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The Links and relationship between Malta and France

Malta Independent Sunday, 7 August 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the initiative of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tonio Borg and in collaboration with Embassies and High Commissions present in Malta, started a series of Talks on Malta’s relations with other States in October 2010

Following an opening speech by Dr Borg, Dr Albert Ganado gave a talk on relations between Malta and France. Afterwards, the French Ambassador, Daniel Rondeau, addressed guests, prior to a closing speech by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The history of Franco-Maltese relationships revolves around personalities who made an impact, great or small, on the island’s vicissitudes. Through these personalities and their work, most of which Mr Ganado have endeavoured to show from original engravings and lithographs. He said his speech will illustrate the contribution of France to the events and/or heritage of the Maltese islands.

Palazzo Parisio and Napoleon

On entering the palace, some stop to read the marble tablet on the façade, which states that Napoleon Bonaparte set up his headquarters there during his short stay on the island. Napoleon came to Malta with his army on the way to Egypt on 9 June 1798. When the Order capitulated, he landed on the 12th and spent the first night at the Banca Giuratale, (recently the Public Registry) in Merchants Street, and then took up residence at Palazzo Parisio.

In a matter of days, he revolutionized the social fabric of Malta, leaving Major-General Claude-Henri- Belgrand Vaubois to execute his orders. In November 1800, Sir Ralph Abercromby, commanding a British expedition to Egypt, called at Malta and, like Napoleon, he stayed at Palazzo Parisio until 20 December.

The most well-known picture of Napoleon’s landing is the lithograph designed by Baron Jean-Antoine-Theodore Gudin who came to Malta in December 1839.

There are French and German views of the harbour titled “The Capitulation of Malta”, copies in reduced size of Gudin’s lithograph, and two engravings titled “Siège et défense de Malte” and “Prise de Malte” published in Abel Hugo’s France Militaire. In this context, Dr Ganado mentioned the political caricatures published in both France and Britain throughout the Napoleonic period.

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There are over 60 in which Malta is present, most of which were produced in 1803 when war broke out again between England and France after the British government refused to evacuate Malta. One of these caricatures, dated 14 June 1803, refers specifically to Malta as ‘The Bone of Contention’, and another one, dated 31 August 1803 and of which only one copy is known to exist, is titled “The Maltese Man-Trap” in connection with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt.

Dr Ganado spoke about some of the French protagonists related to this momentous event. For over 26 months, the General Comte de Vaubois was in command, first of the French government in Malta, and later, when the insurrection started, of the French garrison defending Valletta and the Three Cities. On the very first day in Malta, Napoleon formed a Commission of Government under the presidency of Bosredon Ransijat, who in 1801 published in Paris his Journal du siège et blocus de Malte. The Commissioner of Government with the said Commission, that is, the head of the civil government, was Michel-Etienne Regnaud de Saint-Jean d’Angely; he left for France in November 1798 and became Minister of State under Napoleon and Count of the Empire.

The French Grand Masters

The occupation of Malta brought to an end the domination of the Order of St John which had ruled over the Maltese Islands for 268 years. So in almost three centuries, what has Malta gained through the French Grand Masters of the Order? The first Grand Master in 1521 of the Order who ruled over Malta was Fra Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam.

After his success in bringing about reconciliation between the two warring Kings, Charles V of Spain and François of France, L’Isle Adam convened a Chapter-General of the Order at Viterbo to decide that Malta and Gozo were being accepted as the permanent seat of the Order.

L’Isle Adam took possession of Malta in 1530 and ruled for four years. In 1533 a description of the Order was written by Abbé Jean Quintin. Published in Lyon in 1536, it was the first ever printed description of Malta.

The third Grand Master in Malta was Didier de Saint Jaille, one of the most generous defenders of Rhodes. He was elected in his absence in November 1535 and died in September 1536. He was remembered as having endowed the principal church in Malta.

The fifth Grand Master in Malta was Claude de la Sengle in 1553, a Knight of the Langue of France and Grand Hospitaller. He strengthened the existing fortifications, built Fort St Michael and gave his name to L’Isla, officially known as Senglea.

He was succeeded by the sixth Grand Master in Malta Jean de Valette in 1557, the hero of the Great Siege of 1565 and the founder of Valletta Città Umilissima the year after. He did not have the satisfaction of seeing it completed as he died in 1568 and the Knights moved from Birgu to Valletta in 1571.

The eighth Grand Master was Jean l’Evêque de la Cassière. Fighting and insubordination within the ranks of the Order was rife with the result that la Cassière was deposed by the Full Council in 1581 and imprisoned.

La Cassière’s successor, the ninth Grand Master Hugues Loubens de Verdale was quite the opposite and ruled happily for 13 years. Instead of being a strict disciplinarian, he loved the good things in kife.

The 11th Grand Master was Alof de Wignacourt, who, touched by the sufferings of the Christian captives of the Barbary States, set up the Monte di Redenzione, a fund for their redemption. It was through his munificence that an aqueduct was constructed to bring the water from the high lands down to Valletta, ending in 1615 with a charming fountain that embellished Piazza San Giorgio, today’s Palace Square. The aqueduct arch at Fleur-de-Lys, destroyed by a crane driver of the services, was never rebuilt. The magnificent Neptune fountain at the Marina, near the ta’ Liesse church, painted and admired by so many visitors to Valletta throughout the centuries, was vandalized by a Maltese administration, after the statue of Neptune had long before been removed to The Palace by a British Governor. It must be mentioned that it is thanks to Alof de Wignacourt that Malta owns the two Caravaggio paintings.

Only less than a year separated Wignacourt from Antoine de Paule, the 13th Grand Master. Whatever other faults he had, de Paule loved luxury and splendour.

When he died in 1636, another Frenchman, Jean-Paul de Lascaris Castellar (the 14th Grand Master) was elected. Most of the towers were built by de Redin, but Lippia tower was erected by Lascaris. In order to keep the young knights out of mischief, he built for their pleasure in Floriana a long enclosure for the ball-game called pallamaglio (pall-mall).

Grand Master Cotoner was succeeded by another Frenchman (the 16th Grand Master) Annet de Clermont de Chattes Gessan.

The 20th Grand Master was Adrien de Wignacourt, a gentle and virtuous nephew of the great Alof de Wignacourt. He is remembered as a great benefactor of the poor, widows and orphans. He set up the dockyard in which the Order’s galleys were built.

The last French Grand Master (the 27th) was Emmanuel de Rohan Polduc. He gave Malta the municipal Code de Rohan, which in civil matters remained for the most part in force until the enactment of Adrian Dingli’s Civil Code of 1868. Rohan was an agreeable and accomplished man of the world, but also a humane ruler who abolished torture. What proved to be the last large, beautiful, building erected by the knights was ordered by de Rohan to create a national library.

Concluding, Dr Ganado remarked that wherever you go in Malta, the Grand Masters have left their mark. The French contribution to the history, art and culture of the Maltese Islands has been tremendous, reaching its zenith in the 18th century.

The Biblioteca

In the field of culture, the setting up of a public library takes pride of place. Its founder was a French Knight, Fra Jean-Louis Guérin de Tencin, born in December 1702 in the ancient capital of the Dauphiné, southeast France. This is the vital link in the history of the library.

At Palazzo Malta, the Embassy of the Order, he came to know and immediately befriended another member of the Order, Cardinal Joaquin Fernandez de Portocarrero, a great collector of books. In 1760, the Cardinal died in Rome, bequeathing to the Order his splendid library. De Tencin made arrangements to become the keeper of the books and to use them for the formation of a public library. He hired a house in Strada Reale corner with Strada Santa Lucia, commonly known as il Forfantone, within which he set up the Biblioteca Pubblica or Tanseana.

Views of Malta

In so far as the Maltese landscape is concerned, the output of French artists is quite considerable; namely Joseph Goupy. Contemporaneous with Goupy’s vedutismo, another little known French artist and military engineer worked in Malta, Sieur Philippe-Nicolas Milcent. His engraving titled “Malte – Vue de l-Entrée du Port” is one of the very first of its kind. It seems that Milcent came to Malta in 1715 with a team of French engineers led by Brigadier Louis-François d’Aubigne de Tigné.

Another publication of the early 19th century contains a description and various views of Malta drawn in 1798 by Dominique Vivant Denon, followed shortly after by a view of the Lower Barracca of 1833 by a French architect, Jean-Baptiste Marchebeus. In July 1832 Alphonse de Lamartine, one of the greatest poets of the French Romantic movement, arrived in Malta. He made no sketches, but there are many revealing observations in his letters.

Towards the mid-19th century the celebrated Lemercier lithographic and printing firm produced a large number of lithographs of Maltese interest. Two rare views of the harbours are signed Lith. de Lemercier.

Other French personalities

In connection with the wondrous fortifications of Malta, names of French military engineers abound − from Jardin, D’Arpajon, Vauban and Blondel in the 17th century, to Marandon, Mondion, Tousard and the two Tignés in the 18th. Also, in 1783 the famed scientist Déodat de Gratet de Dolomieu published in Paris a memoir on the temperature of the climate of Malta in his book on the Lipari Islands.

There are several French cartographers who produced maps of Malta, among whom is Sieur de Beaulieu, who produced, in 1646, the last known printed map of the Great Siege of 1565, and another map of Malta around 1670.

Another interesting portrait shows Laurent Cars, who was the engraver of all the portraits of Grand Masters in Vertot’s history of the Order which are all signed ‘Cars sculpsit’. There are then, of course, other engraved portraits of some celebrated French Knights of Malta.

Last but not least one has to give credit to those who have made a contribution to art in Malta. In 1749, Maltese artist Alberto Pullicino painted four outstanding large oil views of the harbour of Malta commissioned by Chevalier Etienne-François Turgot.

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