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Let’s hide the majestic bastions

I believed it to be self-evident that, if a nation has something really precious to boast of, it would want its treasures seen, and seen to their best advantage. I believed that the people would do their utmost to enhance the visibility of anything inestimable. Yes, but that’s elsewhere.

Unless they look awesome and frightening, bastions are a joke- Giovanni Bonello

Nature and history have been prodigal with our island, a generosity we may or may not have always deserved. The jewels of the crown? The Neolithic temples, the baroque extravaganza and the fortifications. I am not ranking these bounties in any particular order.

The temples are unique, the baroque ravishing, the system of fortifications of Malta probably the mightiest anywhere. Allow me to repeat: nowhere in the world are fortifications more extensive, more impressive, more outstanding than they are in Malta. The Great Wall of China, maybe?

No jingoism here, this is not faux provincialism. No other country has a system of antique ramparts and forts that compares in any way to what Malta should be proud of. They ought to be our glory; to some extent, they are our shame.

Over the past two centuries many conspired to debase them. Major-General Henry Pigot had actually accepted that the majority of the fortifications of Valletta should be demolished. Thankfully this act of crass ignorance and crasser arrogance was thwarted, not by his rethinking, but by inversions of history over which he had no control.

This major cultural catastrophe was avoided, but piecemeal des­truction of large swathes of bastions still went on.

Take the elaborate system of mural defence between Kingsgate, Valletta, and Floriana, now no more – all was pounded into the ground in late Victorian times. There were many others – a tearful via crucis stretching all the way from segments of the Cottonera Lines, to the gash in the bastions, breached to accommodate Lorry Sant’s folly under the Mediterranean Conference Centre (not to mention the concrete ruination clogging St Elmo’s ditch), to the Grand Hotel Excelsior in Floriana, only recently allowed to bite indiscriminately into part of the highest ramparts of the Marsamxett lines.

All in all, a huge amount has survived, not because of the rulers, but often in spite of them. A lot is still there, much of it battered, neglected, undervalued.

Finally, a concerted effort is now being made to revitalise our greatest monument – the fortifications of the Knights. Plenty has been achieved, a lot still pines for attention. What has been done has been done splendidly, following the best conservation ethics, with a driven passion that matches a manic attention to detail.

Congratulations to all those who were involved in the decision-making, in the planning and in the execution – it is a mammoth task, which needs unflagging vision and commitment. May the momentum never fail. There are kilometres upon kilometres of wall curtains still crying out for help.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the banalisation of our fortifications was taken up in earnest. What the military Order of St John had hardly ever dreamt of doing, the new colonial masters did massively, followed, with carefree enthusiasm, by our own self-governments.

Trees began being systematically planted, with rude senselessness and incontinent abandon, over the tops of the ramparts, and, more idiotically still, on the grounds close to them. (It was only in the very last period of the rule of the Order that the idea was mooted of planting trees – but in the hollow of the ditches, not flanking elevated bastions).

Afforestation of the glacis fronting several fortifications increased in intensity in the 1970s, including the clusters added to the glacis of Fort Manoel. And I would hate to sound snob or ‘racist’ – but the truth is that even in the selection of trees, often the choice fell on cheap, fast-growers like acacias and eucalyptus. The law actually refers to these trees less kindly than that: “invasive, alien and environmentally-incompatible species”.

In the early 19th century, the austere parapets, memorials to daring and defiance, started being prettified with tasteful greenery and wee flowers. Many spaces available turned into military cemeteries and eventually into gardens. Over the ramparts? Cute bouquets and floral decoration hardly go hand in hand with those gruesome symbols of war and bloodshed. Trivialisation at its best, but let that pass.

Those gardens over the ramparts, not the most congenial in the context of a fortification, devalued the grim spirit of the bastions, but did not detract unduly from their immense majesty. Malta is hardly Surrey, but if some are so anxious that it should try to look like a phoney imitation of a fake Surrey, so be it. Last time I looked, Valletta hardly resembled the leafy Cotswolds, and I find any effort spent to make a fortress town look cute and sylvan pathetic indeed.

Trees planted under the bastions, in close proximity to the walls, are a totally different matter. They end up concealing the ramparts, they conspire to make them almost invisible. They serve to make the bastions look puny. Instead of revving up their impact, trees scale the walls down to insignificance. While bastions are huge architectural sculptures in geometric forms, trees are sinuous, curvy, organic shapes which only belittle the starkness of the essential straight-line mathematics of the forts.

When a new construction will look particularly offensive (like industrial or batching plants, large sheds, refineries), Malta Environment and Planning Authority imposes ‘landscaping’ to soften the negative visual impact. It insists that trees are planted round the perimeter – to hide the inherent ugliness. We have turned Mepa’s precautions 180 degrees, pointing them in the opposite direction: we have ‘landscaped’ the ramparts, to hide inherent beauty.

In the historical context of the art of fortification, trees should be nowhere near bastions. Nothing should hinder the line of view from the parapet, or obstruct the line of fire in the space surrounding a fortress or give shelter to the approaching enemy. What, in a strategic context was supposed to be the great anathema, in Malta has almost become the daft rule. Who cares about historical authenticity when a historical falsehood looks sweet?

And so, disregarding what the builders of the fortifications mandated, we have gone to town planting trees, exactly where it was most horrific to plant them. You can only see patches of bastions. But, if that’s any comfort, you can see the trees. So that’s OK, I guess.

Before the usual chorus of tree-huggers intones the usual reproach of tree-phobia, allow me to make myself clear – I adore trees at least as intensely as most – but I have this old-fashioned prejudice against trees in the wrong places.

I somehow believe that there are places for trees, and there are places not for trees. You can worship trees, and still want them to be where it is suitable that they should be, and want them away from where it is unsuitable for them to be.

The Knights of Malta were enthusiastic tree-planters, but they knew where trees ‘go’ and where they do not. They created Buskett and San Anton and the Floriana gardens, but did not impose trees on the glacis of fortifications. Parks, gardens, avenues, afforestation schemes are one thing. Choking the bastions is another.

In Malta, many have developed a very skewed relationship with trees. We plant far too few of them, but when we do we plonk them and tall shrubs in traffic islands where they obstruct visibility and constitute a clear and present danger.

We force them in front of antique palaces and churches, to make sure that those wondrous architectural masterpieces stand not one chance in heaven of being properly seen and admired. We plant them hugging the bastions, to shrink to insignificance the horrific majesty of the ramparts.

We have a passion for wanting trees in all the wrong places. I have yet to see, in any civilised city in Europe, tall trees planted in front of outstanding outbursts of architecture. You have to be genuinely demented to first employ the best architect to construct a monumental façade, and then employ the worst gardener to hide it.

Here we did it all the time, and I have witnessed very little resistance to it. But, to make up, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth almost each time a tree which offends all rationality is removed. The shade, you know. Yeah, the shade. Fifty shades of philistine.

All these trees were grown relatively recently, starting more systematically from the mid-Victorian era, a craze heralded by Governor Gaspard Le Marchant, who des­troyed ruinously and a lot, all with jovial recklessness, but then pla­n­ted trees. He even turned Piazza Regina (opposite the National Library) into his own private orchard, from which he excluded the natives, and welcomed the trees in their stead, no doubt gloating over what a bargain he had made.

Probably that is how the blazing brainwave of hiding as much as possible of the façade of the Bibliotheca behind a thick screen of the tallest trees, originated. Thankfully, a few of the central ones were recently removed, making part of that wondrous façade slightly less invisible.

When Napoleon booted out the Knights, there was probably not one single offending tree in any of the public spaces of Valletta, whatever the self-anointed custodians of the heritage kingdom have to say, the more pseudo, the louder.

Scores of accurately painted townscapes and streetscapes of Valletta from the 18th century survive, and never does one canvas show a single tree in the streets, in the squares, over the ramparts or, more pertinently, under the bastions, Ġnien is-Sultan excepted – the Grand Master’s private arbour – but that was just outside Valletta. Never, not one.

In fact, the very first building regulations enacted by Grand Master de Valette expressly prohibited gardens in Valletta, probably because the space available for housing was restricted and because of the de­mands trees make on the supply of water. Not to mention placing trees near the base of the bastions – that would have been weakening the defence of the realm, and therefore an injury quite close to high treason.

When an enterprising bureaucrat planted a handful of mulberry trees (ċelsi) in the square opposite the Auberge d’Aragon, in support of a silk industry that never really took off, the people considered the novelty of trees inside the urban fabric so memorable that the square unofficially changed its name to Piazza Ċelsi, and it went on being popularly known as such till quite recently.

St Barbara Bastion may have been the very first parapet on which a decorative row of trees was planted – late 19th century photos show it treeless, the way the Knights had left it. The Upper Barrakka may have had trees somewhat before that, as the British identified it as a memorial cemetery site from very early on. The Lower Barrakka and Hastings Garden, though also occasionally used for notable burials or memorials from the beginning of the British era, never received the same funereal attention.

Today the main threats to the ramparts of Valletta and elsewhere remain the grab-and-build accretions, the ‘boathouses’, the illegal shacks that clutter the stone curtains, the ‘shelters’ that burrow into the lower reaches of the bastions, and the ramshackle cabins that just mushroom round them, as disagreeable as human ingenuity bent on aesthetic mischief could possibly devise.

And the trees, the misguided, ill-placed trees.

Although Malta has, in my view, the most impressive system of fortifications in the whole of Europe, it is hardly the only place where the best military engineers built fortifications that are striking and grandiose. But there are differences in the way we and they look at tiers of ramparts. Those who still have them, flaunt them, enhance them, try to squeeze every cent of added value from them.

They do everything in their power, not merely to preserve them, but to display them at best. Only Naarden in the Netherlands has trees close to the very outer ring of the low walls which delimitate the canals round the fortified city.

Let’s have a look at Malta’s direct competition insofar as walled cities go, and see how they are caring for their bastions. Two quite renowned fortified communalities come to mind: Dubrovnik in Croatia and Lucca in Tuscany. A number of common features strike you about these and other fortified towns: that their walls are nowhere as impressive as they are in Malta, that they are mostly impeccably conserved, and that none are clogged by the illegal accretions, huts, cabins, sheds or other imbarazz that have come to be taken as wholly normal and acceptable in Malta.

And they have adopted a no-nonsense approach: not a single tree is allowed anywhere in sight in the close proximity of the bases of the walls – over the crowns of the walls, maybe, but nowhere near their elevations. Some cities accept creepers and clinging ivy growing on them. That has historical precedents. In Malta at the time of the Order and until recently, it was a criminal offence to cut grass from the bastions. Maybe it still is.

The authorities in charge of Lucca and of Dubrovnik know better than to tolerate anything that would demean their sacred walls by placing any object at all between them and the viewer. If anything, they want their bastions to look mightier, not smaller – so they rigorously banned the growth of any trees in the vicinity of the bastions.

It is only Malta that planted trees (and closed both eyes to indecorous accretions) and seems to delude itself that is the brave way forward.

The same goes for Avila in Spain and Neuf-Brisach in France; the fortifications there rise stark from the ground, innocent of trees so dear to the Maltese landscape pâtissier, trees that ridicule the scale of the fortifications and conspire to shield them from admiration. Differently from us, these cities do not strive to make their ramparts illegible.

These are just four examples. I could go on and on, quoting instances from those fortified towns that have retained impressive stretches of their bastions.

We should be asking ourselves whether we can allow our most conspicuous architectural and cultural heirloom to lose its fundamental meaning. The bastions are walls of war, for war. They had a double function: to protect the community, but mostly to intimidate the enemy. They are not garden walls, they are not orchard walls – they have nothing in common with charm or with comfort.

Unless they look awesome and frightening, bastions are a joke.

The sooner we can bring ourselves to digest this, the less harm we will continue inflicting on these most flawless gems that are struggling to remain part of our heritage. So far, we have misunderstood and degraded their majesty. Where walled cities are concerned, most other countries are not, but we definitively are, guilty of lèse majesté.

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Stephen Spiteri for his useful suggestions.

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