The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

The beauty of fortifications

Noel Grima Monday, 19 October 2015, 15:09 Last update: about 6 years ago

We do not normally consider our abundance of fortifications as beautiful.

They stand there, almost forbidding structures or, at least, getting in the way so that we try and go round or under them.

But when we consider them in their real context, there is a beauty in them which we may be unaware of.

The International Institute for Baroque Studies at the university last week held an international seminar at the Bibliotheca with the intriguing title The Visual Power of Military Architecture in the Baroque Age.

Introducing the seminar, in fact, Professor Denis De Lucca, the director of the International Institute explained that humans have always been attracted to geometric shapes and patterns.

Apart from the geometric patterns of fortifications, in the Baroque era this was enhanced by the cityscape as seen from afar and as seen at close quarters especially from inside the bastions.

The speaker listed a number of old cities in Europe whose cityscape offers an image of a typical medieval town - Montferrat, Gottingen, Klin and Palermo - while others have had their medieval core enveloped by later fortifications - Birgu, Lucca, Geneva, Berg op Zoom, Breda or Almeida and also Nicosia.

In Valletta's case, and also that of Torino, these are greenfield sites, new cities built on virgin land, built according to the new ideas of fortified cities derived mainly from France and also Italy, such as Palmanova near Venice with a radial pattern of streets and squares. Later, other cities were built on this model - Karlovac, Coevorden, Neuf Brisach and Arad.

Apart from the ordered sight of streets and squares, a visitor to Valletta would have also felt a sensation of  relief - here he was at last safe from the sea and from pirates.

(Actually, there was more, for at the entrance of Valletta, in the pomerium, there stood for a long time one of the four huge basilisks the Turks brought with them for the Great Siege which they left behind them when they fled. Some engravings show this. It was later taken to the Upper Barrakka and then disappeared, possibly melted down by the French during the Blockade.)

Furthermore, in the case of cities like Naples, Palermo, Syracuse and also Valletta, the proximity of the sea added a special visual treat with the vessels in the harbour and all those multi-coloured flags and sails.

Maria Giuffre, professor at the University of Palermo, confirmed this with referenced to Palermo and its history in Baroque times which progressed from increasing the fortifications first, then strengthening the infrastructure and thirdly making the city beautiful.

Fernando Cobos-Guerra, professor at the Alfonso X University of Madrid, provided the Spanish input with particular reference to Ibiza whose fortifications were specially designed to impress Formentera who at that time was still held by the Turks.

From research in Spanish archives, it results that the Duke of Alba had urged the post-Siege Knights to rebuild Fort St Elmo at the highest point of Valletta and not at the very tip. The Order decided otherwise.

However, when the fortifications around Valletta were being built, concern was raised that Malta does not have enough people to defend all these fortifications. No problem, others replied, as long as the fortifications helped give an image of impregnability.

Michele Virol, professor at the University of Rouen, dedicated her lecture to the gateways of fortresses, naturally with special reference to those in France. The gateways of fortresses render visible the glory of the sovereign and the power of the fort.

Her focus was the fortified town of Brisach, which straddles the Rhine and was the frontier between France and Germany, as well as Besancon.

At first austere, the fortresses' gateways later added accretions such as royal arms, elaborate columns and carvings of weapons.

Emilie d'Orgeix from the Centre Francois-Georges Pariset at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne dwelt about the glacis, that is the empty space left in front of fortifications to facilitate the work of the defenders and protect them from sudden attacks, with special reference to the city of Strasbourg.

This was of particular interest to us Maltese since originally Floriana was meant to be such a glacis without any buildings and it was not without a fight that the Knights finally gave in and allowed buildings.

Margherita Tavares from the New University of Lisbon spoke about the architecture of some barracks in mid-18th Century Portuguese fortifications.

After the lunch break, the seminar focused more clearly on Malta.

Stephen Spiteri, the well-known author on fortifications, spoke about Fort Manoel which he described as the apogee, the epitome, of military architecture in Malta.

In 1761, Brigadier Francois Charles, Comte de Bourlamaque, led a team of French engineers to Malta and was very impressed by the fort which had been built by an earlier French team in 1723-1730.

What particularly impressed Bourlamaque about the fort was not the layout of its defences, which followed a commonly prescribed formula for a simple four-bastioned square fort, but rather the manner in which the designers of Fort Manoel had been able to marry their concerns for functionality and military efficiency with aesthetic appeal - a sense of dramatic orchestration.

The visual power of Fort Manoel was unmistakably directed towards Valletta to the rear, in a clear attempt to impress the inhabitants of the city. Through raising the parade ground and enhancing it with balanced buildings on each side, the fort became a work of art, set like the stage of an open theatre facing its audience in Valletta.

Fort Ricasoli, for instance, had been built earlier, in 1670, but its parade ground is not raised, it is just an open space.

The church, which adds, and not detracts, from the beauty and symmetry of the piazza, shows by the variety of architecture in its exterior, that the tension of impending sieges had long been lost. In fact, the fort would have required a considerable number to defend it.

Dr Theresa Vella spoke about the Baroque gateways in Malta.

At first, the gateways to Valletta were just holes in the wall, to allow people to get in and out always taking precautions because of a possible sudden siege.

The first gateways to Valletta were the Marsamscetto Gate (since destroyed) and the Porta del Monte, later replaced by the British with the Victoria Gate.

Fort St Elmo had its Porta del Soccorso through which supplies arrived during the Great Siege and which was later rebuilt.

Mdina had its Greek Gate and there was also a Sally Port in the Gozo Cittadella.

The Porta del Monte originally had a drawbridge and similarly Fort St Thomas and Fort San Luciano in the South both had drawbridges as can be seen from their facades.

In 1635, the original land-based entry to Valletta was replaced by the Porta Reale, which also included a drawbridge. This was later replaced by a different gateway by the Royal Engineers in 1870 and the upper half was a later addition.

The Tumas Dingli Porta Reale had two niches on either side, with statues of Pope Pius V and Grand Master de Valette but the seashell feature at the backs of the statues in the niches seems to indicate authorship of Francesco Buonamici.

The outer ring of fortifications in Floriana had the Porta Sant'Anna and the Porta dei Cannoni connecting the Floriana suburb to the rest of Malta outside Valletta, encased within the two rings of fortifications.

Mederico Blondel is acknowledged as the architect of the Senglea Gate (1660) as well as the more elaborate Notre Dame Gate, which originally had just the lower part only.

Blondel is also thought to be the architect of the doorway of the Auberge d'Italie in Valletta (1680) on a design by Mattia Preti.

The Cottonera Lines had no less than nine gates.

Perhaps the most elaborate gateway is that of Fort Ricasoli with elaborate columns built on the Bernini columns in St Peter's as a model.

Another imposing doorway is that which used to lead to the Armoury and, until just a few weeks ago, to Parliament, attributed to Romano Carapecchia. One must remember that the corridor leading to it was open and was only closed in later.

Other historic gateways to fortresses include that of Fort Manoel, the gateway to Mdina after the 1693 earthquake, which can be considered as the first of three gateways leading to the Vilhena Palace.

In Birgu, there are no less than three consecutive gateways, dating to 1723. This was also the time when the Greek gate of Mdina was built.

Finally, the series of Baroque gateways finds its apogee in the gateway to the Auberge de Castille.

Claude Busuttil and Hermann Bonnici gave a short presentation on the issues faced during the restoration of Baroque military architecture.

The launch of a huge book entitled Lines of Defence by Dr Stephen Spiteri including the plans of all fortifications taken from the Order's archives in the National Library, ended the seminar.

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