public, there was no public in the Mepa boardroom.

In later stages of the discussion, it was revealed that the road leading to the fortress behind the vaults will be tweaked in places so as to better respect the contours of the glacis.

The SCH had also argued that some burials had been discovered there in the early years of last century but Prof. Torpiano said this was the first time they were hearing this and that seeing the glacis had been disturbed and cut down, it is highly unlikely for any tombs to remain there.

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