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Military historian to set up fortifications museum

Scale models of Fort Manoel and Fort Tigné. The model of Fort Manoel took a whole year to build and was constructed by Richard Azzopardi under Mr Spiteri`s direction.

Scale models of Fort Manoel and Fort Tigné. The model of Fort Manoel took a whole year to build and was constructed by Richard Azzopardi under Mr Spiteri`s direction.

Military historian Stephen C. Spiteri has had a dream for the past 20 years: to set up a museum on the rich military architecture of these islands.

His dream is akin to that of the late architect Quentin Hughes who wrote extensively about Malta's fortifications and who had come up with the idea way back in the 1960s. He had proposed to set up a Museum of Military Architecture in Fort St Lucian.

Prof. Hughes's dream never came true but Mr Spiteri is leaving no stone unturned to bring it to fulfilment this time round. It is likely that the museum will be set up in that part of the Floriana fortifications known as the Ospizio which houses the Restoration Unit of the Ministry of Resources and Infrastructure.

Mr Spiteri forms part of a small group of enthusiasts who founded the Fortress Explorer Society and who are working hard promoting the appreciation of the military architecture.

Over the past three years, they have been slowly but steadily building up an exhibition that could form part of the museum.

"It can even be a travelling exhibition that will promote Malta's fortresses beyond our shores. The problem, as usual, is lack of funds," he said.

For the past five years, Mr Spiteri has been studying technical aspects related to how fortifications were built.

These studies form the basis of his doctoral thesis, and he will shortly earn a PhD for his work.

"One of the main differences between fortifications here and those abroad is that here they made use of naturally existing contours in the limestone and quarried rock from the same area provided building blocks.

"Boat loads of stones were taken across the harbour to build Carafa bastions around Fort St Elmo. Records show that one of the boats sank in the harbour. Who knows, it is perhaps still there, on the bottom of the harbour, waiting to be re-discovered," he said.

"Bastions and fortifications were essentially a shield and a very strong one at that, as they were purposely designed to resist the firepower of the time as well as that which came years later.

Only four metres were needed to resist a 24-pound cannon shot, but bastions were constructed up to 10 metres wide, in the case of Valletta," he said.

Manuals of the time included details on the kind of width that was necessary to resist the firepower of the time.

"From the 17th century onwards, the building of fortifications no longer remained an art but became a science," Mr Spiteri said.

"But my interest goes beyond the bastions. I am interested in who made them, the tools used, the organisational framework and the social context.

"You would be amazed to know how well organised the Order of the Knights of St John was and how little has changed since then".

During the time of the Order of St John, calls for tenders were issued including bills of quantities and penalty clauses.

The building of bastions was a labour intensive process.

"Because the forts were built from the inside, no scaffolding was needed. The grabja (gyn) was used to hoist stones, but it was muscle power, sweat and toil that did it all. The way the bastion walls were filled with rubble and soil makes them ideal for the roots of plants to thrive," he said.

Wild plants growing into bastion walls have been a problem ever since and contracts for pointing and cleaning the bastions were issued from time to time.

"We need all the help we can get to set up the museum.

"If set up properly, it will serve to enhance the tourism product by making the local fortifications more legible to the many visitors and Maltese alike.

"Everyone is attracted by the monumentality of these imposing works of architecture."

Part of the exhibition-museum would be a public reference library to house, among many books on fortifications, Prof. Hughes' own papers and personal notes on the fortifications which he presented to Mr Spiteri a few months before he died.

It will also contain scale models of local fortifications, original tools and authentic replicas of surveying instruments used by military engineers of the era as well as interpretation panels.

The Fortress Explorer Society can be contacted at www.fortress-explorer.org.

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