A look at Palazzo de Piro, Mdina.
Following the huge readership of “A visitor’s assessment of two museums in Malta”, we are sharing these musings.
Nestled in a street, off Malta's First Cathedral is the grand and newly refurbished Palazzo de Piro.
Formerly part of a girls' school, an old shield displaying the arms of Depiro adorns the facade beckoning respect for this Maltese family’s history.
In the sections below we look at parts taken from the website of “Palazzo de Piro”.
Our summation is that a more suitable name should have been chosen for this beautiful property.
“Palazzo de Piro is a 17th Century Palazzo nestled in the bastion walls of the medieval city of Mdina, Malta’s Silent City………….What we know as Palazzo de Piro as an existing structure now was originally three separate houses, the oldest parts of which date back to the second half of the 16th century. The emblem in what is now the main entrance hall indicates that they were built by Malta’s most famous architect Girolamo Cassar or his equally renowned son Vittorio. Over the last two centuries, Palazzo de Piro has been extensively remodelled a number of times. The internal floor levels were changed and windows ordered blocked up by Alexander de Piro himself, the monumental stone and marble staircase was constructed in Victorian times and in the 1950’s, extensive structural changes were made to accommodate the school that was run by the Dorothean nuns after the house was sold on by Orsola’s heirs.”
The building is said to have been the residence of the Falca family which was already extinct by 1647. There is evidence to show by the 19th century it had come into the possession of the Cavaliere Giovanni Parisio Muscati. Sometime later the house by then known as “Casa Fortunata” came to be gifted to the Dorothean nuns by a Monsignor Mifsud together with another house “Casa Mifsud”. Buhagiar and Fiorini refer to both houses as Palazzo Parisio Muscati.
The nuns could not take possession at the time because the property had already been tenanted to the new Missionary Society of St. Paul founded in 1910 by Monsignor Giuseppe Depiro, hence the name of the house was derived not because of any association with the Depiro family but simply because it was convenient for Mifsud to describe the building as “il corpo di beni comprendente la casa di mia abitazione e l’attigua occupata dall’Istituto tenuto da Monsignor Decano Giuseppe Depiro in una a tutti i mezzanine e comodita’ dipendenti ed attigui allo stesso coropo di beni.”
In 1921 the house reverted to the owners and they used the building for classrooms.
Finally the nuns themselves recently gave up the premises much to the consternation of Monsignor Mifsud's heirs who promptly sued the nuns for the return of the property. An appeal is pending but no Depiro has come forward with a claim on the ownership of the house.
It is unlikely the property was ever sold on by Orsola’s heirs to the Dorotheans because the owner previous to the nuns was Mifsud.
Buhagiar and Fiorini (1996) “Mdina, the Cathedral City of Malta”
Court case: Rosalie Mifsud vs Mother Provincial of the sisters of St. Dorothy
“In 1868, Alexander de Piro D’Amico Inguanez and his new wife Orsola took up residence here soon after their marriage.”
The Depiro family is said to hail from Rhodes and accompanied the Order of St. John in 1530. It moved up in the world securing a local title of barone in 1716 and the titles of Most Illustrious and Noble in 1727.
A further title, of Marquis, was obtained in Spain in 1745 for half a million sixty two thousand five hundred maravedies de Vellon. The maravedí was tied to the real de vellón, causing the real de plata to be worth 68 maravedíes. Therefore this title was bought for 8,273 real de plata. In 1864, the real was replaced by a new Spanish escudo, then by the peseta in 1868, when a real came to mean a quarter of a peseta. Hence this title cost 2,069 pesetas, or just slightly more that 12 Euro (14 Au dollars) in modern money.
Other than titles of nobility there is very little accounted for by this family during the order's tenure of the island. In fact, this family does not feature in Abela's Descrittione di Malta (1647) and only makes a fleeting mention in Ciantar's Malta Illustrata (1780).
By modern standards, the Depiros were new money. Their fortune had come from two main sources:- The municipal appointment once held by Gio Pio De Piro and his marriage in to an equally new but much richer lady called Anna Gourgion.
The Wheat Procurator enjoyed a commission of ten grani for every salma of wheat imported. Giovanni Gourgion was appointed procurator in 1700 and was succeeded in 1703 by his son in law Gio Pio.
Despite the fabulous wealth, no Depiro, owner or tenant, is recorded as residing in Mdina until the 19th century. In 1868 at the time when Monsignor Giuseppe’s parents moved in they were only collaterals to the main line. They had not succeeded any particular wealth from their paternal descent.
However Giuseppe’s father Alessandro appended "Damico Inguanez" as proof of an honourable descent through his mother Gerolama Sceberras even though at the time her brother’s family retained the lion’s share of the D’Amico Inguanez wealth until it finally became extinct as recently as 1981.
Like Alessandro’s own father, two of Giuseppe's siblings successfully took up professions, which honourable as they may have been, automatically excluded them from any rights of precedence given by Grand Master Rohan in 1795 to those junior descendants who could prove they and all of their intermittent male ancestors lived off their own rents.
A turn in Giuseppe’s family’s hopes for fortune first occurred when the accumulated wealth was almost passed off to another Monsignor by the last member of the main line. Donna Francesca Depiro willed all her earthly possessions to Monsignor Grech Delicata. However Alessandro’s unmarried brother had her will annulled in January 1885, because he proved the lady was mentally infirm: “non era capace di comprendere la lettura di una novella o di una comedia di Goldoni”.
With the estate now in their uncle’s possession, the junior depiros remodelled their antecedents to a more acceptable social status which occurred in 1916 when the uncle died. As holders of the estate, they asserted a claim to the barony, even though in this case it was the estate which followed the title. Their mother Ursola Agius Caruana was reintroduced as the great heiress of a house in Florence: the inconvenient detail her father has bought that house through a Napoleonic auction was airbrushed from memory. The Spanish title eluded this junior branch, that title being successfully rehabilitated in 1870 in favour of another branch, but it persisted in calling itself "dei Marchesi Depiro D'Amico Inguanez", overlooking there was never a Marquis with that surname. This practice was not regulated in any way, the local Government having ruled in 1878 not to recognize any legal right to the Maltese use of the genealogical designations of “dei Marchesi”, “dei Conti” and “dei Baroni”.
A brother Igino became Senator on the basis he had been nominated in the title of baron by the unmarried uncle. With hindsight Igino should not have been made representative because by then it was already known there was an even more senior branch of the Depiro family which had been legitimated on the 5 December 1807m and because more recent investigations have shown private nominations, even is made by will, of titles of nobility are invalid. Igino was also one of two delegates representing the “general community of Malta” at the Coronation of King George VI.
Bad luck and political intrigue of 1976 forced the last holder of the wealth to sign off a heady list of properties variously situated in Malta (Burmarrad, Dingli, Gudja, St. Paul's Bay, Zabbar) and Gozo (Ghajnsielem, Gharb, Zebbug, Victoria).
Public Contract 30 April 1717 (Notary Gaspare Domenico Chircop) whereby the usufruct of certain properties were to be enjoyed by the successor of the title created in 1716.
“The Genealogy and Heraldry of the Noble families of Malta”, Vol. 2, PEG Publications, 1992, Gauci Charles, Table 74.
Public Contract 10042/1976 (Notary Gambina)
“Orsola was an heiress with various properties including a palace and small church in the heart of Florence, but it was here she decided to bring up a family of seven boys and two girls. As a great Maltese matriarch she managed both her family and considerable works of charity with energy and enthusiasm, and continued to do so after the untimely death of her devoted husband.”
Orsola’s biography was published in Christmas 2011. Her pet name was “Chica”.
Chica was born Agius Gauci but she is better known as Agius Caruana. Surnames are easily appended in Malta as long as the root surname is clear.
Chica married Alessandro Depiro in 1868 and lived 1847-1937. Her husband died in 1898 aged 49.
The book is a double whammy of nice pictures of fine buildings and of detailed cv's of many of Chica's descendants. This Christmas turkey is stuffed with sentimental pieces and forgotten colonial masters.
On the downside, very little of the data actually concerns Chica leaving an unpleasant after-taste of having been fed something not quite right.
There is a vast compilation of "dei Marchesi Depiro" in pictured documents, but the narrative talks about "dei Marchesi and dei Baroni Depiro" plus the occasional Baron, Marquis and -inos. Some Counts are featured too.
The publication impresses less about Chica and more about titles of nobility claimed by her descendants through other sources. The book has Felicissimo Apap Bologna as "6th Count of Catena" even though he lost the "Catenaentail" to Gerald Strickland who was descended from the elder line of the Counts Bologna. Similar themes recur in different parts.
Whether Chica a self-sufficient lady, actually cared for other people’s plumes is not discussed at all. Nor is any mention made of the Catena entail’s colourful history that spans 2 centuries of court litigation.
No mention is made of the painting donated by Ursola (noted as Marchioness Depiro) to Cospicua Parish Church, of her family's intimate connections to the villages of Qrendi and Mqabba or of the many masses said by her saintly son Giuseppe for the repose of her soul and those of other Agius family members.
"Nonna Chica", Introduced and edited by Peter Apap Bologna, Malta (2011). ISBN 978-99932-0-849-5