The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Three women’s take on history

Noel Grima Wednesday, 21 August 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

The Journal of Baroque Studies Number 02 Volume 02

There is an anomaly in Valletta which most of us do not know about.

Oliviero Vasco was a rich man who, together with his wife Caterina, bought a large plot of land in the new city Valletta in the first sales of land after the Great Siege.

This was a large site on Strada San Giorgio (Republic Street) corner with Strada Fontana (St Christopher Street) on which they first built eight workshops.

In 1572 they obtained papal permission to build a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. They also built a spacious home for themselves next door to the church. Across the road, opposite the main door of the church, they built a smaller house for the chaplain.

In June 1599, a legal dispute arose between the Vascos and their next door neighbour, the Italian knight Bali Fra Pietro La Rocca, prior of San Stefano.

La Rocca had acquired two large properties, later known as Casa Rocca Grande and Casa Rocca Piccola. The problem was that the chaplain's house built by the Vascos lay between the two Rocca houses and prevented La Rocca from connecting the two properties.

The dispute centred on the Order's rule of Collacchio - that the knights had to reside separate from the non-knights. This rule had been enforced in Vittoriosa when the Order had its quarters there, but it was never really enforced in the new city of Valletta.

La Rocca argued that the site lay within the boundaries of the Collacchio and priority should be given to members of the Order. Vasco argued in turn that the house was for the use of the chaplain, which was allowed in a Collacchio.

Eventually La Rocca dropped the case and the house still belongs to the building opposite which in time came to be St Catherine's church and monastery.

Petra Caruana Dingli, who told the story, uses this episode to illustrate the culture of writing as seen in the many documents in this regard, mostly legal texts at a time when the culture of writing was taking over the management of affairs.

In the second article in this collection, written by a woman, Christine Muscat focuses on the Magdalene monastery in Valletta. She has already written a highly entertaining book on this unique monastery (Magdalene Nuns and Penitent Prostitutes, 2013) which was reviewed on these pages.

In this article she focuses on the nuns' struggle to retain their autonomy in the face of accusations by Inquisitor Evangelista Carbonese in the context of the reform decisions by the Council of Trent.

In the preceding years, the Order had been forced to relinquish control over the Magdalene monastery and to pass it on to the bishop. Actually, this new arrangement did not change much, for the bishop was normally chosen from among the chaplains of the Order.

But some 12 years later, Inquisitor Carbonese wanted to change all that and remove the bishop's spiritual jurisdiction. He argued that the nuns' spiritual leadership fell under his remit.

At this time, in 1611, the nuns had instituted a court case against a certain Pietro Torriglia from Bologna, the husband of a meretrice (prostitute). They accused him of giving the monastery less than the 20% dues of his wife's inheritance. They also felt that the lawyer appointed by the Order was not giving them full support.

The nuns asked for Inquisitor Carbonese's help. The inquisitor needed no begging - he entered the court, revoked the judge's decision, suspended court procedure and effectively took over the monastery.

But his triumph was short-lived. The Order had some notable representatives in Rome and by October 1613, the bishop was reinstated.

The third woman in this three-women series is Vicki Ann Cremona who writes about the successive structural changes at the Manoel Theatre that have come to light during the recent restoration.

Noel Buttigieg writes about the kitchen complex at the Inquisitor Palace in Vittoriosa. As shown by recent literature on this subject, successive inquisitors sought to transform their abode from some rooms on top of a prison to a stately palace according to the dictates of the time.

These efforts included having an up-to-date kitchen according to the best practice of the age. Those were times when people did not have our modern kitchen equipment and procedures were far more complicated. There was also space for novelties - specifically coffee. Unlike the rest of Europe, coffee in Malta was pioneered by Muslim slaves captured during corsairing activities. The drink took the island by storm during the second half of the 17th century.

Renowned author Stephen C. Spiteri writes about the establishment of a Fondazione for the production and supply of bronze cannon for the Order in 1770.

The 1750s and 1760s saw a massive effort at upgrading the Order's military equipment. The Portuguese knight Fra Raimondo de Souza reported that the Order's warehouse contained 24,000 muskets which were totally unserviceable due to rust. In 1761 the knights had 721 iron guns and 498 bronze cannon which by 1788 had decreased to 533 iron guns and 332 bronze cannon of which only 235 were serviceable.

In 1770, de Souza set up a special Fondazione financed by the huge sum of 50,000 scudi which was to be invested and from whose interests guns would be purchased.

However, for all this, Spiteri notes, it is not known how many cannon or mortars were actually produced through the profits generated by de Souza's investment. Nor do we have any examples of guns or mortars bearing de Souza's coat-of-arms.

And, as we all know, when Napoleon arrived in 1798 not a single shot was fired and all the formidable bastions were taken without any problem.

The last article by a Maltese author, Charles Savona Ventura, consists of a long list of French aristocrats, some beheaded in the French Revolution, that the author holds were members of secret chivalric orders.

The foreign contributors include Francesco Gaudioso from the University of Salento who writes about wills and the abusive interference by bishops who took hold of a will and dictated how that inheritance should be given out, threatening excommunication. G Krasskova from Fordham University writes about the "castrati" - the male singers who were made to undergo an operation to retain a voice like that of a woman. Paolo Militello from the University of Catania describes the new cities established by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries in Sicily and the New World and how they tended to replicate already existing Spanish cities. And Gennaro Cassieri from the Catholic University Sacro Cuore of Milan describes the efforts by Ludovico Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, to effect reconciliation and a papal absolution between Protestant Henri IV and the successive popes.


The Journal of Baroque Studies Number 02 Volume 02

International Institute for Baroque Studies

University of Malta



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