Three Testaferrata Cassia families.
There were in Malta three distinct branches of the Testaferrata Cassia family:- Testaferrata Cassia, Testaferrata Moroni Viani, and Testaferrata Abela. The first one is extinct.
By the late 19th century, neither of the surviving branches of the Testaferrata Cassia family was still retaining the original surname. However, they all display as arms above the Testaferrata bull, a Chief Azure three mullets Or which is in fact a marshalling of the family’s arms with that of Cassia (in pale Azure three mullets Or).
Paolo Testaferrata (b. 12-7-1656, d. 24-3-1714) was married to Beatrice Cassia. Beatrice had come to succeed the title of Castel Cicciano in Naplesbut later passed this on to their eldest son Fabritio in 1695 by means of a notarized deed. Royal Assent for this transfer was received shortly afterwards.
Paolo and Beatrice were jointly ennobled with the newly created title of Barone di Gomerino by Grand Master Perellos on the 24th December 1710, with succession to one of their legitimate and natural descendents for ever and that the Grand Master gave to the said Paolo and Beatrice Testaferrata Cassia, and to all and each of the holders of the title of “Barone di Gomerino” forever, the power of nominating to the succession of the title one of their male descendents at their will and pleasure, and on failure of such nomination it was provided that the title should descend to their first-born child. They were invested in that title on the 10 January 1711.
‘Gomerino’ is the name of certain lands in Malta acquired by the Grand Master from the Perollo family in 1560. Following the record of the 1878 Commission, Augusto Testaferrata Abela had invoked the year 1317 as the date of creation of the fief of Gomerino. There is nothing in the report which explains this. However in Abela’s description of the Solimella family we find reference to Sirio having held the fief of Gomerino but it reverted to the Crown on his death whereupon it was granted to the Surdo family. In the relative entry we find that Surdo subsequently sold to the Ragusa family and later to that of Santa Sofia before it devolved to the Royal Court and was later granted by the Order to Gio Maria Cassia in exchange for some other properties. Abela concluded that in this way this property was returned to the descendants of the House of Surdo through a female line. However in his description of the Santa Sofia family, Abela records the last entry as 1407 and does not explain how the property devolved to the Perollo family.
In any case, the property was conferred ‘in allodium’ by Grand Master Fr. Alosio Wignacourt on the aforesaid Gio. Maria Cassia and it was from this point onwards that it eventually devolved to Beatrice as part of her dowry.
By 1713 this property was transferred to the same Fabritio. However, there is no record of the title created in 1710 being transferred to him.
Both of the co-grantees’ respective families had already been ennobled previously.
That of Testaferrata received in 1553 the title of ‘Patrician of Messina’ and in 1590 the title of ‘Patrician of Rome”. Neither of these titles was formally registered in Malta. This family left a number of prominent bequests. It also served the local Inquisition in various ways, and apart from the office of ‘Depositario’, which was practically hereditary to this family, it also occupied other influential posts. Even when disputes arose between this family and the local Inquisitor, the Holy Office in Rome generally took the Testaferratas’ side of the argument.
That of Cassia had in 1638 received the fief of Gariescem et Tabia which was subsequently regarded as a barony. In addition, it had succeeded in the Barony of Castel Cicciano through its marriage to the Surdo family which had in turn succeeded that of Xerri.
The title of patrician of Messina created in 1553 was confirmed in 1792 in favour of only four members of the Testaferrata family, including Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela, sole representative of the Testaferrata Cassia. This grant also confirms the Testaferrata descent from that of Capo di Ferro. Abela’s description of this family suggests that the earlier members of this family were corsairs and dealt in armaments.
Technically barons ranked the lowest amongst titled nobility. However, by a general legislation of the 17 March 1795 enacted by Grand Master Rohan-Polduc, holders of titles of nobility were made to rank for the purposes of precedence in appointment to municipal offices (‘giurati‘) according to their dates of creation and all the other new creations came to be ranked after the older, “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”.
The legislation clarified that holders of foreign titles could enjoy this precedence only if they effected due registration. At the same time, equal precedence for the same purposes was accorded to the holder of Maltese titles and any descendant from such holder provided he was descended in the male to male line, if he lives on rent of his own property, and this only if his intermediate ancestors had also lived on such rent. Therefore the baroni Testaferrata were then considered as ranking before the later marchesi and conti.
The use of the titles of “Most Illustrious” and “Noble“ was criminalized in 1725 and the Grand Masters relaxed this rule in favour of only some families, including Beatrice (by then widowed) together with her only married son Fabritio.
Although Fabritio was already holding the property of Gomerino, he did not receive the title of Baron of Gomerino because in the relative legislation of 1725 he is described as the ‘Barone di Cicciano’ whilst his mother is described as the ‘Baronessa di Gomerino’. This enactment is also taken of proof of a direct recognition of the title of Barone di Castel Cicciano in lieu of formal registration.
Fabritio’s own male descent was extinguished by 1730. In 1734, the younger brother Ercole Martino was relieved of his religious vows and married Veneranda Abela. Her family is listed in 1647 as one of the old and notable families of Malta. During the same year Beatrice passed the title of Baron of Gomerino to Ercole Martino by means of a notarized deed annexing it to the ‘primogenitura’ founded by her and her predeceased husband Paolo on the 7th March 1714, in the acts of Notary Benedetto Vassallo.
Ercole Martino was invested in that title on the 1st May 1737. He was the 2nd Barone and the last person to be formally invested in the title of Baron of Gomerino.
In 1744 Fabritio died but he willed the Gomerino property to Ercole Martino, who therefore now held the primogenitura to which the title of Gomerino was annexed as well as the property of Gomerino.
By 1748 Ercole Martino was dead and he was succeeded in primogenitura and property by his own son Paolo. There is no record of Paolo ever being invested in the title of Baron of Gomerino.
In 1760 Paolo died three months short of the birth of is own son. It is recorded that he died after being beaten with sticks by some knights of the order of St. John.
The posthumous child named Pietro Paolo was the sole male representative of the Testaferrata Cassia family. However, by then the surname had already evolved into that of ‘Testaferrata Abela’. There is no record of Pietro Paolo ever being invested in the title of Baron of Gomerino.
The aforesaid Pietro Paolo had three wives, Maria Manduca (1781), Laudonia Moroni (1786) and Teresa Buzi (1803).
There were no descendants from the first marriage. The last two were Italian countesses but only the senior branch appended the maternal surname. Moroni was a very old Italian family and Laudonia’s father was a “coscritto” of the Roman nobility. She died after being injured during the Maltese insurrection against the French occupiers. The Buzi family held a comital title in Velletri. She survived her husband and died in Florence.
Controversies arose between Pietro Paolo’s descendants from his second and third marriage. It appears that the main dispute was his will published in 1827, from which it appears that the said Pietro Paolo passed the Gomerino property onto his younger son Francesco “together with the title of Baron attached to it.”
According to the Commission of 1878, in 1861 a suit to the succession to the lands of Gomerino was instituted in the civil courts of these islands by Ettore Testaferrata against Augusto his brother, after the death of the last possessor of those lands, Francesco, their common brother. The court gave judgment in favour of Augusto, who was thereby put in possession of the lands of Gomerino, but no decision was delivered as to the title, which was claimed by Ettore as annexed to the lands of Gomerino. Whilst the cause between the two brothers was pending, the eldest descendant from Pietro Paolo’s second marriage Giuseppe Testaferrata Abela Moroni, in a ‘protesto’, which he presented on the 21st April 1862 against the two contending parties, asserted that the title belonged to him, for he contended, it was not annexed to the lands of Gomerino, but to the primogenitura founded by Beatrice Testaferrata and her predeceased husband Paolo Testaferrata, on the 7th March 1714, in the acts of Notary Benedetto Vassallo, of which primogenitura he was the possessor.
Although the Commission of 1878 acknowledged Barone di Gomerino as a valid title, it did not attempt to make a decision on these claims.
A lawsuit decided on the 9 January 1882 upheld Augusto’s claim to the title of Baron of Gomerino in the sense that it upheld a series of private nominations of the lands of Gomerino, stemming from the aforesaid Fabritio Testaferrata to Ercole Martino in 1744 down to Augusto Testaferrata Abela in 1861. In effect, the court considered the property as a fief, upheld the argument that a title could be willed away by a private testament and dismissed the 1737 investiture. As a result of this decision, Fabritio Testaferrata is noted as the 2nd Barone who succeeded in 1713, whilst Ercole Martino is regarded as the 3rd Barone who succeeded in 1744, without any reference to the 1737 investiture.
Giuseppe Testaferrata Abela Moroni’s son Pietro Paolo married Angela Testaferrata Viani. Her family was invested in the title of Barone della Tabria on the 22 October 1784. The male line of this union is still extant but their descendants have adopted the surname ‘Testaferrata Moroni Viani’ in preference to the more inconvenient ‘Testaferrata-Abela Moroni Testaferrata-Viani’.
Augusto Testaferrata Abela married Angelica Tagliaferro. The male line of this union is still extant and the descendants have retained the surname Testaferrata Abela.
In terms of the 1795 legislation, as lineal male-to-male descendants, all branches, and sub-branches, of the Testaferrata Cassia, Testaferrata Moroni Viani and Testaferrata Abela ranked equally, “in regulating the precedency among the Nobles of this our dominion, whether first-born or cadets indiscriminately”. An attempt to change this rule of precedence to favour the new counts and marquises was defeated by Lord Granville on the 19 May 1886 who ruled that in view of the considerable opposition and the small support which the proposal received, “I have to request that you will inform the Committee of Privileges that I am not prepared to reconsider the decision of Grand Master Rohan.”
On the 18 June 1884, the Committee of Privileges of the Maltese Nobility requested the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, for permission to allow each ‘titolato’ the use of the style and title of ‘The Most Noble’ explaining that “during the Government of the Order of St. John each and every Titolato in Malta was allowed the style and title of Most Noble or Most Illustrious”. At first this request was resisted by the British Authorities, not because the claim was misleading, but because British law allowed only Princes of the English Blood Royal use the title of “Most Illustrious”.
Not wanting to offend what was wrongly perceived as a Maltese custom, a compromise was reached and on the 23 February 1886, Lord Glanville instructed Governor Simmons that:- “I am also to desire you to give directions for the resuming the practice of according to the ‘Titolati’ in all public and official documents and in all communications from officers of the Government their customary titles of ‘Illustrissimo e Nobile’ or the ‘Most Noble’ as suggested in your despatch of the 7th of December, as there can be no good reason for withholding a courtesy the discontinuance of which has been felt to be a grievance.”
Therefore all the ‘titolati’ acknowledged by the British Administration became entitled to the style “The Most Noble”.