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Meticulous work to restore Fort Manoel baroque chapel

Charles François de Mondion, who in the first half of the 18th century was resident military engineer in charge of the fortifications of these islands was commissioned by the Knights of St John to build Fort Manoel and its chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. The fort and chapel are being meticulously restored by Midi plc.

Charles François de Mondion, who in the first half of the 18th century was resident military engineer in charge of the fortifications of these islands was commissioned by the Knights of St John to build Fort Manoel and its chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. The fort and chapel are being meticulously restored by Midi plc.

A baroque chapel degraded first by bombing and then by long years of neglect is being restored by Midi plc as part of the Manoel Island project.

Work on the chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, situated on Fort Manoel, is progressing under the supervision of Alex Torpiano and Konrad Buhagiar, of aoM partnership, and the architects in their team, Svetlana Sammut and Edward Said.

"To start with, we had a long internal debate about whether the chapel should be restored or replaced by a modern structure," said Mr Said. "What remained of the structure was badly degraded with few records of what it actually looked like."

But with the support of the Tigné Point and Manoel Island developers, Midi plc, the restoration option carried the day. This was the beginning of a long and difficult journey, a much more complex job than the restoration of the rest of the fort.

It started with hours poring over documents in libraries, searching for any information that would help with the reconstruction. Surprisingly, for a chapel reputed to have been among the most beautiful on the island, there was very little information available. Mr Said attributes this to its location within a closed military complex. But there was enough available to begin works.

"The fort and its chapel were designed by de Mondion but some people have suggested that Carapecchia may have had a hand in it as well," Ms Sammut explained. "This is unlikely; de Mondion requested burial in the chapel in his will. That seems to tie it closely to him!"

But for the restorers, the link was useful: working at the same times as de Mondion, Carapecchia's work did provide a useful guide to some of the elements. More valuable was a detailed plan of the chapel, found ironically among the documents relating to Fort Ricasoli, built some 40 years earlier. It appears that de Mondion admired the chapel there and left one of his drawings behind.

More valuable still was the material found on site. "When we cleared the area to start the restoration of the other buildings in Fort Manoel, we found a lot of loose stones from the chapel buried in the debris," Mr Said recalled.

"The stones were recovered, numbered and put into storage until they would be needed," Ms Sammut continued. "Putting the fragments back together again was the most complex jigsaw puzzle imaginable."

Like many baroque churches, the chapel's fabric was originally highly decorated, intricately carved and finished. Unfortunately, this is now a dying art but the contractor entrusted with the work has been able to deploy three skilled stonemasons, fully able to work the stone as required. This is not an easy task: it takes its time and, while much of it can be done on the ground, the final finishing takes are made with the stones in place. The final effect is at first a little strange. Across the walls, the new mingles with the old and worn. An intricately decorated surface suddenly becomes smooth and unworked and protrudes beyond the older stonework.

"Where we do not know what the decoration was we are leaving the stone plain; anything else would be fiction, not restoration," Mr Said explained. "We have left the plain stone surface standing proud of the rest, almost giving the impression that the rest of the carving still has to be done."

The problems run deeper. The blocks of stone being used are larger than the standard ones utilised in modern buildings. "For their smaller structures, the Knights used blocks 280mm (11 inches) high. This is only 25mm larger than the current standard of 255mm (10 inches) but it means that the stone had to be specially ordered, at an added cost."

For larger buildings, the Knights used massive blocks circa 355mm (14 inches) high, further complicating the task. These masses of stone are heavier and more difficult to handle.

Once completed, the chapel will be the highest building in Fort Manoel, with an unparalleled view of Valetta over the courtyard and Marsamxett Harbour. This intensely detailed project was as close as anyone could get to constructing a baroque church today, the restorers said.

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