The Ċittadella, the oldest fortified site in Gozo, is an ancient fortress situated on a hill in the centre of the island. The fortress we see today was mostly built by the Knights in the beginning of the 18th century and it took the place of a small castle dating back from medieval times. Parts of the medieval enceinte (outline) of this castle can still be seen on the northern side. Evidence of this medieval castle dates back to at least the 13th century and shows that it probably developed from a much larger Punic/Roman city which extended far enough to include parts of present day Rabat (Victoria). Today, only traces of these ancient walls are still visible. When the Knights arrived in 1530, they found this castle, then known as Gran Castello, a very small structure, round in plan and of little military value and importance.
However, the Knights could not immediately afford to strengthen or rebuild the castle, not even after Dragut’s fierce attack in 1551, when a Turkish army managed to demolish its walls after a short siege and carry away into slavery all the population found sheltering there. It was only in 1599 that the Order finally decided to strengthen the castle. Giovanni Rinaldi, an Italian military engineer, was brought to Malta for this purpose and he designed the basis of the plan for the bastions and ramparts we see today.
The actual work was supervised by the Maltese military engineer Vittorio Cassar, the son of Ġlormu Cassar who had helped Laparelli in the building of Valletta. The work went on for around 20 years and was completed in 1622.
Although the Ċittadella’s new bastions, dragged the old castle into the modern gunpowder age, this old fortress still worried the Knights and during the following centuries, several engineers advised that the site should be abandoned in favour of a new fortress built closer to the sea. Antonio Maurizio Valperga, who also planned the Cottonera Lines, suggested that a new fortified wall should be built around the suburb of Rabat to join it to the Ċittadella. However, this area could only protect a quarter of the Gozitan population. Although Valperga’s suggestion was well received by the Order, the works could not start due to lack of funds.
In 1690, Mederico Blondel continued work on the Ċittadella. However, the suburb never had a proper defence. It was only in 1703 that Claude de Colongues built two trench lines from the Ċittadella to the suburb. Still, in 1722 it was reported that the Ċittadella was not effective and the Knights required a new fortress, preferably at Imġarr. In 1749, with financial help from the Balì of Chambrai, work finally began on the desired large new fortress, overlooking and defending Mġarr harbour and the Gozo Channel and named Fort Chambray in honour of the Balì.