Fort Manoel - Virtual Tour


Fort Manoel - Virtual Tour

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.

Aerial view of Fort. Manoel
Aerial view of Fort. Manoel

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.

Ruins of the Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua
Ruins of the Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua

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

Post war photo of British soldiers at Fort Manoel
Post war photo of British soldiers at Fort Manoel

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

3D Model of Fort Manoel in Malta. Model Created by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D.

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

1“con intenzione altresi distabilire una rendita annoale e sicura che basta a mantenere un competente presidi” in
2For more info on the Lazzaretto, see:
5Tenaille refers to a small outerwork placed inside the ditch between two adjoining bastions, and designed to protect the curtain wall; usually detached (as in this case). See ARX Supplement: Illustrated Glossary of Terms used in Military Architecture, Spiteri, S. C.
6Ravelin refers to a triangular outerwork placed in front of a curtain wall to defend it. See ibid.>br/> 7Ditch is a dry trench outside a fortified work, usually rock-hewn, to obstruct direct assault on the main walls. A ditch is also known as fossa. See ibid.
8Demi-lune is a small detached outerwork, similar to a ravelin but smaller and it is situated in front of a curtain wall. It is also known as mezzaluna. See ibid.
9Cavalier is a raised earth platform, built on a bastion or curtain wall designed to mount artillery and to command the surrounding grounds. See ibid.
10Curtain wall is the main wall of a defensive work, usually the length of a rampart between two bastions. See ibid.
11Embrasure is an opening cut in the parapet through which a gun could be fired without exposing the gun crew, normally wider at the front than at the rear. See ibid.
12Casemate refers to a vaulted chamber built in the thickness of the ramparts and used as a barrack or gun position (firing from embrasures). See ibid.
13For more info on Pietro Paolo Troisi, see: Briffa, J., Pietro Paolo Troisi (1686-1750) : A Maltese Baroque Artist, 2009, Malta
14For more info on Romano Carapecchia, see: De Lucca, D., Carapecchia master of baroque architecture in early eighteenth century Malta, 1999, Malta
16Loophole is a long narrow opening in a wall to provide vision and small arms fire. See ARX Supplement: Illustrated Glossary of Terms used in Military Architecture, Spiteri, S. C.
17Palisade is a series of wooden pointed poles, sometimes fortified with iron tips (punte di ferro), driven into the earth and used as a fence or fortification; wooden palisaded gates were placed in front of drawbridges leading into the main gateways. See ibid.
18Counterscarp is the outerwall of the ditch facing the ramparts. Also known as contrascarpa. See ibid.
19Covertway also known as strada coperta is a path on top of the counterscarp, protected by a parapet formed from the crest of the glacis. See ibid.
20Traverse is a defensive barrier, consisting of a parapet or simple wall placed at right-angles to the main line of defence and in order to protect the defenders from flanking fire. See ibid.
21Place-of-arms an area on the covert way for troops to assemble
22Glacis is the sloping ground in front of a fortress spanning from the top of the parapet of the covertway down until it reaches the open country, cleared of all obstacles to bring an advancing enemy into the direct line of fire. See ibid.
23Sally-port is a concealed gate or underground passage leading from inside the fortress into the ditch. See ibid.
24Caponier is a sheltered defensible passage across the ditch of a forth or cut through the glacis, linking the outerworks to the main enceinte; sometimes used to provide additional flanking fire along the ditch. See ibid.
25Countermine is a tunnel excavated beneath the glacis through the counterscarp wall, terminating into a small shallow pit designed to house an explosive charge which was fired by the defenders when the enemy occupied the ground directly above the mine. See ibid.