The Malta Independent 18 February 2020, Tuesday

Gio. Nicolò Muscat

Sunday, 6 January 2019, 08:50 Last update: about 2 years ago

Please allow me to make some comments on Mr Noel Grima’s article ‘Debunking Gio. Nicolò Muscat’ (The Malta Independent on Sunday, 23 December 2018).

My comments are two-pronged. First, this is, of course, not an original article but a reproduction of Judge Giovanni Bonello’s which appeared in Melita Historica in 2017. It would have been more beneficial to the academic world if Mr Grima had produced an update of Bonello’s work in the light of my recent book, based on research conducted in Naples and the Vatican, besides in Malta.


     What lies behind Mr Grima’s action baffles me. Did he want to remind the readers of  The Malta Independent on Sunday who have not yet got a copy of my book to go and buy one? Or perhaps he wanted to give me another opportunity to air my views on my hero? Who knows? Only Mr Grima can tell us.  Is not the Editor of the paper aware that a long review of the book has already been published by His Excellency Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici?

My second point is that it is puerile to accuse Muscat of being corrupt because he was immensely rich. Again, is it academically accepted to claim, on the authority of Dr Carmelo Testa, that the British appointed Muscat vice-president of the courts and then say that Testa was wrong, having mixed up Muscat with Dr Giuseppe Nicolò Zammit? Why quote an unreliable source? Again, the remark that Muscat was a convinced miser having left only one ‘mocking’ tarì (irbieghi) to his sovereign, the bishop and his parish priest, is incorrect. This was only a customary standard clause found in wills.

As regards Rogadeo and his proposals for reform it must be said, and I emphasised this in the book, that much was desired in the Maltese legal system. For example, the separation of the powers was ignored. All the same, Rogadeo was surely misconceived about judicial torture and capital punishment, which he considered to be the only means to restrain the fury of our indomitable passions. He was also wrong to recommend secret evidence because, as Muscat put it, ‘poor indeed is innocence if it were to be judged by secret delators because how can it defend itself?’

Rogadeo said some reasonable things about the Maltese courts but, according to Inquisitor Mgr Zondadari, he hurled his insults in his viturative and dishonest book “not just against those responsible for his banishment from Malta but against the entire nation.” Muscat stood up to him and declared Malta a civilised European country which imported from abroad only eunuchs and galley rowers.

     Muscat is said to have ‘grovelled prostrate at the feet of the Pope’ when Pius VI ordered Rohan to ditch him. First of all, it must be said that Muscat lost his seat only after the fourth demand by the Pope. He defied the Pope three times and resigned not because of the Pope’s orders. For Muscat ‘this is not the Church’s century’ and he loved to struggle with the Pope, even if he were to lose. He did not mind the result. Reading carefully between the lines of the correspondence between Malta and Rome, one realises not that Muscat collapsed but that he was constantly pulling the Pope’s leg. It was the international situation which made the Grand Master act the way he did. Rome was the only ally on which Malta could rely.

The brunt of my book is Muscat’s heroic attempt to separate the State from the Church. This is a grand idea, which has baffled theologians and philosophers alike for many centuries.

I have already remarked in Enlightenment and Reform in Malta (2006) and elsewhere that the historian has nothing to do with anticaglia, of interest only to antiquaries. Knowledge of the past is not something to be passively transmitted, ‘the joy of the hunt’, nor ‘the pleasant food of curious men’ but the tool with which to better the material or spiritual life of the people. Let us not revert to the time of Ignazio Saverio Mifsud who, in 1743, founded the Accademia dei Fervidi. Its members read only sweet nothings to each other, which were simply – to borrow the words of that eminent historian, Ludovico Antonio Muratori – perditempo (a waste of time) and fuggilozio (an avoidance of idleness). Mifsud’s stature as a writer can be gauged by the fact that his Biblioteca Maltese was so devoid of any literary merit that it was sold by weight as wrapping paper.

Muscat was a powerful and self-righteous man, who had the will to change and an inner certainty that he was right. His great national importance, his consuming interest and his steadfast determination lay in the fact that he was haunted by the conviction that Malta should not be reduced to the status of a province of Rome. But he lived in a period when the new had not yet quite arrived and the old had not yet quite disappeared.

Bonello’s article is not the type of publication that one extolls. One should encourage not page-fillers but research which improves the material – or spiritual – life of the people. It pains me to see that, in 2019, we are still stuck with the idea that history is a serious of stories that are little more than anecdotes, short of breath and short of life, frivolous incidents that take us back to the antiquarianism of the 18th century.


Prof. Frans Ciappara



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