The Malta Independent 24 October 2020, Saturday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Life in the time of Coronavirus

Marie Benoît Wednesday, 9 September 2020, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

This week’s Diarist is Judge Giovanni Bonello. His contribution to Maltese cultural and legal history are well known nationally and internationally. He specialized in constitutional and human rights litigation, defending 170 human rights lawsuits before local and international courts. He reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed judge at the European Court of Human Rights, a post he held for twelve years which brought honour to Malta, too. His hobbies are abstract photography, baroque music and archival research. The author of thirty-five books and countless articles he made history more popular and interesting. He is much decorated and sought after to sit on boards and foundations. Here he chews on pandemics, plagues and pestilence, but not only.

Though now living on the periphery of injury time, I had never in my long life been exposed to a pandemic at close quarters. I recall the popular alarm at a whiff of bubonic plague just after the war, soon disciplined, and a wave of polio which left two acquaintances in wheelchairs - otherwise nothing more threatening than the seasonal flu. Did you take the jab? Yes, I did, you never know. No, I don't believe in it.  Yawn. Alarmist drama from pathogens only stretched that far before 2020.


Maybe the onset of scarlet fever after the war counted as an epidemic. If it did, then I qualified. Probably in 1944, half my body turned red, and I was told the condition was extremely contagious, rushed by ambulance to St Luke's hospital and segregated in an infectious diseases ward. The nurses couldn't have been kinder, especially a nun who spoilt me rotten, perhaps because my father was still imprisoned in a British concentration camp in Uganda. But I was accustomed to my mother's Tuscan cooking and found it hard not to retch gulping down St Luke's war pap. It took about four weeks for the red to clear. Maybe my incompatibilities with red started then.

Will Covid-19 inspire great art? Other epidemics did. The Iliad kicks off with a massive plague. Boccaccio's Decameron came about with the black plague in Florence in 1348. Shakespeare sets his Timon of Athens against a background of pestilence. In I promessi sposi, Manzoni has some powerful pages acting out in the 1630 Milan plague. Then Marcel Pagnol, Les Pestifers. Right up to 1985, when Garcia Marquez published Love in the Time of Cholera, epidemics fuelled outstanding literature.

I, who usually disdain fiction and virtually never allow a novel to misappropriate any of my time, read these six  masterpieces, at different times and for different reasons - and was greatly enriched by all. Their common factor? Epidemics. Was this coincidence, which I don't believe in, or predestination, which I believe in even less?

Presentation of one of the Judge’s Histories of Malta to Dr Alfred Sant. On the right the late Maurice De Giorgio

A Covid siesta gave me a chance to revisit my research on the first known pandemic physician in Malta, and on the wholly absorbing book he wrote about his medical experiences on the island. When Grand Master Verdalle lost faith in the abilities of Maltese doctors - prodigiously ignorant, craven cowards but insatiably greedy - to contain the great plague of 1593, he hired Dr Pietro Parisi, reputed to have performed wonders during other plague epidemics in Italy and North Africa.

The truth is that all doctors then were quacks, mostly driven by good intentions wrapped in guesswork, with zero science to support their treatments. Parisi fared no better than anyone else. He, like Donald Trump, hadn't a clue what caused the pandemic, or how to deal with it. He actually believed that excessive sex triggered it and blamed a Maltese prostitute for introducing the plague in Palermo. The position of the planets also bore responsibility.

We now know that the plague is caused by a pathogen found in rats and transmitted by fleas who have bitten infected rats and later humans - but this was only discovered 300 years later.

Astonishingly, Parisi in Malta made some very acute observations, showing that one can sometimes be right - by mistake. He examined the bodies of the crew of a ship who had all died of the plague. Some had no external signs. Their bodies looked perfect, except for a flea bite! He also advised against the euthanising of cats, widespread during the plague: do not kill cats, he pleaded, as these destroy rats. He was almost there, but missed the revolutionary significance of his observations.

Vincenzo Bonello (1891-1969), Giovanni’s father,  the eminent art historian, museum curator and architectural designer, and an artist in his own right

A pestilence inspired one of Malta's art giants. Mattia Preti had already achieved fame as a 'plague artist' before settling in Malta, when he painted huge devotional images for all the gates of Naples to celebrate the liberation of the city from the plague in 1659. In Malta, his second and third largest cycles of paintings (after St John's) are also intimately plague-related. Sarria church in Floriana was rebuilt, to Preti's architectural concept, in thanksgiving for Malta's defeat of the plague in 1676. Preti also painted all the images inside his church, seven large masterpieces, all plague-related, recently splendidly restored.

Tradition has it that Preti took refuge in Zurrieq during the most lethal plague Malta had ever experienced. For whatever reason, he developed a special relationship with that village, and St Catherine parish church now houses an impressive number of outstanding Preti canvasses, some pestilence-relevant, more than any other church in Malta barring St John's. If Preti came to love Zurrieq because he was quarantined there during the plague, why can't I come to love Swieqi, where I've invested in gallons of sanitizer and discarded a score of anti-Covid masks?  Sorry, I can't, though, frankly, I haven't tried really hard.

All my working life I have been haunted by constitutional law, and my attempts at forgetting it on a back burner have always proved unsuccessful. I am still persecuted by it.

During the first Covid lockdown, I only left home at sunset for a brisk and solitary walk round the block. On one of these exercises, I stumbled across a former British client of mine, one of the old school. Having your constitutional? he asked kindly. That persecution again. What I answered him silently, Marie won't print."

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