A Short Note on the Castrum Maris

The study of Maltese late-medieval fortification is a difficult task by any measure.
To begin with, there is a lack of standing medieval fortifications and physical remains from such defensive structures, largely as a result of the Hospitaller Knights' attempt, after 1530, to drag the Maltese islands' obsolete medieval defences into the gunpowder era. This process saw either the outright destruction of many of the castles' old ramparts and towers, or their burial within the thick terrepleined bastions and curtains that elsewhere enveloped the old walls to create the new enceintes which we see today at Mdina, St. Angelo and the Cittadella. Secondly, there is a dearth of written records, both in the form of contemporary medieval texts, as well as those from the Hospitaller period which can shed a clear light on the architectural nature of the fortifications. Thirdly, there is a lack of period cartographic and planimetric data to establish the crucial form, features, layout, and development of the medieval defences, and fourthly, insufficient archaeological investigation to fill in the missing lacunae.
Therefore, what we do know to date of the medieval strongholds, has to be forensically pieced together from the few existing shards of documentary, architectural, and archaeological evidence.
A case in point, and the subject of this brief paper, is the study of the Castrum Maris, or Fort St. Angelo, as it is known today. Of the three castra which defended the Maltese islands in the middle ages, it is the one which is least understood in terms of its form and layout, largely because of the Hospitallers' extensive 16th and 17th century alterations which, unfortunately, cleared away, in tabula rasa fashion, most of the medieval enceinte without leaving any tangible traces. To begin with, there is no known plan that reveals the layout of the castle with its various and extensive defensive features. At Mdina and the Cittadella, at least, we have Matteo Perez D'Aleccio's rudimentary mid-16th century plans to guide us. For the Castrum Maris, so far, we have nothing.
We do get a few hazy glimpses of the physical profile of the old sea castle from D'Aleccio's artistic, albeit inconsistent, rendition of the fortress during the Great Siege of 1565 in his frescoes and prints, and more importantly (i.e. more accurately), from Willem Schellinx's paintings of around 1663. All that these images manage to do, however, is to confirm the complexity of the sea castle's trace of walls, with its multiple enceintes, without providing any definitive planimetric form.
These few graphic representations do, nonetheless, manage to identify and locate some of the individual features mentioned in Prof. Godfrey Wettinger's masterful study of the medieval history of the Castrum Maris published in the first volume of Birgu: A Maltese Maritime City (Malta, 1993). Prof. Wettinger's fascinating and detailed chronicle of the sea castle, with its description of sieges, lists of castellans, armaments and equipment, and records of its expenses, are vital to our understanding of the complex saga of this medieval fortress, its context, and its workings. But without a plan of the castle, it is still impossible to tie up all that information to create a true understanding of the architectural layout and character of this medieval stronghold. In other words, we are still left with large question marks on the actual shape and geography of the castle. What did it look like as a work of fortification? What were the shape, form and dimensions of its towers, barbican, curtain walls, gateways, battlements, and other features of its extensive and multi-ward enceinte? And how these elements developed, or were adapted, over time, to meet the growing threat, and defensive use, of gunpowder artillery, especially after the mid-1400s? These are all questions which are of prime relevance to the student of military architecture.
Fortunately, some information on the physical form and layout of the Castrum Maris can be found in the work of the Order's late-17th and early-18th century military engineers. One valuable source of information is Don Carlos de Grunenburg's stone scale model of the fortress which he had presented to the Order's council to illustrate the extensive works and alterations he was then proposing to undertake at the castle. This model was first identified and published by the present author in 1994. Although Grunenburg's model is largely concerned with showing his own proposals, it does manage to capture, in significant fine detail (considering it is carved in stone), part of the castle's then still-existing medieval enceinte along the upper ward which was not touched by Grunenburg's new bastioned enceinte. The model clearly shows an inner and outer ward, a barbican, and four wall towers, one of them D-shaped in plan. The same information is captured in planimetric form in a plan of Fort St. Angelo prepared by the French military mission headed by Brigadier René Jacob de Tigné in 1715. This was, likewise, first published by the present author in 1994.
The present author is now publishing here for the first time, two other plans which show slightly more detailed depictions of that same enceinte which had survived Grunenburg's reconstruction of the fort in the 1680s. These plans, one of which is entitled Plan du Chateau St. Ange (the other has no title) are found at the National Library of Malta in Valletta (inventory numbers NLM (A1) and (A2) - See main Gallery Upper left - . They are both undated, but judging from the details of the fortifications and the style of draughtsmanship employed in their execution, they are definitely post-1720, possibly from around 1730-60, but not much later. In fact, some of the features shown therein, such as many of the rounded wall-towers, would eventually disappear by 1798, largely as a result of Bali de Tigne's efforts in re-cladding parts of the fort in the durable Zonqor hardstone, a process which was over by 1789 (A. Hoppen says 1790 -page 145. AOM 1054 already done by that date).This would also explain the French wording used in the titles and key to the plans.
Of particular interest is the area around the barbican with its various gateways and adjoining wall-towers. One important detail not revealed in the 1715 plan is a short stretch of outer wall, possibly an antemurale (faussebraye) in front of the short curtain wall linking the D-shaped tower of the barbican to the small rounded tower near the extended shoulder of Ferramolino's cavalier. This is also hinted at in Grunenburg's stone model. These defensive features will be discussed in greater detail in a book currently under preparation by the author on the late-medieval fortification of the Maltese islands.
The Church of St Mary
What is also of great interest, and something not yet commented upon by other authors and historians, at least to the present author's knowledge, is the information which these two plans provide on the original form and orientation of the church now known as St. Anne. The Castrum Maris is documented as having had two churches in the middle ages: a church dedicated to St. Mary, situated behind the castro interiore, and a chapel dedicated to St. Angelo located within the castro exteriore. The castro interiore is what today would be technically defined as the shell-keep, the inner and uppermost ward or stronghold of the castle containing the castellan's private living quarters. The castro exteriore, on the other hand, was what can be broadly defined as the outer ward, or bailey, generally the larger part of a castle housing most of the ordinary troops and their equipment. At the Castrum Maris this was a complex enceinte containing various levels of walls draped round the steep walls along the side of the promontory.
By this account, one would therefore assume that the church of St. Mary is the present church of St. Anne, and that of St. Angelo, the present day Church of the Nativity adjoining the entrance (3rd gateway) into the outer ward. There is, however, still some confusion about this among historians, arising largely from the still undefined topography of the castle's architecture. Whilst J.F. Darmanin (1948), Prof. G. Wettinger (1993), Prof M. Buhagiar (2005) agree that the church of St. Anne was formerly that of St. Mary, the late architectural historian Leonard Mahoney (1993 & 1996) argued in favour of St. Angelo as being the uppermost church. The present author's reading of the castle layout tends to favour the Church of St. Mary, largely because this is the church mentioned in connection with the castral keep. But then again this is still subject to confirmation.
Giacomo Bosio, the Order's historian, claims that when the Knights took over the castle in 1530, Grand Master L'Isle Adam had a new chapel built on the site of the old church constructed by the De Nava family. The architectural evidence, however, points to a new, slightly larger Hospitaller structure which retained parts of the earlier building. It has generally been assumed that the present day church is the product of these early Hospitaller changes and alterations, as well as some minor alterations undertaken during the restoration works of 1692.
The main façade of St. Anne Church faces westwards (towards Valletta) and the altar is situated on its east end. Likewise, it has always been assumed, to date, that this arrangement followed the same orientation of the original medieval edifice. The two 18th century plans reproduced here, however, show otherwise. Indeed, what they do reveal is that the original medieval chapel faced the opposite direction, that is, its semi-circular apse, and hence altar, occupied the western end, and the chapel entrance faced eastwards towards the castral keep.
Generally, medieval churches were oriented towards the east (ad orientem), with the altar located at the east end. Christian liturgy was intended to be celebrated with both the priest and the congregation facing east; the direction whence Jesus, symbolized by the rising sun, was thought to make his second coming. However, at times, the topography of the land or the constraints of older structures and other factors, prevented an absolute east-west orientation for a church. A common exception, for example, were churches built near or inside castle gateways. An immediate example of this can be found at the small church of the Nativity (originally St. Angelo) inside the same Castrum Maris which stood near the entrance to the outer ward; another example (though no longer standing) was the church of Santa Maria della Porta in Mdina, which stood immediately to the left of the main entrance into fortified town. Both had their entrances facing eastwards.
The plans presented here lend us other important clues. To begin with, the church was considerably much smaller in size than the present structure and it was not linked, internally, to the rest of the building adjoining it (i.e., there seems to have been no internal doorway or passage).Secondly the east façade, where one would expect to find the entrance, is not a plain wall, but is pulled back roughly half way along its width. This means that any main door into the church could not have been centrally positioned. Presently, a walled-up medieval doorway survives on the north-east side wall of the present church and this seems to date to the original medieval edifice. There are no traces of any original opening on the east wall. The asymmetrical arrangement of the east-facade shown in the plan may also tend to suggest that the main entrance into the church could have actually been the side entrance. This is a feature which is found in medieval churches outside Malta but is not a typology that has been yet encountered in the Maltese islands.
A possible explanation for this arrangement may be found in the chapel's location close, but not within, the castral shell-keep, the uppermost enclosure which held the castellan's residence. Unlike the Church of St. Angelo, which was situated near the entrance to the outer ward, and hence meant to serve the ordinary garrison, the medieval Church of St. Mary may have been reserved for the private use of the castellan and his retinue. The church's close proximity to the castellan's lodgings, later transformed by the knights into a small magistral palace, placed it within intimate reach of these lordly private quarters. A doorway on the eastern side of the chapel, therefore, would have facilitated a direct access from the Castellan's living quarters. Anybody familiar with the cold winds which sweep the castle promontory in winter would quickly appreciate the need for the shortest possible route between these lodgings and the nearby church. A detailed drawing of Fort St Angelo (dated to post-1690) shows the church with a Romanesque style façade facing the magistral residence surmounted by a triangular bell-cot and covered with a sloping wooden roof covered in charamidi.
The second plan, NLM (A2), is a sketch copy of NLM (A1), likewise with French annotations, but has other annotations marked on it in pencil and various British annotations and hatchings made in sepia ink. The English annotations may indicate that either the plan was re-used by the British military or it was a British-made copy. What is of particular interest is the fact that a number of features such as the medieval D-shaped tower and the semi-circular apse of the church, are shaded over in pencil, as if being cancelled out, perhaps to indicate either that these elements were then no longer standing or were being signalled out for demolition or alteration.
The corollary of all this is that the present external architecture of the chapel of St. Anne belongs to an 18th century rebuilding exercise rather than Grand Master L'Isle Adam's 16th century efforts as has been thought to be the case so far. An important clue in this direction is also provided by the church's corbelled cornice moulding which reproduces the same exact motif that crowns three sides of the roof of the magistral palace. A close look at Schellinx's 17th century depiction of the magistral residence reveals that this large towering edifice had no such feature in 1663. This can hardly be explained as an omission on Schellinx's part - as an artist so attentively observant of architectural detail, he could hardly have failed to depict such a distinctive and defining feature if it had existed at the time of his brief sojourn in Malta.
This very late survival of the Castrum Maris medieval church, therefore, would also explain why the document entitled Stato delle Chiese di Malta, penned around 1679, describes the De Nava coat of arms as still being affixed above the principal door. It was still there after the restoration intervention of 1692. There is no longer any trace of this escutcheon, or its housing, however, on any part of the edifice today. It probably disappeared with the final and extensive redressing of the church which, as evidence by these two plans, could not have been undertaken except in the course of the 18th century, resulting in the present-day, west-facing façade.
This paper is the subject of an ongoing study by the author which is meant to lead towards a publication on the late-medieval fortifications and military organization of the Maltese islands.
Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Ph.D (C)
This Paper is reproduced with permission from MilitaryArchitecture.com
The author would like to thank Chev. Fra. John Critien SMOM, Prof. Denis de Lucca (UOM - IIBS), Mr. Nathaniel Cutajar (SCH), Prof. M. Buhagiar (UOM), Ms. Charlene Vella (UOM), and Mr Matthew Balzan (HM) for their assistance and for sharing their learned insight in matters related to medieval architecture and art, and Hospitaller history.