The original bronze bust of Grand Master Nicola Cotoner that adorns the upper part of Notre Dame Gate, known as Bieb is-Sultan in Vittoriosa, was yesterday hoisted back to its niche four years after it was taken down from its bird's-eye spot for restoration.

The bust was in a "miserable" state of neglect, said Mario Farrugia, chairman and CEO of Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (FWA), on whose initiative it was restored at the Malta Centre for Restoration at Bighi, with the financial support of the Vodafone Malta Foundation.

Considered to be one of the most important bronze works of art on the island and one of the earliest political effigies, the bust was pulled up by a crane in an operation that required six hours of painstaking manoeuvring to slot it back into the restricted space of its niche.

The restoration took four years because the bust's marble pedestal had deteriorated so much that it could not withstand the weight of the bust amounting to three quarters of a tonne. A metal structure was built instead, Vodafone Malta Foundation chairman Gemma Mifsud Bonnici explained.

Apart from the consolidation of the wall under the bust, the operation also required cleaning of the bronze which has now been given a layer of wax for protection, said Mr Farrugia.

The bust was cast in Malta by Pietro Sanchez of Messina in the 1670s at the time when Notre Dame Gate was being built by the Order of the Knights of St John as part of the Cottonera lines of defence.

Legend has it that it is facing a "treasure" - the ┼╗abbar Sanctuary - as Grand Master Cotoner was a devotee of Our Lady of Graces. Hence the name Notre Dame.

A fiberglass copy of the bust is exhibited inside the building forming part of the gate to be viewed by visitors.

This was not the first time the bust had left its home. Back in the late 19th century, it was carted away by the French as spoils of war. However, the vessel transporting it was intercepted by the British and it was returned to Malta.

A couple of attempts to steal it in the 1960s failed and it was once found hanging on the façade, Mr Farrugia said.

He mentioned other projects in the pipeline for the building, which was the main gate to Cottonera on the east and today houses the FWA offices.

One of the original seven gateways into the Cottonera Lines, historical graffiti abound on its walls, Mr Farrugia pointed out.

The plan is to landscape the surroundings and recreate the drawbridge - Malta having lost each and every one it had. Notre Dame Gate's was still around in the 1930s.

The rich baroque building, attributed to celebrated Italian architect Romano Carapecchia and dating back to 1675, ought to also be illuminated at night and be open to the public every day so visitors can enjoy the view of two thirds of Malta from its roof, Mr Farrugia said.

FWA would also like to restore the adjacent bastions and create rampart walks which would stretch some nine kilometres from Vittoriosa to Senglea, he said.

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