The Malta Independent 6 December 2022, Tuesday
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Interview: Fort St Angelo - Bringing An icon back to life

Malta Independent Monday, 12 March 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The fort is estimated to have existed for some 1,000 years, possibly even for longer, albeit for different purposes.

“The challenge is not the size of the fort, built over 13,000 square metres of land, but the fact that it is an icon,” said Heritage Malta senior curator Godwin Vella. “It is the starting point of all fortifications in Malta.”

Whilst our Neolithic Temples are considered as the highlights of our cultural heritage and of World Heritage Status, Fort St Angelo is the icon in our military, defence and colonial history for the last 800 years and possibly more, Project Manager Ruben Abela said.

The works are to be completed by 2015.

Matthew Balzan, the curator of Fort St Angelo, said that a lot of speculation surrounds this fort. While some people believe it was built in Roman Times, this is unsure. It could have started as a prehistoric temple – and this theory makes some sense, based on some accounts from the 16th century but there is no hard evidence to back this.

When Malta was conquered by the Arabs, in 870 AD, they badly damaged a fort. This could have been St Angelo.

In 2007, Heritage Malta was handed over responsibility of substantial parts of the fort including its entrance and almost all its open areas. The Cottonera Waterfront Group and the Order of St John have lease rights for other parts of the fort.

In the past, there was free access to most parts but when passed over to Heritage Malta it deployed a security officer on a 24/7 basis to control who goes in and out of the premises. This was necessary to stop the degradation and incidents of vandalism that were quite common. Before any form of works started, a clean-up of the fort resulted in used syringes, fireworks and rubble.

An assessment of the spaces under the responsibility of Heritage Malta to identify the necessary works and create some form of Heritage trail started in 2008. A number of risks were identified, including the low parapet walls on some bastions, as well as structural problems, making it impossible for the fort to be opened in the state it is.

An estimate of costs for necessary urgent interventions to make some spaces available was drawn up. Eventually, Heritage Malta started discussions with the government on a specific vote for St Angelo.

Meanwhile, part of the De Guiral sally port gave way when a truck was being driven along the ring road. The entrance to the fort had been badly damaged in the war and because iron beams were used in urgent maintenance works at that time, these eroded and were causing sever cracks in the stone, possibly resulting in a collapse.

The fort was therefore completely closed to vehicles and in the Budget for 2010, a fund of €1.5 million was made available for the most urgent interventions.

Works started by Heritage Malta staff and the Restoration Unit on the Great Siege bellcot and the roof screed (deffun) of the gun powder magazine (polverista).

Since not all the works could be carried out in-house by Heritage Malta employees, a number of calls for tender were issued. The next step was to remove additions made after the departure of British forces in 1979, when the fort stopped being used. Among these were the pool constructed in the early eighties when the fort started to be used as a tourist resort, while a night club was also present. The pool was causing damage to the bastions. A water tank on the cavalier was also removed.

On the 26th of the month, restoration works on the main gate will start. The ramp leading to the main gate is also included in plans for restoration.

Following the budgeted funds, Heritage Malta continued planning to file an application for ERDF funds. A survey of the fort was carried out and a number of planning applications were filed by early 2010. Heritage Malta’s vision is to have the fort restored and rehabilitated.

A main thing to be understood is that Fort St Angelo was considered a naval ship and it served as the Head Quarters of the British Navy in the Mediterranean, enriching its administrative power as during the medieval period and the early-mid 16th centuries. For seven centuries, the fort was adapted continually.

Between 1923 and 1933, workers from the Admiral’s Dockyard restored the Main Gate and the original marble inscription was replaced with the one currently on site, with the original being donated to the National Museum and still displayed at the Palace Armory.

The Head Quarters had a vital role and was self-sufficient. It had a sick bay, dormitories, silos, a water distillation plant, a mechanised mechanised flour mill and even a cinema. This was one of the first cinemas on the island, established at the same period as the Australia Hall. The fort was therefore home to many people.

Curators at Heritage Malta, particularly Matthew Balzan, who has been focusing on Fort St Angelo for the past 14 months, is continuously researching about the fort and trying to portray his knowledge in the best possible manner to his colleagues. Together they want to try and understand how the fort evolved over the years and centuries. The various ways in which it was adapted meant a whole leap forward from the fort established in the time of the Knights of St John.

Of particular interest is the fact that in Medieval times, Fort St Angelo was a sentinel in the Mediterranean – a sort of mini state in another state and had its own laws. It also served as a refuge for Maltese people living in the vicinity of Grand Harbour area; they needed to defend it but they could also take refuge in it.

From the sede of the Castellan, it became ‘Parliament’ and the State of Power of Malta when the Knights came. Then it served a more military role and was the main defence for the entrance of Grand Harbour.

After the Great Siege, no major alterations were undertaken because its importance diminished, in the eyes of the Knights. But in between 1689 and 1691, the Flemish military engineer Carlos de Grunenberg drew up reports about fortifications in Malta and said it was still the main defender of the Grand Harbour entrance.

During World War II the fort sustained 69 hits. Before the Lascaris War Rooms were built – from where movements of enemy aircraft were tracked and plotted and land defence coordination took place, such tasks were carried out from Fort St Angelo. For this purpose, a number of tunnels and chambers underneath the fort were dug before or during the war.

The people stationed at the fort moved underground and even had a pub: The Black Bat that opened on Christmas of 1941. Its name signifies the darkness and night life at the same time.

Fort St Angelo continued to be used by the British Navy up to 31March 1979 when the last sailors marched out of the Fort and boarded the HMS London.

Heritage Malta’s plan is to restore the whole fabric of the fort, remove the post 1979 additions and make this important monument accessible to everyone, both physically and intellectually. Heritage Malta is focusing a lot on intellectual accessibility for everyone, including children and adults to understand its importance and roles in Malta’s history. It is also planning to introduce a number of electric cars to facilitate physical accessibility and install a number of chair lifts and platforms to ensure that the circulation areas are accessible to all.

The Knights’ Barracks will be restored to accommodate sleepovers while exploring a niche visitors’ market particularly addressed to local, and even foreign re-enactment groups that often come to Malta but stay at hotels rather than resorting to their accustomed adventurous way of living.

It will be a modern museum with a difference on the lines of places of attraction abroad. Open air cultural events would also be possible as an added value for visitors.

Hands-on activities are being planned for children while adults can attend seminars or activities linked with the historical and cultural significance of the site. However, there is no intention whatsoever to turn the fort into some sort of accommodation premises or a conference centre.

The main attraction is the building itself, its multi-levelling and architecture, its development, what it accommodated and that it has always developed as part of the Grand Harbour: Without the Grand Harbour and the fact that it is a very sheltered port, there would have been no Fort St Angelo. It has therefore developed accordingly.

• 1223 – First documented mention of St. Angelo. Enrico Piscatore was granted control of Malta but not of the Castle.

• 1241 – Count Paulino of Malta referred to the fort as Castrum Maris(castle by the sea)

• 1274 – A very detailed inventory of the fort from Angovine times, then referred to as Castrum Maris, was drawn up.

• 128-3 – The Fort had its first Military test when the Aragonese started to rule over Malta. It became the sentinel of their reign

• While the Aragonese ruled over Malta, the Castle was under the Angovines for another year. It served as the embassy of the King.

• Over the years, the colonisers changed but the fort remained under direct imperial control. The fort had its own castellan that reported to the king or emperor. Very often, disagreement between the Castellan and the Maltese ħakem resulted.

• 1530 – Fort St Angelo became the administrative centre of the islands when the Order of St John came to Malta. It also had a military role. The distinction between the feudal lord and the people remained.

• At the time, the Chapter General of the knights used to take place at the fort. The Palace was extended and so was one of the chapels. It also had a nympheum – (meaning a place in the shade and which was used for relaxation purposes).

• Mid 1530s – The knights evolved it into an artillery fort. The first bastion was built and the first artillery battery was established

• 1541 – 1547 – The cavalier (upper most place of defence) was built. This was the first of its sort in Malta and the fort was to serve as a last defence in case of a battle.

• 1564 – The Deguiral Battery was built. This was important for the fort to defend the port.

• 15 Aug 1565 – The Great Siege was underway. Turkish ships were seen moving from Marsa to Senglea. The camouflaged De Guiral battery at Fort St Angelo was opened and the Turks were defeated.

• During the siege, Fort St Elmo and Fort St Michael were at the forefront. Fort St Angelo was the strongest link and served as a last option. It was still attacked but sustained no major blows.

• For some time, weapons used to be stored at St Angelo and the first Gun Powder Magazine was established there.

• After the Great Siege, the Knights built Valletta and moved there. Fort St Angelo then had a secondary role, but they soon realised that other forts were necessary.

• 1630s-40s – The Margherita Lines were built

• 1670s – The Cottonera Lines started to be built. Focus continued moving away from Fort St Angelo. It started to be superseded as attention moved further away from the frontline of Malta’s fortification system.

• 1681 – Grunenberg commissioned to draw up report on forts

• 1683 – Grunenberg made it clear to the knights that although Fort St Angelo had fallen into disuse, it was still very important as the main defence of Grand Harbour

• 1689 – 1691 – Nothing much had been done about Fort St Angelo until Grunenberg came back and donated money for works. Major alterations took place. Four large batteries with 48 cannon were built.

• These works also gave the fort a new outer shell, uniformity and the aesthetic shape we are familiar with.

• 1792 – By the time the knights left, Fort St Angelo had 80 cannon and over half of them were directed on the port’s entrance. It use changed from land defence to sea defence

• 1798 – 1800 – Fort St Angelo served as the headquarters of the French Forces Commander

• 1800 – The fort fell under the British Army. Several regiments were housed there but no major developments took place

• 1870 – The first artillery changes took place. Modern cannons were installed and the batteries were adapted.

• 1905 – 1912 – The fort was passed over to the navy and named HMS Egmont. It served as the Head Quarters of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. It kept its artillery but had an administrative role.

• 1933 – Name changed to HMS St Angelo. Some civil works took place including the distillation plant and cinema between 1903-1920.

• 1940 – War broke out and St Angelo was not a main target.

• It only had four AxA Lewis guns (smaller than the Bofors) and five saluting guns. Three Bofors guns were installed. By February 1941. The fort sustained a lot of damage and quick repairs using concrete were made.

• Post war – Continued to be used by the British Navy till 1979. Renovation and maintenance plans continued till the very last.

• 31 Mar 1979 – Last British soldiers left Malta from the fort on the HMS London.

• From then onwards, the focus was on a different sort of development in Malta.

• 1980s – 1990s – Fort St Angelo was not given the attention it deserved and was neither used ethically.

• It was used as a tourist resort and even housed a pigeon club in the early nineties.

• 2007 onwards – Heritage Malta started working to make the fort accessible to people and have it restored.

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