Tuesday 15 April 2014

Wignacourt's Aqueduct

Water is scarce in Malta. The island has low rainfall and there are few springs. So successive Grand Masters introduced policies to ameliorate the shortage. When Valletta was being planned, regulations were enacted to prevent houses from having gardens or courtyards and every house had to have its own well. These measures ensured that water would not be wasted on gardening and that in the event of a siege there would be an adequate water supply.

Even after the implementation of these regulations, the supply of water continued to be a problem for the residents of Valletta. The nearest fresh water spring was at Marsa at the end of the Grand Harbour, three miles away by boat, and in the event of a siege, the supply would be denied to the city.

 Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601-22)  undertook to pay for the cost of the  construction of an aqueduct  to Valletta. Even so the Council decided that that the profits generated by Commander Fra' Paul Lascaris Castellar (a future Grand Master) from the Order's bakeries should also be used to help finance the project. On 9th January 1610 the Council decreed that the project should go ahead.

Water was to be conveyed from the springs at Dingli through Valletta to Fort St. Elmo. As far as Attard the water flowed through underground channels. From Attard to Hamrun the water was carried along a pipeline carried above stone arches. From Hamrun the pipe returned underground until it reached Fort St. Elmo.

The sixteen kilometer long aqueduct  was started in 1610 and completed in 1614. The cost was 434 605 scudi of which only 40 000 was contributed through the bakeries. The shortfall was paid by Grand Master Wignacourt after whom the aqueduct was named. Originally two Italian engineers had been appointed to carry out the work, but they were sacked and replaced by the Maltese engineer Giovanni Attard who completed the project.

The water began to flow on 21 April 1615 from a temporary fountain specially constructed on Piazza San Giorgio (Palace Square). To witness the great occasion the Grand Master, the Prior of the Conventual Church, all the Knights resident on the island and a large number of Maltese were assembled. The fountain was moved to St Philip's Garden, Floriana. Other fountains were built along the route of the aqueduct.

At Fleur-de-Lys there used to be a beautiful arch but  it was badly damaged in the war.  The remainder was demolished to permit modern traffic to pass. On the arch there was an inscription in Latin that read, "So far Valletta was dead. Now that the spirit of water revives her, as once the first spirit floated on the waters; now that water has been led to her, the spirit returns."

Fleur -de -Lys Arch 

Near the Sarria Church in Floriana is the fountain that bears Wignacourt's coat-of-arms.

Several fountains were built in Valletta. One of them used to be just inside the Porta Reale (Main Gate). The most splendid fountain of them all was at the Marina. On it stood the bronze statue of Neptune, which has been removed to the courtyard of the Magistral Palace. On the four sides of the base were bronze plaques recording the Grand Master's victories over the Muslims.

The Wignacourt Aqueduct not only supplied the city of Valletta with enough fresh water for drinking water but also enough  to fill the storage tanks and reservoirs and also water for the fountains which adorn the city.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Fungus Rock, Gozo

Fungus Rock is a sixty meter high rock at the entrance to the black waters of the almost circular, Dwerja Bay, Gozo. The massive rock is difficult to access and can only be reached by boat and then by climbing the limestone cliffs. The summit of the rock is however fairly flat and this is where the plant grows that gives the rock its name. In the Maltese the rock is known as Hagret-el-General, because it is said that a Captain-General of the Galleys discovered the fungus growing there. However 'Fucus coccineus melitensis' is not a fungus at all but a strange species of parasitic flowering plant, about six inches high, that appears in the rains of December and January and continues growing until April. In the summer the plant dries in the Sun to produce  its 'valuable' crop.

 The Knights of St. John according to the historian Boisgelin found the fungus to be 'effective as a  treatment of dysentery'. It was also said to be good for drying ulcers, strengthening gums, curing spitting of the blood, hemorrhages of the womb and other disorders. The fungus soon gathered a great reputation in Malta where it was a highly prized treatment for all the above maladies. A person was appointed to gather the harvest which was preserved with the most meticulous care. The fungus was prescribed in the Sacra Infermeria (Hospital) in Valletta and distributed to any Knights or Maltese people who were in need of treatment. The fungus was also presented to foreign potentates and distinguished visitors to Malta.

 So highly prized was the fungus that in 1746 Grand Master Pinto made the rock inaccessible and  reserved to the Grand Master the sole privilege of gathering the plant. A guard was stationed on the rock who lived  in a small chamber cut from the living rock. Fungus Rock was connected to the mainland, fifty meters away, by two strong ropes along which a basket was suspended that could be moved by pulleys in order to supply the sentry and change the guard. Any unauthorized person trespassing on the rock was liable to a punishment of three years service on the galleys, and to deter them from making an attempt, any obvious handholds on the cliffs were broken off..

A little more than two hundred years later (1968) this lack of hand holds did not deter my father from taking the dingy across to Fungus rock with his two young sons and a friend. The sociopathic father was of the firm opinion that the best way to turn a boy into a man was to dangle him from a cliff at the end of a rope. The sea cliffs of Malta and Gozo offered him endless opportunities (unfortunately) to indulge his theory.  Father and sons were disembarked, abandoned  by  the step mother who returned to the mainland leaving the little party clinging on to the bottom of the cliff. Father, a far too keen climber made his way up the cliff followed by three little boys  roped together. Once on  the summit the party raised the Eight-pointed Cross of the Order of St. John and spent the night in bivouacs under the stars.

Ian Graham, Jimmy Graham, Stephen Bowles,
Fungus Rock,
Easter 1968
In the aftermath of this visit, reported in the local press,  no officials made it onto the rock to remove the Knight's Cross.  In the end there was no need, winter storms shredded the flag so that when the flag party returned after six months the remnant of the banner was left in tatters.

Fungus specimen
Collected 1968

Sad to say science has failed to find any medicinal properties in the 'fungus'. Nonetheless this specimen collected in 1968 remains a valued specimen in this cabinet of curiosities.