Reassessing a muddied champion
Mario Testaferrata Castelletti (25.5.1737-28.7.1813) was a Maltese nobleman who lived during interesting times.
Mario is noteworthy because his name features prominently in the basic documents relative to that phase in the history of the Maltese Nation when complete independence was first claimed: the demise of the government of the Order in Malta, the short-lived French domination and the unstable period which followed thereafter when the great powers of the time were devising how to dominate the Maltese Islands.
What is remarkable is that contemporary documents indisputably show him on the forefront of political milestones1 but later publications appear to ignore him. In this essay we find ourselves raising more questions than we originally intended to do.
As seen below, Mario is today portrayed as a traitor on two counts, once for having “betrayed” the Order in 1798 and secondly for having “conspired” against the “popular” English administration.
He was also – in effect - posthumously stripped of all his titles by the English.
We have discovered that the Marquis was a champion of the Maltese cause for independence and we would like to see his name – and titles – rehabilitated. Malta owes him nothing less than that.
An attestation to Mario’s historic credit-worthiness is found in a private and confidential paper dated 15 November 1801 where the British Civil Commissioner2 , Charles Cameron wrote:-
“Marquis Mario Testaferrata, of the first family in the Island. One of his ancestors was made Grandee of Spain. The Marquis has been distinguished for his moderation in practice and his prudent though manly conduct in the various trying situations he was placed in since the invasion by the French. He was so well thought of by all parties that he was appointed one of those who drew up the capitulations to the French. The French laid heavy contributions on the family, which is still one of the most opulent in the Island. He has always shown a great attachment to His Majesty’s Government, and is at the same time esteemed a well wisher to his country, and consequently he is very popular. As to his talents, he is a man of sound judgment, and is well informed with respect to the ancient privileges, as well as the modern state of the Island.” 3
Mario was the eldest son of Gilberto Testaferrata-Castelletti4 , once a page in the Spanish court 5, and Teodora Vella-Abela 6. He married Anna Viani7 by whom he had seven children8 . His brother Giuseppe-Giacomo was a priest and historian.9
Mario is described at different times as holding the title of barone and marchese. Montalto opines that his title was that of marquis 10. In fact, the surname had been established as title itself, long before11 the Rohanite period (1775-1797).
The marchional title was derived from his eponymous paternal grandfather and who was bestowed one title of Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri in 1716 (Naples)12 and another of Marchese Testaferrata in 1717 (Sicily) 13.
However, Gilberto was not the eldest son of the first marchese but only the eldest from the second marriage to Elisabetta Castelletti. It appears that Gilberto and Mario’s claims to these titles was based on the fact that in 175814 all of the first marchese disinherited his more senior descendants, and secondly that the 1717 title was granted to all of the old marchese’s descendants without reservation15 , and finally, a notary’s deed dated 177216 , between members of the Testaferrata family intended to compromise all matters between them allowed the multiple use of the titles of Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri, Marchese Testaferrata as well as yet another title of Hereditary Knight of the Holy Roman Empire created in 163717 .
It is not known how the title of barone was derived: one could speculate that Mario Testaferrata Castelletti’s title of barone was derived jure uxor because his wife held the 1728 title of Barone della Tabria. However this is improbable because she never held that title and the strict regulation of succession would not have allowed him to bear such title, (the claim18 that this title was held by her arose only in the late 19th century and this has since been disproved19 ). Other documentation relative to his brother Giuseppe Giacomo20 suggests that the brothers claimed the 1725 title of Barone della Marsa21 through their paternal grandmother Elisabetta, but this claim would be invalid because she was not within the remainder of that title.
A more probable basis for Mario’s style as barone could have derived from the fact that the Testaferrata family had been ennobled with the title of Patrician of Messina (1553)22 which describes the family’s descent from the Princely Capo di Ferro of Beneventum; this title was granted anew to Mario and other relatives in 179223 .
Although the claim to nobility is indisputable, there appear to be no grounds for Cameron’s contention that Mario Testaferrata Castelletti was a “Grandee of Spain”.
Cameron noted Mario Testaferrata to be well informed with respect to the ancient privileges, as well as the modern state of the Island. The context of this observation is that prior to the Knights’ surrender, certain legislation had been introduced in the 1770s suppressing the locals’ right to act through the Consiglio Popolare24 to which the general population took umbrage. We find the same Mario in Galea’s list of the relative Universita’ as a Jurat only in 1778 and 177925 . The 1878 report of a Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility says that Mario’s father Gilberto had a similar appointment in 1749 and 175026 but this statement is not supported by Galea’s list27 .
Therefore on the basis of Galea’s ‘Timeline’28 , there appears to be no evidence for Cameron’s contention that Mario Testaferrata Castelletti was particularly experienced in the ancient privileges of the Island.
However other evidence suggests that Mario must have had a say in local affairs, even though he was not within the oppressive Order’s golden circle. A contemporary diarist29 recorded the following incident:
The Maltese barons and noblemen attended a gambling soiree at the Palace, dressed in their scarlet uniforms with broad golden cuffs on all their sleeves reminiscent of old Spain. Truthfully they were a grotesque sight. These barons believing themselves unable to play as well as the regulars, sat at the end of the table. The Commander Saint-Priest seeing on his side the baron Don Mario Testaferrata, told him imperatively: Pass me that candle – Is it to me that you speak – Yes, and who may you be? – Sir, I am the Baron Mario Testaferrata. – Apologies, I thought you one of the servants in livery! Everyone laughed at this burlesque scene. The barons left angrily, swearing never to return to the palace. (Les barons et les nobles maltais invités à ces soirées se présentèrent au palais affublés des anciens uniformes de l'armée d'Es pagne : grand habit d'écarlate avec de larges galons d'or sur toutes les coutures; c'était à vrai dire des ligures tant soit peu grotesques. Ces barons, ne se croyant pas assez habiles pour occuper une place aux tables de jeu, se tenaient modestement assis au côté des joueurs. Le commandeur de Saint-Priest, voyant à sa droite le baron don Mario Testaferrata, lui dit impérativement : Mouchez-moi cette bougie. — Est-ce à moi que vous parlez. — Oui, et qui êtes-vous donc ? —Monsieur, je suis le baron Mario Testaferrata. — Pardon, .je vous croyais un domestique à livrée! Cette scène burlesque excita l'hilarité de toute l'assemblée. Les barons indignés se retirèrent du palais, jurant de ne plus y mettre les pieds.)
The relevance of this incident is that the same diarist observed that Grand Master Rohan had abandoned the administration of the state to four acolytes of whom Saint-Priest was one (the remaining three were the Abbe Corogna, his long-time servant Laurent and Lorenzo Fontani30 ). This incident, at least during Rohan’s reign, would therefore appear to reasonably exclude Mario Testaferrata as having any direct involvement in State affairs but was nonetheless a person who the Order held in sufficient regard to be one of the “barons et nobles maltais”.
Mario Testaferrata suddenly springs to the fore in June 1798 as an already highly-regarded personality once news has spread that the town of Mdina capitulated to the French. The same diarist records that on the 11 June a spontaneous assembly of ‘not more than a hundred’ made up of nobles, lawyers, traders and the most respectable of the island went to the building of the Universita’ where they found the four jurati namely our friend the Marquis Mario Testaferrata, the Baron Jean Baptiste Dorel, the Marquis Jerome Delicata and Jean Baptiste Grognet (n.b. the names of these jurati do not feature in Galea’s Timeline) as well as the former auditor Jean-Nicholas Muscat and were later joined by the lawyer Torregiani. The assembly fearful of the ravages and horrors of war formulated a petition to the Grand Master Hompesch asking that he surrender to the French on behalf of the Order and the Maltese31.
The spontaneous assembly then charged Testaferrata, Joseph Guido, Dr. Torregiani and the judge Bonanno with the delicate task of giving this message to the Grand Master on behalf of the Maltese Nation. The diarist recorded that this delegation was received with mixed feelings by the Grand Master and his Council who had been forewarned by the auditor Dr. Benedetto Schembri32 .
After the presentation and an animated discourse by Guido (not Testaferrata) the Grand Master and his Council retired to deliberate. Eventually at midnight the Grand Master in Council resolved to capitulate 33.
We then find that an Armistice and a Convention were drawn up. Instead of signing as Marquis, Mario signed as a Baron. The texts are reproduced below34 :-
Article I – A suspension of arms for twenty-four hours (to commence from six o’clock this evening, the 11th June , until six o’clock tomorrow evening) is agreed to between the army of the French Republic, commanded by General Bonaparte, represented by Brigadier-General Junot, Aide-de-Camp of the General, on the one side, and His Most Eminent Highness [The Grandmaster] and the Order of St John on the other.
Article II – During these twenty-four hours Deputies shall be sent on board the Orient to draw up the capitulation.
(sgd.) Hompesch Junot’
Article I – The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem shall give up the city and forts of Malta to the French army, at the same time renouncing in favour of the French Republic all rights of property and sovereignty over that Island, together with those of Gozo and Comino.
Article II – The French Republic shall employ all its credit at the Congress of Rastatt, to procure a principality for the Grandmaster equivalent to the one he gives up; and the said Republic engages to pay him in the meantime an annual pension of three hundred thousands French livres, besides two annats of the pension by way of indemnification for his personals. He shall also be treated with the usual military honours during the whole of his stay in Malta.
Article III – The French Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem actually resident in Malta, if acknowledged as such by the commander-in-chief, shall be permitted to return to their own country, and their residence in Malta shall be considered in the same light as if they inhabited France. The French Republic will likewise use its influence with the Cisalpine, Ligurian, Roman, and Helvetian republics that this third Article may remain in force for the knights of those several nations.
Article IV – The French Republic shall make over an annual pension of seven hundred French livres to each Knight now resident in Malta; and one thousand livres to those whose ages exceed sixty years. It shall also endeavour to induce the Cisalpine, Ligurian, Roman, and Helvetian republics to grant the same pension to the Knights of their respective countries.
Article V – The French Republic shall employ its credit with the different powers that the Knights of each nation may be allowed to exercise their right over the property of the Order of Malta situate in their dominions.
Article VI – The Knights shall not be deprived of their private property either in Malta or in Gozo.
Article VII – The inhabitants of the islands of Malta and Gozo shall be allowed, the same as before, the free exercise of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Religion; their privileges and property shall likewise remain inviolate; and they shall not be subject to any extraordinary taxes.
Article VIII – All civil acts passed during the government of the Order shall still remain valid.
Done and concluded on board the Orient off Malta, on the 24th Prairial, the 6th year of the French Republic.
The Commander Bosredon de Ransijat
The Bailiff de Turin Frisari, without prejudice to the right of domination which belongs to my Sovereign, the King of the Two Sicilies
Baron D. Mario Testaferrata
Doctor Gio Nicola Muscat
Doctor Benoit Schembri
Counsellor F.T. Bonanno
Chev. Filipe Amat, the Spanish Chargé d’Affaires.’
In the year following the surrender we find that the exiled Hompesch and his entourage were denouncing Guido as the leader of “the rebels who had forced to Grand Master to give up Malta” 35 . By implication they were also denouncing Testaferrata as guilty of treason.
If the aforesaid diarist is anything to go by, Hompesch and the remnants of the Order were liars. The same diarist continues saying that Guido was arrested in Trieste on charges of treason raised by the embittered knights, but he was fortunate enough to present a memorial of the capture of Malta to the Emperor of Austria explaining the circumstances of the capture of Malta and was released36 .
Back to Mario Testaferrata, it does not appear that the new French Government of Malta gave him any office of note. Of the names mentioned above, only Benedetto Schembri was appointed to the Commission du Government . (A Baron Dorell was also appointed but Galea lists him as Jean-Francois not Jean-Baptiste) 37 .
Another diarist38 records that in fact the French:-
“were cherished by the Maltese, so long as they appeared to respect the laws and ancient privileges of these tractable people”.
However, to their own undoing the French disappointed the Maltese and by September 1798, the locals had organized a spectacular island-wide insurrection against the French. In an intercepted letter dated 11 December 1800 from Vaubois to Fossetti39 , he explained that:-
“we made the Maltese free; they were governed by their own magistrates, without our interference, and we guided them like children, when unfortunately new instructions arrived form France; and having persuaded ourselves that we could treat them as a conquered nation, we made new regulations. The consequence was, that the whole country rose in an instant. In two hours, every man was in arms; fell upon, and cut off our troops in every part in the island. We were all in perfect security; no symptom of discontent having appeared. The garrison of Valetta was shut up on every side. We made several sallies – we had to combat enraged lions – no trace of their former docile character appeared.”
Eventually the French were defeated in 1800, but the Maltese who had suffered a loss of 20,000 besides the troops Napoleon took with him to Egypt, were not be represented on the act of surrender to the British.
It appears that meanwhile assurances had been given by the British (who later claimed no official record of them) which motivated the Maltese to seek a special independent status of Malta under the protection of the English Sovereign. In fact the later 1802 deputation claimed40 that during the blockade it was the Maltese who fought (and lost twenty thousand lives) whilst the British (who had never stationed more than 500 men at any point in time) had not a single soldier killed, also saying that when the British troops took possession of Valetta they persuaded the Maltese to lay down their arms and the Maltese relying on the apparent sincerity of the British expressed their wish to enjoy all the advantages of free subjects under a monarch who is the father of all his people, rather than to claim and maintain their own entire independence.
Documentary evidence shows that at least one segment – the most important - of the Maltese people were soon to feel misled with their choice and perceived the role of the Civil Commissioner as a form of absolute despotism.
We find Cameron’s proclamation dated 1801 where the English King granted the Maltese his full protection of “all their dearest rights”41 but another diarist reports that in effect the whole civil and military authority was vested in one person, namely the Commissioner himself.
The same diarist explains that if the Maltese were patiently acquiescent to this state of affairs, it was because the proclamation of that gentleman had soothed their minds, by teaching them to expect from England a better state of things as soon as he had time to remedy.
“because (Cameron) appears to have swayed the law of a tyrant without a tyrant’s soul; so as, for the most part, to temper the evil which he had not time nor sufficient means to remove.” 42
However, this expectancy dragged on for too long and soon the news had spread that England had concluded a preliminary agreement with France which was to result in the 1802 Treaty of Amiens (which effectively meant the restoration of Malta to the Order). By February 1802 a Maltese delegation had already arrived in England to meet the King to plead for their rights and make representations against the restoration of the Order to Malta. The same diarist says that Cameron was so convinced of the necessity of this deputation to quiet the ferment in the island, that he assigned a sum (which remained unclaimed) of about 7,000 crowns towards the expenses of the Deputies’ journey 43. Remarkably, before their departure, the deputation’s petition – as signed - had been published throughout the whole of the island and approved of without a single dissenting voice44 .
At the head of this 6-man deputation we find our Mario Testaferrata Castelletti, again described as “the Marquis Testaferrata, of a very noble family, Grandee of Spain” 45 . Coincidentally at least one member of the delegation (Castagna) had occupied a municipal post under the short-lived French government of Malta46 .
The Maltese went unheeded and Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens47 . However this was soon to be breached by the British themselves and hostilities were resumed by France against Britain.
Strangely the stated reasons for the Maltese delegation appear to have been misunderstood by at least one commentator. In a private letter dated 17th May 1802 to W. Sullivan, Eton expressed his view that “I have no doubt but Marquis Mario Testaferrata will be the Grand Prior” 48 . The context of this is that the Treaty of Amiens contemplated the establishment of a Maltese langue, something which the Maltese deputation including Mario very clearly opposed49 .
The next period is contradictory. One of his descendants wrote50 that after 1806 Mario retired from public life51 but we know that in 1807 another declaration of rights was published on 15 April and subscribed to by many leading Maltese invoking their very un-English pretension to find another sovereign should the English King decline their offer to him52 . We also find Mario’s signature at the head of yet another representation to Britain dated 28th February 1810 calling for the Constitution which shall “unite the spirit of our ancient free, and only legitimate government, with that of the English Constitution”. 53
Mario died in 1813, perhaps not from apoplexy but from the plague which originated through an English ship and only started to abate shortly before Maitland was made first governor of Malta54 . Shortly afterwards, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Malta’s fate was to be a British colony until 1964, and finally a republic in 1974.
What of the memory of Mario? Present-day standard school textbooks picture him as a renegade conspirator against the English55 .
One could even argue that his memory was in effect already erased by Britain by 1878 when a British appointed Commission to enquire into the claims of the Maltese Nobility ruled that his marchional title (or any of his other titles for that matter) never received registration or recognition from the Grand Masters56 .
On the other hand, later in 1883 one of Mario’s junior descendants (through a legitimated line of his third son, the cleric Filippo) successfully supplicated a marchional title through the British Colonial office on the basis that Mario’s father Gilberto had been so recognised on his aforestated appointment as jurat in 1749. This act of misguided British goodwill cannot be regarded as being the same title Mario Testaferrata Castelletti believed he was enjoying 60.
Ironically, it was the descendants of Rohan’s newly-ennobled acolytes who were to later to hollowly take the British platform as ‘representatives of the first families of Malta under the Knights’ and “champions against tyranny”.
It is time that his good name is restored.