Fort Manoel, the pride and joy of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena saw its construction starting on 14 September 1723 thanks to the generosity of the same Grand Master who offered to pay for the fort and established the fondazione Manoel to provide for its garrison and maintenance.1
Many plans to fortify Manoel Island (known as isoletto at the time) had been issued along the years but never implemented due to various reasons and other priorities.
After the building on the new city Valletta on mount Sciberras, military engineers always pointed out the threat that the undefended isoletto was creating, if this was conquered by the enemies and utilized to attack Valletta. So investing in a fort on this little island was very important to act as an outpost for the city of Valletta and cover its western flank.
The land on the isoletto belonged to the Cathedral Chapter of Mdina, however in 1643, the Order acquired it in exchange for an area of land in the vicinity of Rabat, known as Tal-Fiddien, in order to start the building a quarantine hospital, The Lazzaretto2, which is still standing today and later to also build a fort on this land.
The Order’s resident engineer Charles François de Mondion was commissioned the design for this new fort but in effect Mondion only adapted and elaborated Tigné’s original design (‘le Forte Manoel execute par MM. le Chev. Mondion d’apres les projets de M. le Chev. de Tigné’)3.
In plan4, the fort was a square with four corner bastions, a tenaille5, and a ravelin6 in the ditch7 facing the land front and a small demi-lune (couvre porte)8 facing the sea. The bastions on the land front were strengthened by two low cavaliers9 joined together by a long curtain wall10 fitted with eleven embrasures11 and containing large bomb-proof barrel-vaulted casemates12. These were designed to accommodate the garrison in times of siege. The outer bastions facing the harbour were each provided with a large gunpowder magazine or polverista.
At the centre of the fort, one finds a splendid large piazza which was also used as parade ground. Beneath this piazza there are two large underground water cisterns to provide the fort with its own water supply. To embellish this piazza even further, a life-size bronze statue of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena was commissioned by Chev. Savasse, to be erected in the middle of the piazza. This work could be by the eighteenth century Maltese sculptor, Pietro Paolo Troisi.13
Surrounding this piazza on three sides there are barrack blocks and a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, inscribed with the date 1755. The design of the chapel is popularly attributed to the Italian architect Romano Carapecchia14 but may have actually been designed by Mondion himself15.
The main entrance to the fort was through a baroque gateway (inscribed with the date 1726) in the centre of the east curtain between the bastions of St Anthony and St Helen. Internally, the gateway was flanked by two guardrooms, each fitted with two musketry loopholes16 facing the approaches to the gate. In front of the gate, was a small drop-ditch defended by a wooden palisade17. The fort was flanked on three of its sides by a deep rock-hewn ditch. On top of the counterscarp18 ran a wide covertway19 fitted with traverses,20 places-of-arms,21 and cuttings that enabled the defenders to venture out onto the glacis.22 Three sally-ports23 and caponiers24 connected the fort to its outerworks. The glacis was elaborately countermined25. The ravelin in the ditch contained a large vaulted chamber which was intended to serve as an assembly point for a company of about 100 troops.26
The garrison of the fort was composed of nineteen officers and men, together with two boatmen (messengers and couriers). In an emergency the fort could accommodate up to five hundred troops.
The military engineer François de Mondion probably considered this fort as his magna opus as he expressed his desire to be buried in the chapel of St. Anthony in this fort. He died of a heart attack (aqua di petto) on 25th December 1733. In Fort Manoel, there was a tombstone with his coat-of-arms and an inscription, however this tombstone is now lost.
This fort was very important also for Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, as already mentioned he paid for the expenses and also the fort features on his tomb, which is situated in St John’s Co-cathedral, where the grand master is portrayed while discussing the plan of his beloved fort.
Author: Melanie Farrugia