Restorers have uncovered a unique stretch of 18th century outer work defences in the Vittoriosa bastions ditch, which had been used by the Knights to move across the fortifications in safety while firing at the enemy.
Restorers found a covered passage across a ditch around a fort, called a caponier. They also discovered a wall built to mask enemy fire and provide cover from an attacker, called a tenaille. They got an inkling of their presence after a chance discovery of old plans.
Both the structures were fitted with masonry banquettes – firing steps – and form part of important outer works designed and built by French military engineer Charles François de Mondion as part of the significant remodelling of the Vittoriosa front fortifications in the early 18th century.
Completed around 1728, the caponier and tenaille were built to allow the Knights protecting Vittoriosa to walk out of the fortress walls and reach the outer defences on the far side of the ditch in relative safety, protected from enemy musket fire and ricocheting cannon balls.
Vittoriosa is Malta’s first maritime fortified city and one of the few 16th century fortresses to have withstood the siege of the Ottoman Empire, giving the city its name.
Its ramparts and fortifications are a unique fusion of 16th, 17th, and 18th century forms of military architecture, together powerful architectural and sculpture qualities.
The Knights’ engineers continued to invest heavily in the re-fortification of Vittoriosa, kitting it out with all the defence facilities that 18th French military architecture could offer.
Stephen Spiteri, research co-ordinator in the Restoration Directorate, said the discovery of this “forgotten” but substantial remain was extremely important.
“A caponier combined with a tenaille is the only structure of its kind to have survived from the time of the Knights. Until the 19th century, nearly all the ditches of the Knights’ fortifications were fitted with similar devices. Unfortunately, nearly all were swept away and discarded,” Dr Spiteri explained.
It was also very encouraging to find features in the fortifications “which sadly disappeared”, and thought to have been totally demolished and lost, which may still be buried, he said.
The only known examples of similar discoveries in Malta were found in rock excavations at Fort Manoel, and Fort Ricasoli, which were roofed over by the British military and fitted with musketry loopholes.
The Vittoriosa caponier is made of two sets of stepped masonry banquettes, roughly two metres wide, separated by a sunken passageway. Each banquette is about two metres wide and built solidly enough to mount small grenade-throwing mortars.
Dr Spiteri explained that once restored, the caponier and tenaille would be reintegrated into the fortifications to be fully appreciated by the public. None of the residents could recall the buried fortifications. The rehabilitation of the ditch is part of a €36 million restoration project of around six kilometres of fortification in Malta.