Alof de Wignacourt (1547-1622) is a towering figure in Malta’s history. His name is everywhere on the island.
One of the most popular of the Grand Masters of the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the island from 1530, the young Wignacourt first attracted attention at the Siege of Malta in 1565.
After his election as Grand Master in 1601 he undertook an ambitious programme of public works to improve and protect the island and particularly its newly-established capital of Valletta.
Between 1610 and 1620 he constructed, at his own expense, six formidable watchtowers along Malta’s east coast to keep an eye on unfriendly vessels at the crossroads of Mediterranean shipping routes. Four of these survive – the eponymous Wignacourt Tower at St Paul’s Bay (1610), the St Lucian Tower at Marsaxlokk (1610-11), the St Thomas Tower at Marsaskala (1614) and St Mary’s Tower on the island of Comino (1618).
Further series of watch towers were built by subsequent Grand Masters Giovanni Paolo Lascaris (in office 1636-1657) and Martin de Redin (in office 1657-1660), but they are generally smaller and less elaborate than the Wignacourt Towers.
His other major engineering achievement was to bring fresh drinking water to the rapidly growing city of Valletta by means of the Wignacourt Aqueduct.
The preceding Grand Master Martin Garze (in office 1595-1601) had planned an aqueduct to run some sixteen miles from inland springs at Dingli and Rabat, but hadn’t made much progress for lack of funds.
Wignacourt took over and largely financed the project, and completed it within five years. The line runs from Attard, maintaining a constant gradient through underground pipes, and crossing depressions with arcades of limestone arches cemented with pozzolana, a volcanic ash of cement.
It continued to supply water to Valletta and other towns along its route until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Long stretches remain as a monument to Wignacourt’s enterprise, along with other structures, such as the Wignacourt Arch, otherwise known as the Fleur-de-Lys Gate, demolished after an RAF lorry ran into it during the blackout in 1943, and reconstructed in 2012-14.
The community around the Gate takes its name from the three fleur-de-lys that appear on Wignacourt’s coat of arms.
Other surviving structures include inspection towers at St Venera, Ħamrun and Floriana, and a series of fountains including the Wignacourt Fountain in the centre of Valetta.
Alongside these physical achievements, Wignacourt has a claim on posterity as the patron of the artist Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose tempestuous career brought him to Malta in a brief period between 1607 and his expulsion from the Knights’ order at the end of the following year.
During this time, as well as the two great canvases in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta, ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ and ‘Saint Jerome Writing’, Caravaggio painted a striking portrait ‘Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page’, now in the Louvre.