Maltese Architect’s Obsessive Lifelong Quest to Find Atlantis

The Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé was born in Malta in 1774, before enjoying a varied career which culminated in his architectural design of the Rotunda of Mosta. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, a city where Grognet had spent some years, this neoclassical domed church is a remarkable feature in the Maltese landscape. Renowned since its construction for its unique appearance and the size of its dome, it achieved further fame during World War II when a German bomb smashed through the roof during mass, although it failed to detonate.

However, architecture and engineering were not the only passions of this minor noble who spent much of his life trying to prove his theory about Plato’s Atlantis . Some even claim that he created elaborate hoaxes, though this strange behavior contrasts rather sharply with his character up until that point, making these assertions rather questionable.

The famed Rotunda de Mosta in Malta, seen here from the air, was designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé. (Dmitry / Adobe Stock)

The famed Rotunda de Mosta in Malta, seen here from the air, was designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé. ( Dmitry / Adobe Stock)

The Spirit of the French Revolution

Grognet was descended from French nobility, his ancestors having settled in Malta in the 1600s. His family’s comfortable position, both socially and financially, afforded him a solid education in Italy as he prepared himself for a religious career. Returning to Malta he spent some time as an abbé but soon found himself influenced by the ideology of the French Revolution. Before Napoléon Bonaparte took over Malta, Grognet decided to join his army and move abroad much to the disappointment of his family.

There’s no evidence that Grognet took part in the expedition that captured Malta or the one to Egypt during which one of Napoléon’s officers discovered the Rosetta Stone . His military career and its immediate aftermath seem to have been spent between Corfu, Paris and Rome. It was during his time in the army that he honed his skills in architecture and engineering, techniques that were to come in useful when he threw himself into the grand project of the Mosta Dome.

A bust depicting the Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé. (Continentaleurope / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A bust depicting the Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé. (Continentaleurope / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Maltese Architect and Antiquarian and His Atlantis Obsession

Somewhat of an antiquarian, Grognet had a good grounding in the classics. A few years after he moved back to Malta for the second time, he revealed his fascination with Plato’s Atlantis and believed that he was living on the remnants of the fabled island. It was the early 1800s and the Neolithic megalithic temple ruins of Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra were known but had yet to be explored in any meaningful way. Their initial excavations in 1827, 1839 and 1840 respectively, convinced Grognet that his theory was correct.

At that time the only literary references to Atlantis were in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias. As a philosopher, much of Plato’s work was allegorical, occasionally inspired by real events, but the idea of a sophisticated lost civilization from the distant past went on to inspire artists, writers and researchers right up to the modern day.

When additional textual and epigraphic references to Atlantis appeared, ones that were associated with Malta, Grognet and others lauded this as further evidence that the mythical island had been a real place and did in fact, still exist in the center of the Mediterranean. Convincing everybody else was another matter altogether.

Map of the Mediterranean which depicts the location Grognet believed lay the submerged island of Atlantis. It was found in an album which formed part of his investigations. (National Library of Malta)

Map of the Mediterranean which depicts the location Grognet believed lay the submerged island of Atlantis. It was found in an album which formed part of his investigations. ( National Library of Malta )

An Elaborate Hoax or Ground-Breaking Evidence?

In 1828, Marquis de Fortia d’Urban gave a lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society in Paris where he presented the details of two incredible finds. Back in 1826 a priest in Malta had dug up a stone in his Mdina garden with a Phoenician inscription on it which mentioned Atlantis. The priest was an acquaintance of both Grognet and De Fortia d’Urban, and wrote to both of them regarding this amazing discovery.

Another text was also discussed which had supposedly been found in Crete in 1821 by a friend of Grognet’s called Louis-Domeny de Rienzi. The original document written by a Eumalos of Cyrene, had been lost, rather suspiciously, soon after its discovery in a shipwreck. This manuscript referred to Aristippus’ History of Libya and mentioned the location of Atlantis as having been in the central Mediterranean.

In Echoes of Plato’s Island by Mifsud, Mifsud, Sultana and Ventura, some of this text is reproduced from the Appendix to The Historical Guide to the Island of Malta and its Dependencies . It says:

“...Ninus, King of Babylon, nephew of the famous Ogyge. The latter was the king of Atlantis, the island which once existed between Libia and Sicily, and which was submerged. This large island was known as Decapolis, Atlantika, by our forefathers of Cyrene, as well as by the ancient Greeks. Ogyge was the king who governed the famous island at the time of the horrible inundation … the summit of Mount Atlas, which was situated in the middle of the island Atlantika was not submerged. This summit of Mount Atlas has preserved the name of Ogyge from that of its last king, and it is in fact this circumstance why we still know as Ogygia that island which once exists between Libia and Sicily; it is nothing more than the summit of the Mount of Atlantika.”

Although the text doesn’t mention Malta by any of its known historic names, the description of its location certainly matches it. The name that is used for the island, Ogygia, is intriguing because, if it is the same Ogygia as that mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, some classicists do think this may have referred to Malta.

It’s this idea that gave the Calypso Cave in Gozo its name, due to the belief that it was in fact the legendary location where Odysseus was kept captive by the nymph Calypso. So, Grognet was involved in two dubious and very convenient discoveries which added credibility to a theory he was passionate about.

Nevertheless, in 1832 the finds were debunked by the philologist August Boeckh who claimed it they were part of an elaborate hoax led in large part by the Marquis de Fortia d’Urban. Boeckh claimed Grognet was a willing participant in the ploy. Since then, they have been widely regarded and referred to as forgeries.

Many believe that the story of Calypso and Odysseus, depicted by Jan Brueghel in the above painting, took place at Calypso Cave in Goza (Malta). (Public domain)

Many believe that the story of Calypso and Odysseus, depicted by Jan Brueghel in the above painting, took place at Calypso Cave in Goza (Malta). ( Public domain )

The Calypso Cave in Gozo, Malta. (MagicalKrew / Adobe Stock)

The Calypso Cave in Gozo, Malta. ( MagicalKrew / Adobe Stock)

A Cyclopean Wall or Figments of the Imagination

Grognet produced a small book with an almost comically long title to present his theory: Compendio ossia epilogo anticipato di un’opera estesa sulla precisa situazione della famosa sommersa isola Atlantide da Platone e da altri antichi ricordata e descritta e della quale le isole di Malta, Gozo, Comino sono certissimi resti.

He also created watercolors showing ruins of a cyclopean wall he claimed to have discovered near Mosta in Malta. This wall has features similar to the Maltese megalithic temples , such as tunnel-shaped holes which are thought to be Neolithic hinges and the large megaliths. The cyclopean aspect is somewhat reminiscent of Ggantija but is much neater and looks more like the ones found in other regions. Although his watercolors show the wall to be a rather large and conspicuous ruin, very little attention seems to have been paid to it compared to the Maltese Neolithic edifices that were under the spotlight at the time.

Grognet also painted a map marking the location of this wall and some other landmarks. On this map he labelled the megalithic wall as “ancient fortress of the giants”, which corresponds roughly with the location of Fort Mosta today. This is not a publicly accessible site, and no megalithic remains were recorded during its construction in the late 19th century. If they did exist, it’s likely they were destroyed during construction anyway.

In this same painting he labelled the Valley of Honey to the south which is the Wied il-Għasel in Maltese. Behind the ancient fortress he marks both a “ cart rut ” and an area he calls the field of giants. The “cart rut” is still extant within the grounds of Fort Mosta. To the west of that he demarcates a large section and calls it the “town of blood”.

The Maltese architect created a map with some of his discoveries near Mosta. (MegalithHunter / Youtube)

The Maltese architect created a map with some of his discoveries near Mosta. (MegalithHunter / Youtube)

There are only a few other references to these ruins in Mosta except for those which discuss Grognet’s work as fact. In A hand book, or guide, for strangers visiting Malta by Thomas MacGill, published in 1839, the ruins and their location are briefly mentioned:

On a mount, of bare rock, about two miles distant from Musta in a northerly direction, are to be seen, some Cyclopean stones, the remains of some ancient tower, or temple: near this in the rocky ravine, is a small chapel, dedicated to St Paul; and in a natural cave, in the vicinity, the water percolates through the roof, in such purity, that a grand master would drink no other, and caused a supply of it, to be brought to his table daily – the place, we believe, is called Wied-el-asel.

In Excavations in 1908-11 in various megalithic buildings in Malta and Gozo , Prof. Tagliaferro’s mention of this megalithic wall is referred to as something that was destroyed during the construction of Fort Mosta. It’s discussed in a rather matter-of-fact way. A reference by Mayr is also cited regarding a model of this cyclopean wall which was created by Petit-Radel and kept in the Mazarin Library in Paris.

So it would appear that some sort of ruins did exist in Mosta, although they were never properly explored or excavated. Grognet’s paintings probably depicted them more as they may once have been than as they actually were, and their date may not have been Neolithic. But there seems to be some substance to the story.

Around two kilometers (1.24 mi) to the south west of Fort Mosta, close to the church of St. Andrew, archaeologists in recent years have recorded Maltese megaliths incorporated into the rubble walls of farmers’ fields. It’s likely these are the remains of a Neolithic structure, although these are some way from the location mentioned in Grognet’s map and MacGill’s guide.

What Was the Maltese Architect’s Motivation?

It’s not known why Grognet would have involved himself in such a complex hoax. As a former abbé and the designer of a grand Catholic church, it seems rather incongruous that he should behave in such a way. His ideological persuasions under Napoléon also make it seem as though his character was one of principle.

Money could have been an incentive, as his finances were often inadequate due his complex relationship with his family. However, part of the reason for this strained familial situation appears to have been his career choices, something that could easily have been remedied. Maybe he was so sure of his theory that he expected to find conclusive proof of it during his life and in the meantime, simply wanted to attract the attention he felt the idea deserved. It’s also not clear why the priest, Louis-Domeny de Rienzi and Marquis de Fortia d’Urban also felt compelled to participate in this chicanery or who was really the brains behind it all.

Grognet was born in Valletta and spent much time living there as an adult. He stayed in Mosta, for extended periods, at the house of a Francesco Chetcuti, to supervise the construction of the church. There’s little information on his explorations as an antiquarian, although he probably spent a lot of time visiting ancient ruins during his time in Rome.

He was not without his supporters who thought his theory had merit, but his quest to prove his MaltaAtlantis theory never quite came to fruition, despite his unwavering determination up until the end. Grognet’s extraordinary design of the domed, Neoclassical and Pantheon-inspired Rotunda of Mosta church, which was built in the Maltese town of Mosta, was most probably a tribute to the Atlantean legacy to which he dedicated his life and reputation.

Top image: The Maltese architect believed that Malta was the location of legendary Atlantis. Source:  fergregory / Adobe Stock

By Laura Tabone (@Megalithhunter)

References

Ashby, T., Bradley, R. N., Peet, T. E., & Tagliaferro, N. 1913. “Excavations in 1908-11 in Various Megalithic Buildings in Malta and Gozo” in  Papers of the British School at Rome 6 (1), 1–126. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40310317

Cutajar, D. 1980. “The architect-engineer Giorgio Grognet (1774-1862). Paradigm of an Early Romantic intellectual” in The Times,  25-26 April.

Cochran Anderson, J. and Dow, D. N. 2021. Visualizing the past in Italian Renaissance Art: Essays in honor of Brian A. Curran. Leiden: Brill.

MacGill, T. 1839. A hand book, or guide, for strangers visiting Malta. Malta: Luigi Tonna.

Mifsud, A., Mifsud, S., Agius Sultana, C., and Savona Ventura, C. 2001. Malta: Echoes of Plato’s Island. The Prehistoric Society of Malta.

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