The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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‘Sex In the City’ tour: The knights and their ladies of the night

Malta Independent Sunday, 25 March 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Although the Knights of the Order of St John are renowned worldwide for the buildings and monuments they erected, and the brave and honourable deeds they performed, in the 16th and 17th century, regardless of their vow of chastity, they frequented prostitutes and kept mistresses.

While walking through the familiar and not-so-familiar streets of Valletta at dusk on Thursday, Christine Muscat, secretary general of the Malta Union Of Tourist Guides, gave an interesting and fascinating talk about the seamy side of Valletta’s history during a tour titled “Courtesans in the City”.

Abiding by the vow of chastity

Ms Muscat explained that all the knights took a vow of chastity but most did not abide by it.

Many knights, including Grand Masters, had their own courtesans and often fathered children, she added.

“However, they could not openly declare to the world that they were the fathers but often stood in as their godfather,” she said.

Even Grand Master La Valette had a daughter called Isabella and looked after her interests all his life, said Ms Muscat.

The Knights of St John was an aristocratic order, with the Grand Master acting as judge aided by his councillors.

There were four different councils in the Order – the complete, ordinary, secret and criminal.

The complete council was responsible for taking serious decisions such as appointing a new Grand Master or issuing a declaration of war. The ordinary council took care of the daily cases while the secret council could be compared to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said Ms Muscat.

If, for example, a knight did not abide by his vow of chastity and was caught in flagrante with a prostitute, he would be brought up before the criminal council. However, added Ms Muscat, this rarely happened.

The power of the courtesans

Even though many Grand Masters had their own courtesans, and several remained faithful to the same woman for many years, it was not accepted by all.

Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere, for example, issued a ban against all prostitutes in Valletta – a move that backfired disastrously.

Prostitutes, explained Ms Muscat, were not allowed to live next to a church or loiter in the streets.

However, the ban was not accepted by the community and soon after, De La Cassiere was dethroned and sent to Fort St Angelo. Ironically, as he was being escorted to Fort St Angelo, he was mocked by the prostitutes who were lining the streets of Valletta.

Another Grand Master, Juan de Lascaris-Castellar, was persuaded by the Jesuits to ban prostitutes from taking part in the carnival festivities.

However, the Jesuits were later expelled from the island for their pains.

Ms Muscat related another episode depicting the power of the courtesans during that period.

During his reign, Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, who had his own courtesan, seemed to have offended the morals of the Order’s chaplain.

The chaplain decided to inform the Pope that de Vilhena was breaking his vow of chastity. However, before he managed to do this, de Vilhena defrocked and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.

De Vilhena code

Following this episode, the Grand Master decided to create a set of laws known as the De Vilhena Code.

However, explained Ms Muscat, this code was not equal for all.

If, for example, a wealthy married man was found guilty of going with a prostitute, he was fined 25 scudi for his first offence, followed by 50 scudi and 100 scudi. On his fourth offence, he was expelled from the island.

Two-thirds of the fines were donated to the congregation of beggars and the remaining one third went for court expenses.

However, if a poor man was found guilty of going with a prostitute, the punishment for his first offence was a public whipping. Six months hard labour for a second offence and two years as a galley slave for the third offence. If the man was unlucky enough to be found guilty a fourth time, he was hanged.

Punishments were harsher if the man was an infidel or a Jew, explained Ms Muscat.

The punishment for a first offence was having their ear and nose chopped off and if they relapsed, they were hung.

Furthermore, prostitutes that went with infidels or Jews were publicly whipped and hung.

Being a courtesan or prostitute did not have the stigma it has today, explained Ms Muscat.

“The courtesans had great power and became very rich. The amount they earned in one year was almost equivalent to what Caravaggio earned in his lifetime,” she said.

If a person needed a favour from a knight, they would usually go through his courtesan.

Till the very end...

Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca remained faithful to his courtesan throughout his life.

“He had a courtesan before he became Grand Master and kept the same woman even after he was appointed. She lived in a nunnery, but when he desired her presence he would send his men to call for her or she would be waiting in his box at the opera house.”

Ms Muscat said Grand Master Pinto’s personal secretary had documented that Pinto passed away at the grand old age of 92 while making love to his beloved Pallucci.

City vs village mentality

While prostitution was openly accepted in the city, it was a different story in the villages.

Ms Muscat explained that prostitution was seen as a way of making money and a form of patronage.

A rich family would not have objected to their daughter being the courtesan of a knight, she said. “It was not seen as something dishonourable – unlike in the villages where honour killings would take place,” added Ms Muscat.

Since Valletta was a prosperous harbour town, the business of prostitution thrived. Prostitutes came from all around the Mediterranean – groups would come down from Sicily on the ships that transported ice.

Although prostitution might have been initially poverty-driven, it helped a woman move up in society. A clever prostitute would save money and eventually buy a house and put a dowry together, i.e. respectability. Once she had “bought her respectability”, she could easily find a husband and be considered a respectable woman.

Prostitution and religion

Furthermore, religion and prostitution did not clash, they co-existed peaceably, said Ms Muscat.

“For example, a knight could walk into the courtyard of a house where a group of women would be reciting the rosary. One woman would get up and go to a room, and the knight would join her.”

This room was usually full of holy pictures (santi), candles and a large crucifix.

Furthermore, said Ms Muscat, to make sure of a comfortable place in the after life, prostitutes donated large sums of money to various churches in Valletta – especially the Carmelite church.

It was very easy to find a prostitute in Valletta. All a man had to do was walk down the street and flash a gold coin.

Prostitutes were not dressed any differently to other women in those days, so if a man wanted to approach one in the street he had to look out for certain signs. They usually carried a palju, a little fan made out of straw, but if he was not quite sure, all he had to do was look at her shoes as prostitutes wore platforms instead of normal shoes.

Prostitutes registered their profession in the parish register – along with the rest of the citizens, explained Ms Muscat.

In 1667, in the parish of Porto Salvo in Valletta, there were 165 registered prostitutes, one fifth of the population.

The Maddalene

Grand Master Martin Garzez, who had been advised by the Inquisition to set up a home for penitent prostitutes, did so in the convent of St Ursula.

However, the nuns were furious at his decision and often mistreated the girls. To make matters worse, Garzez did not provide the women with any food, clothing or money so many died.

Garzez then moved the girls out and established the convent of the Maddalene, which was run by the nuns of Santa Chiara from Sicily.

To fund the Maddalene, Garzez imposed a tax on working prostitutes that went to the upkeep of the convent and also said that when a prostitute died, one-fifth of her estate was to be given to the convent.

Naturally, as there were many illegitimate children, the Order’s installed a ruota at the Infirmary – a swivelling cot that opened up onto the street. The prostitutes would place their infants in the ruota, turn it and the babies would be taken into care by the hospital, which in turn placed them in the care of a foster family. Older children were sent to an orphanage close to St Elmo.

The infirmary also had a section to treat venereal diseases called the falanga. This was divided into two sections: the heating rooms and the therapeutic rooms where the patients were treated with mercury.

However, very unfairly, the knights did not want to treat women in the falanga so a noblewoman called Caterina Scali created a casetta – a hospital where women with venereal diseases were treated.

Strait Street

During the time of the Knights, Strait Street was used for duelling. Even though duelling was against the code of the Order, it still took place mainly over women, explained Ms Muscat.

Up till a few years ago, one could still see the red crosses on the walls that marked the place where the duels had taken place.

It was also extensively used in summer because people could walk from one end of Valletta to the other in the shade.

Strait Street gained its reputation as a haven for prostitutes during British rule. The upper part was upmarket and home to several jazz bars. In fact, Ms Muscat said, many of Malta’s jazz musicians developed their talents in Strait Street.

However, the lower part was sleazier and full of bars, some of which are still there to this day.

The girls in these bars were very young and paid a pittance. They earned their keep by enticing sailors to drink. Each time a sailor offered them a drink, they would get a piece of lead (comba), but were careful to drink tea and not anything alcoholic to remain sober. At the end of the day, the prostitutes would exchange the pieces of lead for money.

Each bar kept a box of broken crockery that was carefully arranged around a sailor when he was dead drunk, added Ms Muscat. The barman then called the ship’s captain who paid for the damages, which was deducted from the sailor’s salary.

Caterina Vitale

Caterina Vitale was a woman of Greek origin who married, at the young age of 12, Ettore Vitale – the Order’s pharmacist – in the 17th century.

Ettore was killed two years later when a bomb exploded outside his house.

At the age of 14, Caterina took over his role as pharmacist of the Order of St John becoming the first female pharmacist in Malta.

However, there was a dark side to the woman. Ms Muscat described her as an “industrial prostitute” who slept with the knights and then threatened to report them unless they bought property or slaves.

She kept eight slaves that she mistreated constantly. These slaves took Caterina to the Inquisitor’s court three times, complaining that she mistreated and whipped them.

However, she was a very crafty woman who always managed to elude justice thanks to her connections.

Caterina was a great benefactor of the Carmelite Church and is in fact buried there. The irony of it all, pointed out Ms Muscat, is that Caterina Vitale is buried on the right hand side of the church while the noblewoman Caterina Scali is buried on the left hand side.

She was also very cruel to her own daughter, added Ms Muscat. Her daughter did not agree with her mother’s lifestyle and, as a way of making amends, decided to go and help the prostitutes at the convent of the Maddalene. However, Caterina went to the convent and forced her out.

She made her daughter marry a middle-aged man and did not even give her a dowry. Her daughter took her to court and was awarded a small dowry – which was a pittance.

When Caterina died, she left all her money and properties to various people, the Order of St John, her niece, the Carmelite Church, the Greek church, but nothing to her daughter.

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