With Malta’s rich naval history I was wanting to explore an abandoned fort. There are two massive forts in the Valletta area – St. Elmo’s in Valletta itself, which is now mostly restored and open to the public. Just across the Grand Harbour in the first of the Three Cities of Birgu you will find Fort St.Angelo which is newly restored and open to the public. In total there are 21 forts on the island. Apart from the two above, others have also been restored and returned to alternative uses. A handful remain abandoned/awaiting redevelopment. I set my sights on two that were nearby. I failed to get into either so I’ve decided to put them together in one report.
1. Fort Leonardo:
This is a polygonal fort in Zabbar, Malta. It was built between 1872 and 1878 by the British between the villages of San Leonardo and Żonqor above the shore east of Grand Harbour by the British, as part of a program of improvements to Malta's fortifications recommended in Colonel Jervois' Report of 1866 titled "Memorandum with reference to the improvements to the defences of Malta and Gibraltar”. The fort was to be called Fort Tombrell but the name was changed to Fort Leonardo when construction began.
Its layout is complicated, with a smaller inner fort forming one corner within the larger part of the fort that contains the gun emplacements. The fort was initially armed with 11 inch rifled muzzle-loading guns, which were later superseded by 9.2 inch breech loading guns. The Fort was used for coastal defence in World War II. On 17 May 1942, the fort helped repel an Italian E-boat attack. The fort remained in use by the British military until the 1970s. Shortly after decommissioning it was rented to a cattle farmer in 1973 for an annual sum of €93, and was used as a farm until the early 2010s.
The fort itself is still in reasonable repair, though a house has been built inside the ditch and the ditch in-filled to create an access. In 2014, it was proposed that the fort would be turned into a boutique hotel. This never came to fruition however. In 2015, the government made a proposal to include Fort Leonardo in the campus of the American University of Malta, which was to open in 2016, on the condition that the fort is rehabilitated and opened to the public. Again this never happened.
It became very apparent this was going to be a fail. The southern part of the fort is used as a lock-up and indeed was locked up with ‘guard dogs’ on the other side of the gate. The northern part is used by a cattle farmer who had even bigger dogs so just externals here:
img9551 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9545 by HughieDW, on Flickr
Quick peek through the gate!
img9546 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9547 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9548 by HughieDW, on Flickr
Am assuming this says A.D. 1879 behind the foliage:
img9549 by HughieDW, on Flickr
A look-out post on top of the fort:
img9552 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9553 by HughieDW, on Flickr
2. Fort Ricasoli:
This place was a much bigger proposition. It’s a massive fort with a big history (adapted/lifted from Wikipedia). Please feel free to skip if you don’t like long pre-amble!
The fort stands on the easternmost peninsula on the east side of the Grand Harbour. In 1531, two leaders of a slave rebellion and ten others who took a prominent role, who had tried to take over Fort St. Angelo and escape from Malta, were tortured and then hanged on the peninsula, which became known as Gallows' Point (Maltese: Ponta tal-Forka) afterwards. During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Ottomans built an artillery battery on the peninsula in order to bombard Fort St. Elmo.
On 18th January 1629, the Italian knight Alessandro Orsi financed the construction of a tower on Gallows' Point. The tower was officially called Torre San Petronio. The tower was round, and it was built to prevent the escape of slaves from the island. A semi-circular battery, which was known as Orsi Battery or San Petronio Battery, was later built around the tower. The tower and battery were protected by a sea-filled ditch and a drawbridge. They remained standing until they were destroyed by waves in a storm on 8 February 1821, and today only the rock-hewn ditch of the battery remains.
In 1644, Giovanni de’ Medici proposed that Fort St. Angelo in Birgu be abandoned and a new fort be constructed on Orsi Point. The new fort would have been also called Fort St. Angelo, and would be manned with the garrison of the old fort. He drew up plans for the proposed fort, but they were never implemented. In 1669, fears of an Ottoman attack rose after so Antonio Maurizio Valperga, the military engineer of the House of Savoy, was commissioned to improve Malta's fortifications. He designed a new fort to be built on the headland. The Florentine knight Giovanni Francesco Ricasoli donated 20,000 scudi to construct the fort, and it was named in his honour. The first stone was laid down on 15 June 1670, and the initial stages of construction were supervised by Valperga himself. The fort received a skeleton garrison in June 1674, although it was still incomplete. In 1681, the Flemish engineer Carlos de Grunenbergh proposed some changes to the design of the fort, and these recommendations were implemented. The barracks, chapel and other buildings within the fort were constructed in the 1680s and 1690s, and the fort was officially declared complete and armed in May 1698.
In 1714 the fort's bastions underwent a number of alterations, including repairing the existing parapets and embrasures, as well as constructing a retrenchment within the fort. The fort was in a bad state by the mid-18th century, and some maintenance work was done in 1761. In 1785, Ricasoli was armed with eighty cannon, including forty-one 24-pounders, making it the most heavily armed fort in Malta.
Fort Ricasoli saw use during the French invasion of Malta in June 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars. At the time, it was commanded by the Bali de Tillet, and was garrisoned by the Cacciatori, who were a volunteer chasseur light infantry regiment. The fort repelled three French attacks, before surrendering to Napoleon. The fort continued to be an active military installation throughout the British period. It was the scene of a mutiny in 1807 when Albanian soldiers revolted and shut themselves up in Fort Ricasoli. Despite attempts at negotiation they eventually blew up the main gunpowder magazine, causing extensive damage to the fort in the process. The mutiny was quashed by loyal troops, and some of the mutineers were condemned to death by court martial. The damaged parts of the fort were repaired, but were not rebuilt to their original design. A new magazine was built in 1829 to replace the one destroyed in the mutiny. The fort was also used as a temporary naval hospital in the late 1820s and early 1830s, before Bighi Hospital was opened. During the cholera epidemic of 1837, patients who had contracted the disease at the Ospizio in Floriana were transferred to Ricasoli. Most of them died within a few days, and they were buried within the nearby Wied Għammieq cemetery. Another cholera epidemic broke out at Ricasoli in 1865.
In 1844, the fort was manned by 500 men. In 1848, Sir John Fox Burgoyne inspected Malta's fortifications, and considered Ricasoli as "impregnable." In the 1850s, artillery of a higher calibre was introduced to the fort, and the guns were replaced a number of times over the following decades. The seaward enceinte had been completely overhauled by 1878, and by the 1900s, new gun emplacements, searchlights and a torpedo station had been installed. In the 1930s, concrete fire control towers were built on No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 Bastions, and further searchlights were installed.
Fort Ricasoli was active in the defence of Malta during World War II, and on 26th July 1941 its guns helped repel an Italian attack on the Grand Harbour. In April 1942, the gate and Governor's House were destroyed by German aerial bombardment. After the war, the fort was commissioned as HMS Ricasoli between 1947 and 1958, and was used as a naval barracks. In 1958, the gate was rebuilt, although the design was slightly different from the original. The Governor's House was never reconstructed, mainly for financial reasons. In 1964, the Admiralty transferred control of the fort to the Government of Malta.
After the fort was handed over to the Maltese government, it was initially abandoned but it later became a container depot for raw material arriving in Malta. In 1976, part of the ditch near the Left Ravelin was filled in, and St. Dominic Demi-Bastion was breached to make way for a new road.
In 1964, the fort's ditch became a tank cleaning farm for the Malta Drydocks. The depot, which is known as Ricasoli Tank Cleaning Facilities, treats liquid waste from ships arriving in the Grand Harbour and removes oil and other chemicals prior to releasing the waste into the sea. The facility was privatized in 2012, and it is currently under the management of Waste Oils Co. Ltd.
Most of the fort is leased to the Malta Film Commission, and it has been used extensively as a location for various films and serials. In recent years, huge sets were built within its walls for the films Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004) and Agora (2009). The fort was also used in the filming of Assassin's Creed (2016).
More recently the first season of HBO's adaptation of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones used various parts of the fort to represent the Red Keep.
Today, Fort Ricasoli remains largely intact, although it is in a dilapidated state. The headland that it is built upon is prone to coastal erosion, and some of the walls between No. 3 and No. 4 Bastions have already collapsed into the sea. In 2004, the Restoration Unit of the Ministry of Resources and Infrastructure removed, restored and re-attached part of the fort's walls, but nothing has been done to restore the entire fort.
In May 2015, the Democratic Alternative and some NGOs suggested that the campus of the proposed American University of Malta should be split up between Fort Ricasoli and the nearby Fort Saint Rocco and Fort San Salvatore. This proposal was not pursued.
OK - so long on history, short of pictures from the inside as it’s pretty much locked down:
Fort viewed from vantage points in Valletta:
img9518 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9623 by HughieDW, on Flickr
Looking at the main gate:
img9621 by HughieDW, on Flickr
No way in via said main gate:
img9739 by HughieDW, on Flickr
So round to the seaward side. All locked up but managed to get some half-decent externals:
img9733 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9732 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9734 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9735 by HughieDW, on Flickr
img9736 by HughieDW, on Flickr
Thanks for looking!
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