Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 14(2004)1(129-130)

[p.129] Marino ViganÚ, 'El fratin mi ynginiero' I Paleari Fratino da Morcote ingegneri militari ticenesi in Spagna [XVI-XVII secolo] Edizioni Casagrande, Bellinosa 2004. pp. 552; 50 photographs, illustrations in the text, appendices and index of names. € 50 or SF 75 (paperback).

Until relatively recently, the engineer sent to Malta by Philip of Spain to vet Francesco Laparelli's design of Valletta was known to Maltese scholars only as Fratino ingegnere famosissimo in Bosio's account of the famous and heated debate between the two men on Mount Xiberras early in April 1566. He was so famous that academics were not agreed as to his actual identity and career! Fratino was in fact Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino (el Fratin) one of the most famous products of a family of military engineers in the service of Spain - the Paleari Fratino -from Morcote near Lugano in the North of Italy. Three brothers: Giovan Giacomo, Bernardino and Giorgio Paleari Fratino were engineers as were Giorgio's son and grandson Francesco and Pietro. Dr ViganÚ's account places Malta firmly in its context as an integral part of the Spanish defensive system during Spain's Siglo de oro.

Dr ViganÚ has produced an impressive account of the activities of this extraordinary family who worked on fortifications all over the Spanish domains in the Mediterranean and elsewhere: Milan, Cagliari, Pamplona, San SebastiŠn, Gibraltar, Cadiz, Lisbon, Oran, Mers el Khebir, La Goletta of Tunis and dozens and dozens of other places in Italy, North Africa, Spain and Portugal etc.. This book is a major contribution to the history of military engineering; the product of research in all the relevant archives in Italy, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere both public (state, local, notarial and ecclesiastical) and private and backed by a thoroughly comprehensive use of the printed primary and secondary sources. It would be fair to say that Dr ViganÚ's coverage of the subject is nothing short of encyclopedic. He is a great credit to Italian historical scholarship. All students of Italian military engineering during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially around the Mediterranean littoral will welcome this book if only to find out what materials are available in their particular line of study!

Year in year out the Paleari Fratino engineers journeyed around the dominions of His Most Catholic Spanish Majesty transforming the cities and towns they fortified with bastioned enceintes and changing their geography forever. That they not only reported to the monarch through his private secretary and his Consejo de Guerra but often directly and in person to the king himself speaks volumes for the importance of their work and their personal standing with the king. They would present their proposals and reports respectfully, even obsequiously in the manner of the day, but they would stand by their recommendations. For his part el Rey prudente would listen and give due weight to their views and write personally: 'alfratin mi ynginiero y capitan ordinario de jnfanteria.'

[p.130] Through comparisons with the work of their contemporaries, his book also establishes just how important the Paleari Fratino engineers were in the history of military engineering. One somewhat insignificant example (described and documented in the book) eloquently makes the point: Giovan Giacomo's contribution to coast defence through his designs for small isolated works for strategic positions was felt right down to the late nineteenth century. In 1794 one of his coast defence towers, the Torre della Mortella in Corsica (completed in 1565), armed only with one 6pdr. and two 18pdr. guns and a garrison of thirty eight men, fought off two British frigates: Fortitude (74 guns) and Juno (32 guns). The tower was under continual bombardment for two days. At length the British were obliged to land troops and artillery and lay the tower under formal siege by land, at which point the commander hauled down his flag. This of course was the famous 'Martello Tower'. The British were so impressed by Giovan Giacomo's tower, they made plans and drawings of the Torre della Mortella and proceeded to build copies of the 'Martello Tower' pretty well everywhere, at times chains of them: Cape Colony (1796), Halifax (1796-98), Minorca (1798-1808), the South coast of England (1803-12), Dublin ((1804), Quebec (1805), Jersey (1807), Orkney (1812), and Saint John, New Brunswick (1812). The design was adopted by the United States of America in the 1820's and the last Martello Towers were built at Key West in 1873!

The publishers would do well to include a general index of names, topics and places rather than just an index of names when the book runs to its second edition and to number and list the illustrations and figures. These additions would make this excellent but necessarily weighty book that much more accessible as a work of reference as well as the being the excellent study of the Paleari Fratino engineers that it is. A comprehensive bibliography of the secondary sources cited is also desirable.

The book is available from the publishers: Casagrande Editore via del Bramantino, 3 CH - 6500 Bellinzona Switzerland Or e-mail:

Roger Vella Bonavita
Perth, Western Australia