The Malta Independent 25 October 2020, Sunday

Fortification building spree left Mdina out

Malta Independent Sunday, 30 March 2014, 08:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

At the beginning of the 18th century, Malta was slowly recovering from the terrible earthquake of January 1693 which destroyed the old cathedral at Mdina.

At the same time, the Order was changing over to the new defence planning of fortifications to take into account the technological advances in siege warfare.

These two concurrent facts prompted the Order to undertake a new building spree to make the existing fortifications better suited to contemporary patterns of warfare.

But the Order’s priority was to defend Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour and to protect Valletta, hence the construction of Ricasoli and Tigné forts on either side of the two harbours.

Hence, too, a complete advanced line of fortifications on the land-side of Valletta, especially at Floriana, in order to strengthen the city’s defences.

But Mdina missed out on all this, although some work was undertaken there as well.

Well-known historian Stephen Spiteri was speaking at Mdina local council’s offices last Wednesday in another lecture organised by the University’s International Institute for Baroque Studies. The talk was entitled: Some unrealised 17th-century Hospitaller fortification projects in Mdina.

At that time, Mdina must have seen quite a bit of rebuilding going on. The demolition of the old cathedral, which had already been decrepit, had begun before the earthquake and it was now being rebuilt.

The old entrance to the city and its crowded alleys around the entrance was pulled down and a new entrance was designed and built. Instead of the crowded tenements surrounding the old gate, the magnificent Vilhena Palace was built.

But as far as fortifications were concerned, the city had two disadvantages:

Firstly, it had remained very much a mediaeval town and

Secondly, it was built on clay.

It is still possible to find traces of the mediaeval walls that surrounded Mdina, especially behind Bacchus Restaurant. Essentially, these walls consisted of two walls with a ditch in-between (known by the Arabic name ‘fascil’). In many places, the walls were built by re-using Roman-age masonry, identifiable from their peculiar size.

Even before the Knights came to Malta, the Mdina fortifications were being upgraded in accordance with the technology of the time. The problem with the existing fortifications was that they did not adequately protect the city, especially in view of the new weapons coming into use. Hence, two round towers were built on the most undefended parts, such as the round tower that can be seen at Assisi.

The clay problem did not regard Mdina alone – neither did the positioning.

The Knights had a problem with two citadels – the one in Malta and the one in Gozo, because both were essentially landlocked and offered scant protection in the event of a siege. That was why, where Gozo was concerned, the Knights wanted very much to build a fort near the sea.

In the end, and after endless discussions, they built one at Chambray. But here they encountered the other problem that bedevilled the fortification of Mdina – a clay foundation that rendered any fortification built on it unstable.

In 1722, while all this fortification work was going on, there was a general alarm because of rumours that the Turks were going to attack again. This spurred on the work on the harbour fortifications, meaning that strengthening the Mdina bastions took second place (or third – if one takes into account the strengthening of the Cottonera fortifications).

At the National Library, and in the archives of the Cathedral Church, there are as many as 240 plans of fortifications, of which only seven refer to Mdina. Fort Manoel on Manoel Island gets far more attention, with no less than 31 extant plans.

Basically, the work regarding the strengthening of Mdina’s fortifications in the early 18th century consisted of the extra high wall that one finds on the (newly-reopened) Greeks Gate. This strengthened the line of fire where before it has been quite weak and easy to undermine.

Another part that was strengthened was the Despuig Bastion (which many call the De Rohan Bastion, at the back of the cathedral). Contrary to popular perception, this work was not carried out to bolster the cathedral, from which it is separate but, again, to strengthen the line of defence.

Down at ground level, this bastion has two sally ports and it was from one of these that the Maltese insurgents crept in to surprise the French detachment holding Mdina during the short French occupation.

The extant plans show other plans for the strengthening of the Mdina fortifications which, probably for financial reasons, were not implemented. One particular plan includes a covered passage leading to a forward redoubt somewhere on the slopes of Mdina, roughly where the road to Valletta passes today, where there is a rocky outcrop. This would have strengthened the defences, considering that the slope to Mdina is very accessible.

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