The Malta Independent 21 May 2019, Tuesday

What about a swimming pool in Vassalli’s backyard?

Mark A. Sammut Monday, 18 February 2019, 08:42 Last update: about 4 months ago

A collected volume of writings on Vassalli has been recently published, entitled Fuq il-Passi ta' Vassalli, by the 'Vassalli Exclusive Club' within the Akkademja tal-Malti, edited by the indefatigable Joseph P. Borg (xix+460 pp).

Let me start with the good things: the book's proof-reading is impeccable. It's one of the few Malta-published books I have recently read which has absolutely no spelling mistakes. Where I disagree with the proof-reader is only on the gender of l-Ordni (as in 'the Order of St John', not in 'the command'): l-Ordni ta' San Ġwann is masculine, l-ordni li jħallas is feminine. Otherwise, it's top-notch work. Kudos.


The design is neat, consistent and easy to read. Where I disagree is only on the fact that the reproduction scale used for certain documents is too small, making it difficult to read certain details. Otherwise, it's top-notch as well. Again, kudos.

The choice of contributors is also good, even though I have to highlight two negative points. Let me start with these, then I'll say something about the contributors.

Firstly, it is understood that in a contributed volume like this one, it is the Editor who gives purpose to the book and decides on its style and structure, and chooses and chases the contributors for their contributions. Now, whereas the book says that the Editor was Joseph P. Borg, Professor M.A. Falzon opens his contribution by stating that he was invited to contribute by two other people. So it seems that there was a figurehead editor (Joseph P. Borg) and at least two de facto editor(s). I might be wrong, but books don't usually have "editorial boards", so this aspect is a bit messy and, sorry to say, amateurish.

Secondly, the choice of contributors strengthens the perception of an 'Exclusive Club' which needs 'big names' to buttress its credibility. The work smacks of self-serving aspirations, as if credibility can be acquired by association or by diffusion. This dilutes the overall effect of the otherwise good work of the 'big names' invited to contribute.

For indeed, the 'big names' are really big in the local context. Even a cursory look at the Table of Contents will yield an impressive list of contributors who, as expected, have written insightful and intelligent pieces. The pity is that there are no contributors' biographies. Regarding the contents of Giovanni Bonello's contribution, I cannot express an opinion because he graciously mentioned a small piece of information I forwarded to him a couple of years back and there is thus a conflict of interest. As to the methodology, however, I do not have any compunction about saying that, from a scientific point of view, it is to my mind the best contribution to the volume.

Which leads me to the contributions of the members of what I am cheekily calling the "Vassalli Exclusive Club". Whereas this is essentially a book about history, certain contributors feel as though they were Ben Stiller in A Night at the Museum. I don't know if you remember that particular series of movies. It was about a bloke who must have really underperformed in history when he was at secondary school, but he's still recruited as the night custodian in a museum. The members of this "Exclusive Club" are like night custodians in a museum full of historical artefacts and they really don't know what to make of them. I feel like shouting Mark 8:18 at them!


Flesh and blood: the key to Vassalli

Ivan Said's contribution to the book is well-written and well-researched, but it lacks polishing. For instance, why does Mr Said offer his own translations into Maltese without quoting the original in English, particularly considering that the texts he cites go back some 200 years? Given the precedent established by the Case of the Trambusto Guerriero Mess (and a Half) - on which I'll spend a few sentences further down - I would have expected a more prudent attitude from the editor(s).

That said, Mr Said has passed a most acute, I would say brilliant, remark on Vassalli, which is at once unsophisticated and yet brimming with wisdom. I think it should be quoted in its entirety (I beg to be forgiven for leaving out the Maltese original - space is the issue here): "This essay shows us that, at the end of the day, [...] Vassalli, despite [his] great intellectual prowess, was only flesh and blood like anyone else, with [his] strong points and his weaknesses" (p. 306). It might sound bland if not even pedestrian but in reality it is a very strong reminder to soi-disant professional historians who run away with their own interpretations after having a certain relationship with the facts. (A bit like French historian François Furet, who built his reputation on his interpretation of the French Revolution, but in whose obituary The New York Times opined: "He won both admirers and critics with his conceptual approach to history, in which he preferred to overlook minute detail in favour of political and philosophical analysis.")

Why am I saying this? Because professional historians seem to be dying to follow Furet down the rabbit hole. Let me for a moment refer to another "Vassalli Exclusive Club" publication, Dawl ġdid fuq Vassalli (edited by Olvin Vella, 2004).

In that volume - again lacking biographies, and even (like the present volume) any sort of index (sic!) - French Professor Alain Blondy decided to pass a harsh criticism on Vassalli for referring to Bonaparte as Buonaparte - the pejorative Italianate form used by the Emperor's detractors. Blondy (p. 126) seems to imply that, having turned sour, Vassalli also turned against the hero of his youth. Now, truth be told, Vassalli was, like many others of his contemporaries, a big-time adventurer, who liked to gamble, and gamble hard, with life.

Vassalli's essays in linguistics (I'm here using essay in both senses) are only one part of his multi-faceted life. The "Vassalli Exclusive Club" seem unable to understand this, possibly because it is beyond their own personal experiences. Vassalli was an adventurer, absolutely not averse to risk-taking, a capitalist (see his insistence on retaining the machines, the means of production, when his cotton-growing business went bust: remember, cotton-spinning machines are one of the first emanations of early modern capitalism), but when modern capitalism was still in its infancy and the laws were still not attuned to the new culture. Vassalli lived not only the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, but also during a moment of transition in economic and legal history. His experiences and the experiences of others like him were the catalyst for the important liberal codifications that took place throughout the 19th century - 'liberal' in the sense that they nurtured the liberty to do business. This aspect needs to be properly investigated.

Like latter-day capitalists, Vassalli probably sought the help of secret societies, which served also as clubs where people could forge business alliances while engaged in allegorical speculation. But secret societies apart, when Vassalli's capitalist adventure - depending more on fortune than on prowess - came to a grinding halt and he found himself destitute, he asked all the people he knew for help.

This is where the French Blondy makes a blonde mistake! In his article (ably translated by Toni Aquilina) for Dawl ġdid, Blondy implies that Vassalli turned against the hero of his youth and criticises him for this. This could or could not be true, we cannot know. It is more probable, to my mind, that what Mr Said said holds true: Vassalli was flesh and blood like anyone else, and in his moment of misery, when he was literally down and out, and Napoleon's rule was definitely over, he was ready to say anything to please people he probably cared very little about but could help him save his skin.

Professor Blondy's unjustified comment was enough, in my view, to derail another professor, Frans Ciappara. Keen to impose the revolutionary-turned-reactionary narrative on Vassalli, Professor Ciappara misunderstood Vassalli when, in his Prospetto of 1820, he wrote about his escape from the "trambusto guerriero" in Italy. Professor Ciappara thought Vassalli was referring to Napoleon (guerriero as noun, 'warrior'), whereas Vassalli was referring to the chaos (trambusto) of war (guerriero as adjective). (See my article in this paper of 31 May 2015). Thank goodness, in the volume at hand, Olvin Vella corrects the mistaken interpretation, following - but not acknowledging - my translation (p.429).


Bercow's delicate flowers

So, those were the good points. Now let's move to the... less-good points.

But before I do that, may I indulge in one naughty caprice? A few days ago, reacting to a complaint by a Government MP, the formidable Speaker of the House (I'm referring to the Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, just in case you thought I had more angelic references in mind) told the MP: "I was not hitherto conscious that the Honourable Gentleman was notably sensitive, that he was in any sense a delicate flower, that he was capable of being a quickly and severely injured soul by virtue of the ad hominem remarks of others. If in fact it has been the case that he has been developing a sensitivity and he feels insulted [...] or even wounded, deeply wounded apparently, well then I'm sorry for the Honourable Gentleman". This is research, not botany. So let's move on.

I am a bit confused on Nicolò Muscat. Professor William Zammit (like others before him) claims (p.379) that Uditore Muscat died in 1803. But Professor Blondy, in his article which I mentioned above, says that the Uditore Muscat wrote a letter directly to Emperor Napoleon I (sic) dated 24 October 1811 (p. 117). How is that possible? Where is the mix-up?

I am also perplexed by the chapter purporting to deal with Vassalli, the corsairs, and cotton. It is so beautifully written, you glide through it as if it were Emilio Salgari's novel The Black Corsair. Those of my age and older will remember Kebir Bedi ("Sandokan") playing the title role in Sergio Sollima's television film based on the novel, rendered immortal by that exotic song 'Hombres del Mar', composed and performed by the de Angelis brothers... As you have guessed, I am saying that, like Salgari's novels, this chapter is rich in detail but poor in analysis, meant more to entertain than to understand.

The following are some questions on Vassalli which baffle me and for which, after all these decades of research, I would have expected to find an answer in this copious book:

1. Vassalli is constantly depicted as a poor peasant boy who needs lots of sympathy, because any way the wind blows matters much to him. And yet, when he was 10 years old, his confirmation godfather was the Marquis Apap. Mikiel Anton was the only child for whom Dominus Apap stood as godfather. Why? (This information transpires from research covering the years 1764 to 1780 and limited to Ħaż-Żebbuġ.)

2. Vassalli made children with a daughter of the Conte di Santa Sofia, Caterina. How come? (No silly answers, please. I'm referring to the presumptive difference in social class, if any.)

3. Another daughter of the Count of Santa Sofia's was married to Count Vincenzo Mattei. When Vassalli was in financial trouble (as was his wont), he wrote to Bishop Mattei! Given that Mattei is not exactly Borg, there is a great probability that the Bishop and Caterina's brother-in-law were relatives. Furthermore, the Matteis were cousins with the Naudis - two articles in the book are dedicated to Dr Cleardo Naudi, but nothing is said about this connection, in a country where family ties were, and still are, of great moment.

4. There is a (publicly viewable) website claiming that Vassalli was a nobleman. A minor one, to be sure, but a nobleman nonetheless. This privileged birth would provide a plausible answer to questions 1 and 2 above. And yet, one finds no efforts in the book to try, if anything, to debunk such claims.

These are shortcomings of the editor(s), not the contributors.


Don't forget the swimming pool, man!

In the meantime, while the boys keep themselves busy playing exclusivity games, on page 447 of the book there is a photo of a house in Ħaż-Żebbuġ that, according to the editor(s), is the birthplace of Vassalli. (Side-note: Is that the humble abode of a poor peasant family? It's more of a palazzo than anything else.)

I hope that enough ruckus is raised to make sure that PA/01499/18 is refused.

I expect the former Deputy Speaker of (our) Parliament, Michael Bonnici, who in the past clamoured for other patriots, to make his thunderous voice heard once again.

PA/01499/18 is an application filed a year ago with the Planning Authority to 'develop' the house where Vassalli was born and spent his early years. Only the valiant Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar have registered as objectors. And rightly so. Apparently, somebody has had the brilliant idea of building a swimming pool in the house where Vassalli - one of the great icons of our little nation - was born. Not content with that gash, they also want to deface the façade! This is beyond shameful! I'm aghast at what is happening!

According to the Case Officer: "The site in question consists of a one storey high building of significant architectural and historical value which in the area is known as being the birthplace of Mikiel Anton Vassalli, however this is unlikely." On what documentary evidence did the Case Officer base that "unlikely"? Anyway, to his credit, the Case Officer recommended that the application be refused.

The Labour-led Local Council of Ħaż-Żebbuġ is a 'statutory consultee' and as such must have received a notice from the Planning Authority alerting it to the application. Why did it not speak up to object? Was the application even put on the Council meeting's agenda? It's been almost a year!

Similarly, why didn't the 'Vassalli Exclusive Club' speak up? Is it because their eyes are so glued to the ground to follow Vassalli's footsteps that they are completely blind to this giant leap of an attack on the physical links to the Patriot's memory?


My Personal Library won't appear this week, for obvious reasons.

Thanks to Ann and Maria Pia for their much-appreciated help with the research.

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