A different view of the classes of old Maltese society.
A different view of the classes of old Maltese society
“The Grand Prior of Minorca” was written by Geoffrey Crayon. It is a ghost story, a fiction, but what is interesting is that it is given the following historical background from whence it results that a ‘reputation’ was enjoyed by some Maltese ladies. Three classes of women are identified, the old nobility (saintly, and absolutely no), the middle class (willing, but choosey) and the lowest echelons (no choice).
This text is taken from “The Corsair” Volume I (1840))
“It may be as well to premise, that at the time we are treating of, the order of Saint John of Jerusalem, grown excessively wealthy, had degenerated from its originally devout and warlike character. Instead of being a hardy body of " monk-knights," sworn soldiers of the cross, fighting the Paynim in the Holy Land, or scouring the Mediterranean, and scourging the Barbary coasts with their galleys, or feeding the poor, and attending upon the sick at their hospitals, they led a life of luxury and libertinage, and were to be found in the most voluptuous courts of Europe. The order, in fact, had become a mode of providing for the needy branches of the Catholic aristocracy of Europe. "A commandery," we are told, was a splendid provision for a younger brother ; and men of rank, however dissolute provided they belonged to the highest aristocracy, became Knights of Malta, just as they did bishops, or colonels of regiments, or court chamberlains. After a brief residence at Malta, the knights passed the rest of their time in their own countries, or only made a visit now and then to the island. While there, having but little military duty to perform, they beguiled their idleness by paying attentions to the fair.
There was one circle of society, however, into which they could not obtain currency. This was composed of a few families of the old Maltese nobility, natives of the island. These families, not being permitted to enrol any of their members in the order, affected to hold no intercourse with its chevaliers; admitting none into their exclusive coteries, but the Grand Master, whom they acknowledged as their sovereign, and the members of the chapter which composed his council.
To indemnify themselves for this exclusion, the chevaliers carried their gallantries into the next class of society, composed of those who held civil, administrative and judicial situations. The ladies of this class were called honorate, or honourables, to distinguish them from the inferior orders ; and among them were many of superior grace, beauty and fascination.
Even in this more hospitable class, the chevaliers were not all equally favoured. Those of Germany had the decided preference, owing to their fair and fresh complexions, and the kindliness of their manners -. next to these, came the Spanish cavaliers, on account of their profound and courteous devotion, and most discreet secrecy. Singular at it may seen, the chevaliers of France fared the worst. The Maltese ladies dreaded, there volatility, and their proneness to boast of their amours, and shunned all entanglement with them. They were forced, therefore, to content themselves with conquests among females of the lower orders. They revenged themselves, after the gay French manner, by making the " honorate" the objects of all kinds of jests and mystifications; by prying into their tender affairs with the more favoured chevaliers, and making them the theme of song and epigram.”
In 1805, Samuel Taylor Coleridge made the scandalous claim that “Every respectable family (in Malta) had some one knight for their patron…. and in nine instances out of ten, this patron was the common paramour of every female in the family”. (See Montalto, page 85)
It seems that Coleridge had the middle class in mind. His choice of word ‘respectable’ is different to ‘respected’.
In his book, Montalto (pp. 80-81) gives a brief description of suspected liaisons between knights and certain ladies. Both examples cited by him refer to ladies whose families do not feature in the 1647 list but were only recently ennobled.
It seems that Montalto, Coleridge and Crayon are in perfect agreement to distinguish between the old and the new families but with a reputation like this, the need to distinguish between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ families of Malta becomes very pressing.
The old families are described and but it appears that the three authors are implying that the unspeakable decadence we are now talking about, came about during Grand Master Rohan’s rule.
“Referring to the nobles, Borsch comments: ‘Their women lead a very retired life, and that of their husbands is none the less so.’ Spreti confirms these views by informing us that ‘the barons are few and not amiable, finding it very hard to receive the Knights in their houses, because they, having suffered various wrongs and discourteous treatment from a few extravagant fellows among the Knights, do not wish to expose themselves again to similar affronts, and thus it has come about that many innocents must suffer for the bad behaviour of the guilty few’. The above-quoted observations (also confirmed by other authors) undoubtedly account for the cold relations with some of the noble families, which again according to Spreti, are divided into ‘persons of four degrees: the barons, the counts, the citizens and the common folk’. With regards to the first two degrees, the only mistake made by Spreti is that of grouping all the new nobles with ‘the counts’. The concept, however, is there, that is the established nobles living in their ‘fortified palaces’ in contrast to those who had just acquired a title. With regard to the new nobility, Spreti concludes that: ‘the counts are ……….more accessible that the above-mentioned barons, receiving the Knights more readily into their houses and in this rank……………. There are families – though few indeed – where one may pleasurable pass a few hours of the day without offence to God.
This proves that, occasionally, the Knights did choose their mistresses from the aristocracy. Indeed, those seeking ennoblement, or other favours, from the Order, often had ‘protector knights’ to intercede on their behalf, sometimes at the price of the morality of their women. The enthusiasm which emerges between the lines in a letter by the Italian Knight, Giuseppe Ticcinelli, to Baroness Sceberras congratulating her on the ‘new title of her worthy family’ appears to be more than merely courteous. The version given by the traveler Carasi with regard to the Maltese female titolati is perhaps more relative: ‘There are some Baronesses who retain the highest rank among the gallant women, but these creatures are nothing but fictitious Baronesses; affectionate mistresses of the bailiffs, who have only acquired their nobility through the shame of these old avares and at the expense of their honour. They are instigated by intrigue and are the ones to dispose of favours and commanderies.”
Indeed, we have seen some instances of very serious offence caused by the Knights on members of the old nobility. Two Maltese barons were pummeled by gangs of knights whilst another was humiliated by the oppressive regime. We also saw how Rohan prolonged a simple succession of title in favour of one of the old families, by resorting to the appointment of a Commission which compares with the speedy dispensation of favours titles in favour of his acolytes.
“A final example of the type of friendship which existed is shown by the close, indeed affectionate, relationship between Grand Master de Rohan, and Lorenzo Fontani and his son. Lorenzo, who was a member of a Florentine banking family, was employed at the Grand Master’s Palace. In 1776, de Rohan made him a confratrem of the Order, and later appointed him Intendente del Palazzo Magistrale, which meant that Lorenzo was required to reside at the Palace, where he died in 1788. His son, Vincenzo Fontani, became a favourite of the Grand Master. When he was made Captain of the Cavalry, and allowed to reside in ‘Palazzo Rohan’. On the 1 December 1792, at the age of eight, he was made a Knight of Devotion, and given a magnificent silver cross encrusted with diamond. Two years before his death in 1797 de Rohan created Vincenzo Fontani Count of Senia. Many years later Count Fontani showed his gratitude to his patron and benefactor by being instrumental in the restoration of de Rohan’s beautiful monument in the Conventual Church of St John.”
In 1981, Gauci (page 118) is more explicit:
“There is strong evidence to suggest that he (Fontani) was in fact, de Rohan’s son. (J. Bugeja Esq. dei Conti della Senia, personal communication.)”
It appears that these liaisons may be the real basis for many, if not all, the titles created by Rohan. Montalto (pp. 29-38) after giving a brief overview of the older titles of nobility which were granted for particular services, and their peculiar remainders, (e.g. in default of nomination, the Barony of Benwarrat was to be enjoyed by the eldest male descendant), he goes on to consider Rohan’s creations describing how these were not granted for any particular merit but were applied for.
“During the last quarter of the eighteenth century it was normal to petition the Grand Masters for a title. Hence nearly all these grants were solicited………….Invariably, the Grand Master (Rohan) accepted these petitions. Many of the titles were granted rather quickly, at times on the very day that the petition was presented. It is therefore, highly probably that the petition was only a formality, negotiations having taken place earlier, and usually in secret.”
The list of these ‘suspect’ grants is quite long, Rohan having been a very energetic creator of new titles, to wit:-
1. Marchese (Muscati Xiberras) di Sciorp il-Hagin, 8 March 1776;
2. Barone (Dorell Falzon) della Marsa (Third creation), 10 March 1776;
3. Barone (Azzopardi) di Buleben, 23 July 1777 (later extended);
4. Marchese (Barbaro) di San Giorgio, 6 September 1778(later extended twice);
5. Barone Gauci, 23 December 1781;
6. Conte (Gatt) di Beberrua, 23 October 1783;
7. Marchese (Mompalao) della Taflia, 25 October 1783;
8. Marchese (Mallia Tabone) del Fiddien, 15 October 1785 (later extended);
9. Marchese (Alessi) della Taflia, 15 October 1785;
10. Conte (Teuma Castelletti) di Ghain Toffieha, 7 January 1792;
11. Barone (Calleja) di San Cosmo, 27 November 1792;
12. Marchese (Apap) di Gnien Is-Sultan, 1 December 1792;
13. Conte (Barbaro) di Santi, 14 January 1794;
14. Conte (Marchesi) di Meimun, 8 March 1794;
15. Barone (Carbott) della Grua, 30 December 1794;
16. Conte (Fontani) della Senia, 6 June 1795, and
17. Marchese (Delicata) di Ghain Kajet, 4 June 1796
It is not being suggested that all of these grants were the result of a knightly venture into the sheets of the grantee’s spouse:- this may be another case of many innocents suffering for the bad behaviour of the guilty few.
Even so, some questions come to mind:-
- Rohan’s creations, particularly of those of the higher rank of Conte and Marchese might have upset the established nobility (the older baroni) . However the Grand Master appears to have appeased that concern in 1795 when the rule of precedence was modified to ensure that seniority was regulated by antiquity of the nobility not the rank of title.
“The Master of the Hospital at Jerusalem, of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Order of St. Anthony of Vienna – It being a principle universally acknowledged that the lustre of Nobility principally depends on its greater antiquity, nothing is more just and reasonable than that the older Nobles should have precedence over the more recent. We have therefore determined to ordain that, in regulating the precedency among the Nobles of this our dominion, whether first-born or cadets indiscriminately, regard shall be had only to the greater or lesser antiquity of the title by which their family was ennobled, whether that title had been granted by ourselves or by our predecessors, or by foreign princes, provided however, it was registered in our Chancery, and in the High Court of the Castellania. In cases, however, of grants bearing the same date, the person possessing two or more titles, shall have precedence over another who has less titles, according to the rule established by the magisterial decree of our lamented predecessor, Grand Master Despuig of the 16th September 1739, which in any part not inconsistent with our present enactment, we confirm in its entirety. Given at the Palace, 17th March 1795 (signed) Rohan.”
- Another distinction between the old and new nobility is that although Rohan elevated the randy elements of Maltese petit-bourgeoisie to exalted nobility, he appears to have had the judgment not to grant any of them the titles of “Most Illustrious” and “Noble” first introduced in 1725 and granted to the most prominent of the older families. Thus, we have the Marchese di Sciorp il-Hagin Claudio Muscati Xiberras, the (third) Barone della MarsaGio Francesco Dorell Falzon, the new Barone di Buleben Gaetano Azzopardi (who was addressed as a nobleman), the new Marchese di San GiorgioCarlo Antonio Barbaro, the Barone Francesco Gauci, the new Conte di Beberrua Ludovico Gatt, the first Marchese della Taflia Gio. Battista Mompalao, the new Marchese del Fiddien Salvatore Mallia Tabone, the second Marchese della Taflia Saverio Alessi, the Conte di Ghain ToffiehaFerdinando Teuma Castelletti, the many Marchesi di San Giorgio calculated from Gioacchino Ermolao Barbaro, the new Barone di San CosmoUgolino Calleja and the equally new Marchese di Gnien Is-Sultan Filippo Apap, Conte dei Santi Romualdo Barbaro, Conte di Meimun Saverio Marchesi, the Barone della Grua Saverio Carbott Testaferrata (addressed as Magnifico) the Conte della Senia Vincenzo Fontani and the Marchese di Ghain Kajet Geronimo Delicata – All of these brand new titles were not exempted from the 1725 decree.
- A curious rivalry between old and new appears to have persisted long after the Order abandoned Malta. During the 19th century the larger Assemblea dei Nobili was a stronghold of the old families, whilst the new, British-sponsored Committee of Privileges was controlled by the new titolati families. An incident between the two bodies was brought about after the new attempted to take on a precedence which was not due to them. The issue was resolved by maintaining the 1795 legislation, but by then the Committee had taken centre-stage. Recent publications claim a deliberate British agenda to eradicate the older families.Whether this was a result of some one saying “No!” remains to be discovered.
There seem to be many differences between the old and the new nobles of Malta.
The Fontani title, admitted as a probable result of the carnal sins of old, appears to have a very wide remainder descending to the issue male and female of the grantee without any limitation. The terms of this grant read as follows:- “Nobili Puero Vincentio Fontani Crespi, te tuosque descendentes comitem et comites territorii seu possessionis dictae ta Senia positae in hac nostra insula, in loco della Marsa, tuosque utriusque sexus filios et descendentes, comitem et comites prafati territorii sive possessionis ‘ta Senia’ dicimus et nominamus”. On the other hand, this wide remainder is tempered by the requirement of the possession of the land ‘Senia’ situated in Marsa, Malta. In effect there is a limitation to the remainder but it does not exclude the possibility of many descendants possessing the property jointly. Today the different origins of titles of nobility appears to have been forgotten, the Fontani shield being displayed in Mdina alongside other families which are older, no regard being had to the efforts of those forgotten ladies who stayed indoors, or even that one time established nobles lived in their ‘fortified palaces’ in contrast to those who had just acquired a title.
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