The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

Corrupt judges in the times of the Order

Malta Independent Sunday, 23 December 2012, 13:41 Last update: about 6 years ago

Time and again, the systems of justice come under attack because of cases regarding members of the judiciary. In an article, completed in 2007, and publicly available on the judiciary website (, Judge Giovanni Bonello wrote “Notes for a history of the judiciary at the time of the Order”. The following is a summary of that article


So far, no one has undertaken an organic study of the history of the legal professions in Malta – a vast subject that still calls for in-depth research. I do not believe the scrutiny of this complex matter has yet reached the required levels of maturity, and only a cursory and very preliminary approach is all that I am prepared to offer at this early stage. What follows should be taken on board simply as bald notes and rather disconnected jottings which may eventually contribute some minute bricks to a structure much wider in breadth. It is not impossible that one day I will put my notes on Uditori, lawyers and notaries in some order too.

Judges and Uditori perched on the highest rungs of the legal establishment.

The records rarely mention them, and, sadly, when they do, it is almost invariably to hurl abuse at them. I do not believe I have come across one good word spent in their praise – ignorant, corrupt, conceited, greedy, sadistic and, occasionally, with appalling private lives. Of course, the usual caution applies: the honest, good, hardworking ones rarely make the news. Scoundrels often leave the deepest imprints through the passage of time.

One of the first Maltese judges from the times of the Order is sadly mentioned by name in connection with a thoroughly disgraceful affair. Dr Agostino Cumbo came to the rescue of Grand Master d’Homedes after the fall of Tripoli in 1551. Virtually everyone blamed d’Homedes for that historical debacle – for his flaccid strategies, his lack of foresight and commitment in the defence of that exposed and vulnerable outpost. He had to find scapegoats on whom to shift the blame for that mortifying loss and no more suitable candidates appeared than the battered knights who had barely survived that terrible ordeal.

He had them all arrested and clamped in irons, charging them with cowardice, desertion and treason, with a view of having them expelled from the Order. Once thrown out, ensuring their execution by the ordinary criminal court presided over by Maltese judges, would be the next easy step.

Louis de Boisgelin gives an extremely detailed account of how d’Homedes found in Cumbo’s greed and pliancy the tool he sorely needed to save face with the outraged sovereigns of Europe. Cumbo “a man easily corrupted, being always ready to sacrifice his conscience for his love of money” undertook that, for a substantial bribe in gold, paid in advance, he would convict the disgraced knights and condemn them to death, giving the Grand Master the judicial certificate he sorely needed to justify his incompetence.

The leading knight, Durand de Villegagnion, somehow discovered and publicly denounced this backroom horse-trading in all its lurid details, in an unannounced harangue that left d’Homedes speechless, discomfited and disgraced. Cumbo, bribe safely pocketed, and the other Maltese judge, Giovanni Vassallo had, as agreed, already passed sentence of death on the innocent senior knights. Villegagnion’s violently detailed j’accuse saved their necks; de Valette eventually rehabilitated them in 1557.

Boisgelin does not disclose the source of his information, but I suspect it could be that rare book published by Villegagnion himself in Paris in 1553, De Bello Melitensi, later translated into French, which I have not been able to see.

During the Great Siege, Judge Cumbo had aided the war effort, but not wholly disinterestedly. He placed at the disposal of the defence of Mdina 19 empty wine barrels from his own vineyards. These, probably filled with earth, the defenders placed on the bastions and used as a protective barricade. He later put in a claim for the reimbursement of their cost.

Judge Cumbo lived in Mdina together with a household of four, quite likely in what is today, to his eternal shame, Villegagnion Street. To be fair, the man had suffered persecution by the Inquisition, together with others suspected of Lutheran sympathies. “A number of them underwent torture” so he must have known first hand what that was about.

Agostino Cumbo belonged to a dynasty of Cumbo judges, which seems to have started before the Order of St John settled in Malta in 1530. In fact, the well-known legend of the Bride of Mosta, a pillar of Maltese folklore, possibly dates to 1526.

Marianna, the unfortunate bride was said to be the daughter of Dr Giulio Cumbo, a renowned legal practitioner from the Cumbo family who later built and rebuilt the impressive Torri Cumbo on the outskirts of Mosta. Judge Agostino survived the shame of the exposure of his corruption, but was removed from office, for reasons unstated, by Grand Master de Valette two years before the Great Siege. On his dismissal, de Valette ordered an official investigation into his acta et gesta.

The next Cumbo jurist to find a mention in the records was Pietro, who the Order’s Council under Grand Master de la Sengle in 1556 appointed advocate for the poor. He too fell foul of the Inquisition under suspicion of Lutheranism – an admirer of the French priest Gesualdo who ended burnt at the stake.

Agostino proved neither the last, nor the most infamous of the Cumbo judges. Another judge, Dr Giulio Cumbo, appears in the late 17th century. Appointed to the bench by Grand Master Perellos in 1698, he died, still serving as a judge, 73 years later, probably over a hundred years old.

Besides his Guinness world-record for longevity in judicial service, Cumbo put in valiant efforts to achieve fame with his sadism. He resorted to flogging and assorted torture unsparingly to extract confessions, which he then relied on to condemn suspects to death.

Cumbo kept count of all the death sentences he passed, and this tallied at 120 wretches who had gratified with their agonies his lust of enjoying the pain of others which sometimes went by the name of justice. To say that we still commemorate with indignation ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries who, together with five other judges sitting in separate courts, had condemned 300 to death, and have forgotten all about our far more industrious and productive ‘Hanging’ Judge Cumbo.

Jeffries, one satirist said, had the greatest concern for the salvation of the souls of those he sent to their deaths. He made sure he only executed the innocent.

Cumbo mostly presided over the criminal court, but occasionally took a break in between one torment here and a gallows there, to administer his peculiar brand of justice in the civil court. The torture bench (with a sharp inverted V-shaped ridge running through its length, on which the suspect was dropped astride with his or her legs apart) in Malta lost its original Italian name of cavalletto squarciapalle and became popularly known as iz-ziemel ta’ Cumbo. In other countries this device earned itself the nickname of Judas’ chair, and I don’t see much of a difference there.

Grand Master Pinto held Cumbo in the highest esteem, and, before becoming head of the Order, took private lessons from him in law, sealing his admiration by allowing the doddering sadist to remain on the bench till his very last breath.

When still an adolescent, Cumbo contracted a marriage with a wealthy old spinster who left him all her abundant wealth on condition he would not remarry after her death – another proof of how easy it is for weirdoes to find each other irresistible.

He died in harness on 20 August 1761, preparing a case he was to try the following day. No children survived him and his considerable estate went to his niece, the widow of the lawyer Dr Ellul. Never belying a raw religious sensitivity, he willed a large number of pious legacies and is buried in the church of St Domenic in Valletta.

The Italian jurist Giandonato Rogadeo, who was in Malta a short time later, recounts the funeral procession of a judge. Enraged bystanders stoned the coffin all the way to its resting place. Rogadeo does not mention the judge’s name, but I would not be amazed if that was Giulio Cumbo’s fair rite of passage on his way to meet the Risen Lord.

Another judge, according to the Italian jurist, died in a fit of terror. An indignant population had seen to it that he lived in constant fear.

A third Cumbo judge made a gory name for himself in Malta during the days of the Order. Dr Giuseppe Cumbo was one of the three judges who shifted into overdrive when the serious conspiracy of the slaves fell apart in 1749. The other two were the Castellano judge Giacomo Nataleo and Pietro de Franchis. Pinto’s orders left little to the imagination: to proceed ‘more militari’ to torture all the suspects.

Cumbo and the two others read in this an invitation they could not refuse. They meted out the most indescribable tortures on the suspects during interrogations followed by harrowing torments on the gallows. In all they executed about 38 miscreants amid prolonged, stomach-churning agonies in stage-managed public spectacles.

Such was the sadism flaunted by the three judges that a detailed account of the plot and the torments, published shortly later in Italy had to be placed on the papal Index of Prohibited Books, to spare readers the shock and revulsion as to how far the charity of a good Christian prince could stretch. And this in an age immune to cruelty and virtually unshockable by inhumanity, however extreme.

Cumbo’s partner in this tsunami of sadism, Judge Nataleo again hit the chronicles with a thoroughly unsavoury incident in 1758. On his way out of court on an afternoon, he crossed a peasant from Zejtun who failed to raise his cap at the passage of his august majesty. Oppressed by an inconspicuous sense of self, Judge Nataleo kicked him violently, calling him cornuto fottuto, terms of endearment I would rather not translate. The countryman, opposing decorum to the judge’s intemperance, had the temerity to answer that those words became no one, let alone a gentleman. The farmer then went on other business to the Bishop’s curia.

Judge Nataleo, outraged by the grossness of this contempt of court, discreetly surrounded the curia with his sbirri, to arrest the disrespectful oaf when he left the premises. The Vicar-General got wind of the siege, and ordered some officials who enjoyed immunity from the criminal court to escort the farmer to a church in Zejtun where, cornuto or not, he was exempt from arrest. The Vicar-General reported the happening to Pinto, who ordered the sbirri to lay off and placed the farmer under his personal protection. Judge Nataleo’s honour, sadly stayed unvindicated.

Two other Maltese judges of the cinquecento whose names the records preserve were Dr Melchiorre Cagliares and Dr Valerio Micallef. Unfortunately, what they became renowned for leaned more to the side of public scandal than legal erudition.

Dr Melchiorre Cagliares (also Cagliarese – from Cagliari? − probably the father of the only Maltese bishop in the times of the Order, Baldassare, consecrated in 1614) carved out a good legal career, starting as advocate for the poor, widows and orphans in 1573, progressing to rapporteur and to assessor judge in a particularly high-profile case in 1584, when the Council ordered the arrest of the knight Fra Francesco Sommaia on his return from a corsairing expedition in the Levant. He was charged with a dozen crimes, including stealing the booty captured from the Turks, personally murdering a soldier on his galley, and, most unforgivable of all, serving the poorest of dinners to the knights on board – facendo loro una tavola sordidissima che era un’ indecenza da non tolerarsi. The Council ordered Cagliares to investigate and prosecute.

Cagliares, besides his legal career, cultivated engrossing hobbies too. Did not everyone know that he slept concurrently with Caterina, with her sister Marietta and with Marietta’s daughter too, a committed believer in keeping it all in the family? The state paid him for protecting widows and orphans after all, didn’t it?

In a colourful conflict between Bishop Gargallo and the Grand Master, Cagliares had called the bishop vigliacco to his face. For his outspokenness and his resourceful lust, Gargallo excommunicated him. On one occasion, Cagliares felt slighted by Don Antonio Inguanez, Rector of St Paul’s church in Valletta, who apparently cut him dead when they met in the street. Cagliares threatened him in Maltese ‘Le tibzax, hecde kif fixkilt lohrayn, infixkil lilik’.

Not everything was deplorable about Cagliares. Promiscuous or not, he donated a painting showing the Crucifixion, acquired in Rome, to the parish church of St Paul in Rabat, which I believe now hangs in the Wignacourt museum.

Dr Valerio Micallef too got through an attractive legal career. I found him first mentioned in 1579 when the Order appointed him to represent it before the Dominican friar Fra Damiano Taliana, conservator of the Order’s privileges. When a number of knights ran amok in Messina, the Council chose Micallef as assessor and again in 1592 and 1594.

He finally became judge – judex castellaniae – with Ludovico Platamone in 1595.

In his private life Judge Micallef adamantly refused to be ungenerous with gossips. He frequented, assiduously, the brothel in Haz-Zebbug run in the house of the high-class pimp Nardu Mamo, an upright man who provided horizontal services. For a fat fee, elite customers, principally Judge Micallef and knights labouring under tons of gilt-edged nobility, steadfastly disposed of what money they could in the upkeep of Mamo’s whores.

The very first ‘Maltese’ judge created by the Grand Master when the Order settled in Malta was Giovanni Calava, who had apparently acted as L’Isle Adam’s legal adviser in the long and arduous negotiations for the cession of Malta to the Knights of St John. If he had a hand in drafting that highly sophisticated 1530 deed of donation, his legal credentials seem to have been quite in order. L’Isle Adam also conferred on Calava the first title of nobility by the new rulers of Malta in 1531, with a grant of lands at Ghajn Qajjet. In fact, he seems to have been the only nobleman to have been appointed judge at the time of the knights. He married twice: to Paola Laureri Segona first and later to Giovanna Caxaro Inguanez.

The second judge recorded by name is Nicola d’Agatha, who in 1546 petitioned the Council of the Order to regulate his investigation into crimes attributed to Giovanni from Salonica. D’Agatha, also referred to as Dagathis, was a Sicilian notary from Mazara del Vallo who had settled in Malta with his wife Isolde. Very likely they were the parents of Luigi d’Agatha, the earliest known Maltese to be ordained Jesuit, in 1557.

The only work I know of which systematically analyses – and savages – the legal professions in Malta was published by Giandonato Rogadeo in 1780. Grand Master de Rohan, bent on improving Maltese laws, the judiciary and legal systems, had invited Rogadeo, a reputable Italian jurist, to pilot his reforms. Rogadeo’s stay in Malta only served to fortify his contempt for the island and all things Maltese. He encountered overt and stealthy opposition to his proposals for change from a conservative legal establishment, which also had substantial vested interests to defend.

In total disillusionment Rogadeo left Malta and consigned to print his less-than flattering impressions of Malta and the local legal classes in particular. Judges and Uditori naturally raised Rogadeo’s hackles highest, and he does little to hide the contempt he so persistently nurtured towards them. He brands them ignorant, dull, scheming, corrupt, biased, bent only on enriching themselves and consolidating their careers.

When, corrupted by bribes, judges dispense injustice, they usually blame it on religion, protesting all the while that it is only the scruples of their conscience that force them to act in a way they would rather not. “Every time judges justify themselves through religion, it is an infallible sign they have been corrupted.”

The only religion he found in the Maltese legal professions was that of thieves who recite prayers for the success of their robberies. He gives numerous examples of the scandalous abuse by the criminal courts of the expedient of ecclesiastical immunity – a favourite tool of corrupt judges to acquit heinous criminals who have lined the judges’ pockets – always under the pretext of respecting the restrictions imposed by religious immunity.

Maltese judges occasionally make an appearance in other manuscript records, like Don Gaetano Reboul’s diary. He noted how on 3 April 1739, Dr Damiano Cassar, known to all as Cassarino, who had been a judge, passed away. Reboul is often lavish with praise for those who no longer needed it, but in this case makes no comments – de mortuis nil. Judge Cassar’s widow was murdered in 1745 by Pietro Vella, a young surgeon-apprentice (barberotto) from Floriana who lived close by – a robbery that ended in homicide. It took the court all of three weeks to investigate, try and hang Vella.

Reboul also mentions judge Dr Pietro de Franchis, one of the troika who had gone on a Pol Pot spree after the disclosure of the conspiracy of the slaves. De Franchis, together with Cumbo and Dr Caldcedonio Mompalao the chief justice (Castellano) had hit the headlines when they condemned to death Baron Isodoro Viani for embezzlement of around 50,000 scudi of public funds and fraudulent bankruptcy.

All Viani’s assets, houses, furniture, jewellery and silver had been seized and on 7 June 1734, the death penalty followed. His neck was spared at the very last moment by his sons who guaranteed his debts, but not before their father made over to them all his entailed immoveable property (fideicommissa). Mompalao, when acting as judge in Mdina, passed away on 20 November 1740.

Reboul notes the death of another judge, Dr Gian Giuseppe Cassar who had been married, and on becoming a widower entered the priesthood – pio sacerdote and refers to the death of judge Dr Battista Gucciardi, formerly of the court of appeal, apparently a big gun if Rogadeo is to be believed. The Italian jurist often wondered at the bizarre turns that case law had taken in Malta, usually to pervert the course of justice. “When Rogadeo pressed for the foundation of the local interpretation through which the fair application of the law was evaded, he found no other than the dubious one that Judge Cumbo and Judge Gucciardi used to understand it that way. Judges make the present corruption depend on the corruption and ignorance of their predecessors, equally animated by the urge to dispense injustice.”

The stealthy spirit of corruption did not stop at the judges’ bench – it extended to private entertainments too. By 1723 the custom had been established that judges and other legal officers were entitled as of right to attend for free any comedy, drama or opera staged in Malta. That year the impertinent impresario of the current opera season decided that enough was enough and the leeching had to stop. He did not distribute the customary free bullettini to the chief justice, the Uditori, the judges of the civil and criminal court, the prosecutor-general and the head of police.

The scandal and uproar this caused! What novel abuses were these that judges actually had to pay for attending spectacles! In an indignant panic they signed a joint petition to the Grand Master stressing the vital importance che non si introduchino nuovi abbusi. Thankfully Grand Master Vilhena treated the application with the disdain it deserved.

It seems that over the years some sort of custom developed on how ceremonials be observed after particularly high-profile public executions. In 1759, for instance, the Mdina authorities removed eight prisoners from the local jail because of overcrowding and transferred them to Fort St Elmo. There they were painstakingly tortured for 13 days, at times for 12 hours at a stretch (the sources give these figures) under the personal direction of Baron MarcAntonio Inguanez.

The prisoners, surprise surprise, finally confessed their guilt, and the judges then sentenced them to hang with a clear conscience. As the Bishop’s field where public executions usually took place in Rabat was under cultivation, to avoid damage to cabbage and sprouts, the life of the six rei confessi was snuffed out on Saqqaja in the presence of an impressive crowd. The spectacle over, Grand Master Pinto treated the judges to a lavish lunch. Six judicial murders in one go had whetted their appetite better than any aperitif. Six judicial murders had whetted their appetite more than any aperitif.

This is the judiciary the British found when they took over Malta. They were appalled by the situation and made a genuine effort to improve matters. Whether their catastrophic jeremiads fully corresponded to the realities of the administration of justice, or whether British political self-interest helped to colour the sorry state of the courts even more sinisterly, cannot be ascertained. The early British documents certainly have the merit of being the only organic assessment of the Maltese judiciary at the time of the Order that has reached us, with the exception of Rogadeo’s blistering denouncement, a bitter book, which anyway has to be taken with a pinch of sugar.

Sir Charles Cameron, Civil Commissioner in 1801, was the first to tackle the anomaly inherent in the remuneration of the Order’s judiciary, which could give rise to serious abuse. Judges had not been paid regular salaries, but received fees levied from the litigants in each case they decided − and this easily gave rise to arbitrariness and scandal. As a palliative, Cameron ordered that large tables be hung in prominent places in each courtroom, in English and Italian, specifying in detail what those judges’ fees ought to be.

Sir Thomas ‘King Tom’ Maitland noted in 1813 that “the greatest vice existing in the administration of the Island seemed to consist in the dilatory and corrupt administration of the laws” according to the Order’s old system. He believed that paying judges fixed salaries instead of expecting them to survive on snatch and grab from the parties to a lawsuit, and appointing them for life instead of for short periods renewable at the pleasure of the sovereign would “add most materially to the respectability and independence of the judges”. Tenure of office for life would not be absolute as “judges acting corruptly were to be dismissed from their office”.

Where hesitation existed was about the ultimate power of the sovereign to reverse the decisions of the courts – a power already stridently stigmatised by Rogadeo. “On the presumption that corruption did exist”, Maitland entertained doubts whether removing the power of the sovereign to scrutinise and reverse the judgements of the courts was such a bad thing after all.

He proposed to camouflage the old tribunal of the Segnatura (the legal advisers of the Grand Master on the reversal of court judgements), by a new High Court of Appeal, of which he would be president himself, and to limit the jurisdiction of the new tribunal “to cases of such gross and palpable venality (corruption) or error of judgement as had led to an obviously false decision”. Maitland believed in himself “being an Englishman, unbiased by any prejudice and unconnected with any of the parties”. I purchased the impressive brass seal of this court from a scrap-metal dealer on the Monti for all of one shilling.

Maitland also factored in the smallness of the island, the way everyone was connected with everyone else, the nature and character of the inhabitants. He realized “how very difficult it would be to select judges who, even if independent of positive corruption, could be supposed to be free from all bias, feeling and prejudice”.

King Tom prepared an important confidential report on the administration of justice in 1814. He found the laws left by the Order “were by no means deficient in most of the essential points, but the practice of the Courts was totally and completely subversive to those laws” – again, echoes of Rogadeo. He returned to the power of the sovereign to reverse decisions of the courts branding it as “neither more nor less than the consummation of judicial tyranny”.

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