Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1977)2(176-178)

J. QUENTIN HUGHES, "The Defence of Malta", Quaderno dell'Istituto Dipartimentale di Architettura ed Urbanistica, Universita di Catania, No. 8, 1976, pp. 1-40.

In December 1974, a seminar on the Fortifications of Malta was organized by Professor Quentin Hughes at the University of Liverpool. This suggested the idea to the Faculty of Architecture and Town-planning of Catania University, who had attended the seminar, to dedicate one whole edition of their Journal to military architecture in Malta and nearby Sicily.

Quentin Hughes, with his customary [p.177] thoroughness and conciseness, in this well-documented essay profusely illustrated with not less than fifty-three plans, designs, engravings and photographs, traces the history of Malta's defences from the time of the Knights to the years immediately preceding World War Two.

When the Order of St John came to Malta, the Knights were already experts in the art of fortification. The Krak des Chevaliers and Margat, their first strongholds, were advanced designs of military architecture of their time. No less developed were their fortifications in Acre, the Dodecanese and Rhodes. When they were offered Malta by Charles V, the Knights were at first reluctant to accept, mainly because the Island was practically undefended. But following outside pressure, they finally gave in, and in 1530 set up their headquarters here. Then began a hectic period of fort-building during which a number of military engineers, mostly Italian, were commissioned for advice. Nicolò de Flavani, Nicolò Belavante, Piccino, Antonio Ferramolino, the Spanish Pedro Pardo, Evangelista Menga, Antonio Quinsani, Bartolomeo Genga and Baldassare Lanci, followed one another in quick succession. Within a period of little more than thirty years, they strengthened the then still primitive Fort St Angelo, cut the wet ditch between the Fort and the Borgo, built Fort St Michael and the integrated defensive scheme of the Isola and the Borgo, and constructed Fort St Elmo on the outermost tip of the Sceberras promontory.

The siege of 1565 ended in victory for the Order, but it also revealed the inadequacy of the Island's defences, mainly because of the undefended high ground overlooking the principal forts. The fortified city of Valletta (1566), besides providing the Order with a new and proud abode, and Laparelli and Cassar with a personal triumph, was intended to deny a potential enemy the use of the strategic high ground which dominates the two main harbours and their land-fronts. These were further strengthened in the following century by the Floriana Lines (1634), and by' the two magnificent defensive systems protecting the Three Cities, the Firenzuola (1638) and the Cottonera Lines (1663). The ring was closed by the building of Forts Ricasoli (1670) and Manoel (1726), and, the last of them all, Fort Tignè in 1793.

As a true and dispassionate architectural historian, Hughes recognizes the important contribution to Maltese military architecture by the British after 1800. During their first fifty years or so in Malta, the British, overawed by the immensity of the fortifications and the huge manpower necessary to garrison them, gradually phased out of most of the coastal towers and forts away from the main harbours. The second half of the century, with the advent of powerful and long-range guns mounted on ships, witnessed a new pattern of defence, a string of detached forts all over the island. These included Sliema Point Battery, Forts St Rocco, St Leonardo, Pembroke, Tas-Silg, Delimara, [p.178] Rinella, Cambridge, Delle Grazie, Spinola, and Wolseley, and the impressive Victoria Lines with their Forts Maddalena, Musta and Bingemma. In our times, immediately before World War Two, the British built the concrete coastal towers, which though ugly and seemingly out of place architecturally, reflect nevertheless the military thinking of the day as much as the earlier fortifications of the Knights.

Michael Ellul