The Malta Independent 8 December 2022, Thursday
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Gateways that have vanished: Porta Sant'Anna, Floriana & Porta Haynduieli, Cottonera

Malta Independent Tuesday, 29 April 2014, 10:10 Last update: about 9 years ago

When asked about historic gateways that are no more, for many of us it is invariably Valletta’s Putirjal. There are however quite a few others which time has forsaken. Not far from City Gate once stood its Floriana counterpart. No, Porte de Bombes was not the main entrance into Città Vilhena. In fact the Bombi landmark we know today was in fact conceived as the Porta dei Cannoni whilst the Porta dei Bombi was a pillared opening in its foreground which together served as an advanced access into the first line of fortifications called the faussebraye embracing Floriana’s land-side. The next line was composed of a chain of bastions and curtain walls that were pierced by two gates: the Porta dei Pirri (or Notre Dame Gate) and the Porta Sant’ Anna. Whilst remnants of the former still stand today, practically nothing survives of the latter.

Construction on the Floriana Lines began in the 1640s after various proposals were considered. Their rather erratic development lasted well into the next century with many high-flying military engineers criticising each other’s schemes, whilst insisting on the introduction of his own. It was Brig. René Jacob de Tigné who in 1716 took it upon himself to complete the fortifications. Amongst other matters, he pushed for the construction of the Floriana main gate with its fronting ravelin. However what the structure looked like at this time has yet to be discovered. What is certain is that as with most Maltese military entrances, a religious shrine crowned the inner side of Porta Sant’Anna portraying the infant Virgin Mary in her mother’s arms. The Order of St John held a particular devotion to St Anne, with no less than two chapels at Fort Elmo and one at Fort St Angelo dedicated to her.

In one of his books Dr Stephen C. Spiteri recounts how in 1717, one destitute individual named Gianni Briffa from Qormi petitioned Grand Master Perellos for permission to take up residence at Porta Sant’Anna, apparently soon after it was built! For some unconfirmed reason this landmark was also known as Porta dei Cani although officially it was the Porta Principale of Floriana as marked in late 18th century maps. Indeed, it stood as the first focal point directing those entering from the hinterland into Piazza Sant’Anna with its Vilhena Fountain and then along through the arcaded Strada Sant’Anna towards Valletta beyond. In principle this was an almost identical arrangement to Porta Reale save there being more allowance for public open space (the piazza, fountain and loggias), as was the intended character for Floriana’s suburban role. The gate portrayed in old photographs is a British substitution designed by one Col. Crawley, Royal Engineers, built in 1859 at the start of John Gaspard Le Marchant’s governorship. This alteration came a few years after Lieut. Col. Thomson’s Porta Reale on which the new Floriana gate was so closely modelled. A finely carved British royal coat-of-arms was sculpted above the central arches.

In 1897, Porta Sant’Anna was demolished, once again in a bid to improve transit to the capital. In time the gap in the curtain wall was widened further. Floriana too has lost its main entrance and only the aging niche survives today perched up to one side above the fuming traffic.

After the fall of Candia to the Turks in 1670, Grandmaster Nicholas Cotoner became adamant in creating a super fortification which would provide shelter to as many inhabitants as possible living in the vulnerable rural surroundings of the Three Cities. The existing Firenzuola lines were deemed insufficient. The Italian military engineer Antonio Maurizio Valperga was commissioned with this ambitious project which although starting immediately took practically a century to be finished after a tumultuous development process. Costing in the region of almost 2 million scudi, this was one of the most ambitious and expensive building projects undertaken by the Order of St John in the Maltese Islands.

Although the end result was a much toned-down version of Valperga’s original proposal, there was clearly little restraint in adorning the seven gateways centred on most curtain walls of the vast elliptical Cottonera Lines. Their design however is attributed to the French military engineer and architect Mederico Blondel des Croisettes. The westernmost access point was Porta Haynduieli named after the rural valley and cove of Ghajn Dwieli, which it faced. This entrance, which was later called by the name of St Paul Gate, together with Notre Dame and San Salvatore ones, was designed as a main gateway. Its architecture was somewhat unique when compared to others of its kind in Hopitaller fortifications. A central arch intended for vehicular traffic was flanked by a smaller pedestrian doorway on either side. These last two were surmounted by giant elaborately-carved escutcheons most likely depicting Cotoner’s heraldry. Above the central arch was a large framed panel once carrying (or meant to carry) a marble inscription. Heavily rusticated pilasters and opening surrounds gave a dominating sense of monumentality, an attribute consistent with the other gateways along the Cottonera Lines.

Like Porta Sant’Anna in Floriana, St Paul Gate also had a permanent resident, this time a poor woman named Anna Vella who, as Dr Spiteri discovered, lived there for most of the first half of the 18th century! The gate remained in use by commuters to Bormla throughout the last years of the Order’s presence in Malta although there a various reports describing how ill-equipped and sparsely maintained it was.

By the time we get to see a photograph of Porta Haynduieli, it was, like many of its counterparts walled up. When and why this happened is still unsure. Some say this was a result of the French blockade, others that the British did the blocking in the first half of the 19th century whilst there is also evidence to suggest that the gate was never really used as such given that Valperga’s ravelins were never built and so it remained mid-height with no edge for its intended drawbridge to rest. Records also show that this structure together with other counterparts was converted into a gunpowder magazine during the Knights’ period. Theories are conflicting and require further research. What is certain though is that the gate has disappeared. Available photographs are very few and these were taken by Richard Elis as a record before the Porta together with its contiguous section of the Cottonera Lines were demolished in the last few years of the 19th century to make way for the French Creek dockyard. Thankfully all other specimen survive although many in a pitiable condition.


Sources and further reading

National Library of Malta, Valletta

Richard Ellis Collection

Spiteri, S.C., Fortresses of the Knights, BDL Publishing, Malta 2001.

Spiteri, S.C., The Art of Fortress Building in Hospitaller Malta, BDL Publishing, Malta 2008.

Zahra, L., Cottonera Fortifications, in Heritage, Issue 42, Midsea Books Ltd, Malta 1982.

Special thanks to Dr Stephen C. Spiteri and Mr Michael Cassar.

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