Manoel Island

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Manoel Island

Manoel Island is named after the Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena who erected the 18-century fort that occupies the greater part of this practically flat and leaf shaped insular stretch of rock. Prior to the building of this fort, it was known as the Bishop’s Islet since it was then the property of the Bishop of Malta, having been acquired by the Cathedral Chapter of l-Imdina in 1570.

In 1643, Manoel Island was acquired by the Order in exchange for an area of land known as tal-Fidden, in the vicinity of Rabat, in order to enable the Knights to build their quarantine hospital inside Marsamxett. 
Manoel Island is best appreciated and understood when seen from the commanding heights along the bastions on the western side of il-Belt Valletta (Città Umilissima).

Fort Manoel with its extensive network of outer works and glacis dominates and occupies the greater part of this rocky crag. The only other structure of substance is the Lazaretto, an extensive but barren quarantine building and hospital, which straddle the waterline on the south side of the fort. This building too, was built by the Knights and likewise has historical significance. Both structures are today considered as important architectural and historical monuments that document important stages in the history of Malta.

Though less architecturally impressive than the fort, the Lazaretto actually predates the former by nearly a century. Indeed, the introduction of quarantine in Malta can be said to have accompanied the arrival of the Order in 1530, for the Hospitaller Knights of St John, with their long and maritime tradition, believed it to be an important measure for countering the spread of infectious diseases imported through ships and passengers calling at Malta.

Photo by Fabian Borg

Fort Manoel by Night

The first Lazaretto set up on Manoel Island was a temporary one consisting of wooden huts erected during the outbreak of the plague in 1592. This was however pulled down after the pestilence had subsided in 1593. The island was acquired in 1643 and a permanent Lazaretto established. This was improved, enlarged and equipped with warehouses for the storage of merchandise after the plaque of 1675-76 by Grand Master Nicolo' Cottoner and later by Grand Masters Caraffa and de Vilhena. 
Of the many cemeteries on Manoel Island that once served the Lazaretto, the only surviving element today is a small chapel. There was also a large abandoned magazine in the centre of the Island, which was used as a quarantine cattle shed – this building has survived but was modified extensively throughout the centuries.

Various additions and alterations were undertaken during the early 19 Th. century, particularly during the govern ship of Sir Henry Frederick Bouverie. The Lazaretto was enlarged in 1837 – 1838 and during these works the opportunity was taken for the construction of a new plaque hospital. As the 18 Th. century wore on, the hospital was converted into married quarters for the troops but in 1871, following an outbreak of smallpox; it was turned back into a hospital.

Fort Manoel on the other hand owes its existence to the close proximity of the island to the western flank fortress of il-Belt Valletta (Città Umilissima). Financed by the then Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, it was named Fort Manoel in his honour. The Grand Master also established a special fund to provide for the fort’s garrison and maintenance. This, known as The Manoel Foundation had an annual income of some 10,000 scudi and enabled, apart from may other things, the purchase of a new gun every three years. The first stone was laid with due ceremony by the Grand Master on 14 September 1723 in the presence of many Knights Grand Cross. Work progress rapidly and by 1732 the ditch had already been excavated. The date inscribed on the marble plaque that adorns the façade of the main gateway reads 1726.

In plan Fort Manoel is a classic square, with four corner bastions, a ravelin, tenaille, covert way and glacis. The rear bastions, facing the land front, were strengthened by low cavaliers joined together by an upper curtain wall containing large bombproof accommodation for the troops. The two seaward facing bastions those of St Anthony and St Helena were fitted with large powder magazines.

Inside the fort, the piazza or parade ground, was bordered by rectangular building, which contained the officers quarters, barrack accommodation blocks, an armoury, a prison and a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padova.

The Fort’s main entrance, adorned by a beautiful baroque gateway, faced the sea towards Valletta and was itself protected by a ditch and a drawbridge and small triangular outer work known as a couvre porte. A life size bronze statue of Grand Master de Vilhena, commissioned by Chevalier Savasse was erected in the middle of the piazza but it was later removed in the 19 th century to il-Belt Valletta and later to Floriana where it now stands in St Anne Square.

Diagram of Fort Manoel

The Old Manoel Island Bridge


The Lazaretto


The Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua