The Malta Independent 3 October 2022, Monday
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The ‘cabreo’ Of Fra Mario Bichi (2)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The Conservation Treatment

The cabreo of Fra Mario Bichi is housed at the National Archives in Valletta and is one of the 1,123 cabrei that belong to the collection. It is shelved with the cabrei of the Italian commende of the Order.

Temperature and humidity levels play a fundamental role in the conservation of archival materials. Malta’s climatic conditions do, in fact, affect the state of many of our works of art. The extreme fragility of the manuscript attracted my attention to carry out the necessary treatment for its long-term preservation.

Photographs as well as the required documentation on the book were carried out before treatment was commenced. The cabreo’s main problem was its extensive worming which was concentrated along the spine, both internally and externally. It also presented problems of warping, abrasions on the leather binding as well as problems of acidity in the paper.

The interventions included primarily the mechanical cleaning and dismantling of the book. The manuscript leaves were washed and repaired using a leaf casting machine after various tests were carried out for the insolubility of the ink. In some cases the leaves were further strengthened along the spine area with Japanese tissue paper. The illustrated plans were repaired manually using various kinds of Japanese papers and the leather binding was treated using calf skin as well as various fixatives and dressings for the consolidation of the deteriorated areas.

After repair the gatherings were re-stitched and the entire book rebound as it had been originally. The missing collocation tag was reconstructed based on existing contemporary tags from other cabrei. The function of the tag was to be able to read the title and author of the volume when shelved. Books were normally stored horizontally for preservation reasons unlike today’s typical vertical placement on shelves due to lack of space. Moreover, they were a rare item in an ordinary household, owing to widespread illiteracy. Therefore an attached tag at the foot of the front cover of the binding was what indicated the bibliographical information as well as the position of the volume within a collection. At the end of the project a box was carefully constructed to contain this precious volume, made of acid-free board and acid-free lining.

Fra Bichi’s family

Through the archival document known as I Processi di Nobilità1, a great deal of information has been deduced about Fra Mario Bichi himself. As documented in the Biccherne Senese, which record the baptism dates of all Senese families, he was born in 1653 and was knighted at the early age of 11 in 1664. He was also Commander of the Galleys which is probably the reason why he was sent to Malta. He belonged to the Priory of Pisa, since the Commenda di San Pietro in Camollia, (situated in Asciano in the province of Siena) fell under the same priory.

The Processi consist of a set of questions asked to four different witnesses regarding the nobility of Mario Bichi. As it was one of the requisites to enter the Order, the noble descent of his family was of prime importance. Mario Bichi came in fact from a noble Senese family of the highest rank.

In the Comune of Bagnaia, Siena, a mention is given to a palace belonging to the Bichi family: “già 1318 esisteva sul territorio un Palazzo Bichi”.2 Again in Tuscany, a certain Giovanni Bichi is said to have been responsible for administering the construction of the city walls of Asciano in 14523. A certain Niccolò di Giovanni Bichi is mentioned to have been the “podestà della terra e corte di Asciano between 1565-6”.4 The Bichi family must have remained in the area of Val di Chiana for over five centuries because at a later date in 1750, Alessandro Bichi was elected podestà of Asciano5.

Bonelli writes: “Nelle nostre scale di valore appaiono medesimi nomi, le famiglie Piccolomini, Borghesi, Bichi e Chigi fra i primi quattro”.6 Fra Mario Bichi was the nephew of Fra Giovanni Bichi, the celebrated knight who had a palace built for him in Malta by Lorenzo Gafà in 1675 (and later altered by George Witmore) in the area of San Salvatore where it still stands. He died in Malta in 1712 and is buried at St John’s Co-Cathedral.

Other cabrei

The Bichi cabreo is the fourth volume that deals with the property on the site of San Pietro in Camollia. The other three cabrei retrieved from the Archives of the Order belong to Fra Centorio Cegnolo, Fra Cesare Baua and Fra Ottavio Bandinelli. The first two cabrei are bound together in one semi-limp parchment binding, while the third is richly bound in parchment with gold tooling marks.

All three cabrei belonged to the knights that formed part of the Priory of Pisa. Therefore their property in Asciano, Siena, fell under the same priory. The most striking of these manuscripts is that of Fra Centorio Cegnolo, which has several pen drawings of his property. Many comparisons between these sketches and the illustrations on Fra Mario Bichi’s cabreo were made, bringing to light some interesting details. The observations made concerned primarily the structural changes of the commenda, brought about over the years. One can easily observe the alterations done at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Through observations obtained from the cabreo itself and through indications from municipal and ecclesiastical authorities of the area, I have been able to locate the position of the Commenda di San Pietro in Camollia. Not much of the original commandery survives today. However, the church still stands. The commandery seems to have undergone several alterations, but the church, especially the façade, is clearly recognizable through a number of features. Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of having carried out conservation treatment on this manuscript was the historical research involved that led to the discovery of these structures which still stand today.

Part 1 was carried last week.

Theresa Zammit Lupi holds a BA (Hons) in History of Art from the University of Malta. She trained as a book and paper conservator in Florence between 1996 and 1999. She then read for a Master’s degree in book conservation at Camberwell College, London, where she is now currently reading for a doctorate in the same subject.

This article first appeared in the Easter 2002 issue of Treasures of Malta, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Treasures of Malta is a magazine about art and culture which is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.


1 A.O.M. 4064. Brought to my attention by Fra John Critien.

2 Bonelli Conenna L., Il Contrado Senese alla fine del XVII secolo – poderi, rendite e proprietari, Academia Senese degli Intronati, Siena, 1990, p. 90.

3 Cfr., A. Liberati, Asciano in Bollettino Senese di Storia Patria, Nuova Serie, Anno VIII, Fascicolo III, Stabilimento Arti Grafiche, Siena, 1937, pp.17-18.

4 Cfr., ibid., p.28.

5Ibid., p.32.

6 Op.cit. Bonelli Conenna L., p.76.

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