Titles of Baron of Gomerino
(Baron Testaferrata and Baronial fief of Gomerino)
The title Barone di Gomerino is a title of Nobility in Malta. Having been granted in 1710, it is the premier extant title of “Barone” which was conferred by the Grandmasters of the Order of Saint John during their rule over the Maltese Islands. It is remarkable especially because it was granted jointly to two persons, one of whom being a woman namely Paolo and Beatrice Testaferrata.
A barony is a title of nobility which is created by a King or Fons Honorum. On the other hand, a fief consists of property granted at the pleasure of the King. In Malta some fiefs were regarded as noble fiefs and the holder of such a noble fief would therefore be called a “Baron” in accordance with local custom.
This title was affected by the 19th century controversy regarding the 1737 investiture in favour of Ercole Martino Testaferrata. The 1737 investiture is documented in the archives of the Order, but is not acknowledged by the publications approved by the Committee of Privileges of the Maltese Nobility (today a private body). Instead of the 1737 investiture, that Committee publishes a succession of 1713 and a testamentary nomination of 1744. Paolo died in 1714 and Beatrice circa 1734-1737.
Since 1975, titles of nobility are no longer recognized in the Republic of Malta by Act 29 of 1975 dated 17 October 1975.
ORIGIN AND NATURE OF TITLE
In considering the competing claims made in regard to the title of Barone di Gomerino, a 19th century Commission found that it was created by Grand Master Perellos, by a patent dated 24th December 1710, and granted to Paolo Testaferrata and Beatrice Cassia, his wife, 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” in perpetuum, 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. The subjoined is an extract from the original diploma registered in the Government Cancelleria.: Praefeatos Paulum et Beatricem et post eosdem, omni futuro tempore et in perpetuum, unum ex omnibus et singulis eorumdem successoribus de suis corporibus legitime et naturaliter descendentibus, semper Baronis Gomerini titulo decoarus et insignimus, et barones creamus et constituimus......Tribuentes iisdem Paulo et Beatrice omnibusque ac singulis aliis qui omni futuro tempore ax in perpetuum titulo ac prerogativa Baronis Gomerini fruentur, facoltatem nominandi et eligendi unum ex dictis eorum descendentibus sive marem sive foeminanam, ad ipsorumet libitum et beneplacitum, pro hujusmodi titulo Baronis Gomerini consequendo et adipiscendo, dictaque nominatione et electione minime facta, ex tunc censeatur per eosdem eorumque singulos barones, nominatus et electus ipsorum Primogenitus, nisi eri ad Sacros Ordines promotus et in Religione professus et in defectu marium foemina primogenita.”
Gomerino is the name of certain lands situated in Malta: they were granted originally as a noble fief by Frederick King of Sicily to Guglielmo Surdo, and after having been purchased by Grand Master Fr. Giovanni La Valette, they were again conferred in allodium by Grand Master Fr. Alosio Wignacourt on Gio. Maria Cassia. This allodial property eventually came to be held by Gio Maria’s grand daughter Beatrice. In 1713, Beatrice passed the property onto her eldest son Fabrizio who had already succeeded his mother in the title of Barone di Castel Cicciano by means of a private transaction which received Royal assentin 1695.
By means of 2 decrees dated 1725, Fabrizio and his widowed mother were allowed the titles of Illustrissimo and Nobile.
The first enactment reads as follows:-
Per I Titoli - Prammatica - S.A. Srma Padrone in virtu' della presente Prammatica, perpetuo valitura, volendo rimediare agli abusi, et inconvenienti da qualche tempo a questa parte introdotti in materia di Titoli, ordina e comanda che da oggi in avanti nessun Avvocato, Notaro, et Attuario di questo nostro dominio, ardisca dare il Titolo di Illustrissimo, ne' di Nobile, nelle scritture, contratti, ed atti pubblici, a veruno dei nostri Vassalli, eccettuato il Capitano della Verga pro tempore, e li due Magistrati delle nostre Citta' Notabile e Valletta, et il Milite Barone Marc Antonio Inguanez nostro Feudatorio, con la Baronessa sua consorte, e loro discendenti, sotto pena, in caso di contravvenzione, in quant' alli Avvocati di sospensione, ed in quanto alli Notari et Attuarj della prescrizione dell' officio, et altre pene arbitrarie a detta A. Serma. Die XXX mensis Aprilis 1725, data et pubta. fuit, et ego pns Prammatica in locis pubblicis, solitis et consuentis, Has Civitates Vallette Victoriose Sengle et Burmule sono Tubi, Populi parte congregata audiente, et intelligente, Actuario Hujus Mag. Cur Castelle legente, et Jose Vella Precone, alta et intelligibile voce preconizante, unde:-
The second enactment reads as follows:-
S.A. Sema Padrone, ordine e commanda che nella suddetta Prammatica s'intendono pure eccetuati il Barone di Cicciano, D. Fabrizio Testaferrata e la Baronessa del Gomerino D. Beatrice Cassia Testaferrata sua madre, e tutti i suoi figli maschi e femmine, con loro mariti e legittimi discendenti. Oggi li 11 Maggio 1725. Ita referent. - F.N. Nalvanus de Vajus, AUD
Thus although in 1725 Fabrizio was already in possession of the Gomerino property, the Grand Master did not regard him as being the holder of the title of “Barone di Gomerino”. Conversely as the title was merely honorific, it did not give rise to any right of possession of the fief called Gomerino. In fact, neither Grand Master Vilhena nor Grand Master Depuig regarded Fabrizio as the titleholder.
The Commissioners did not reach any decision on the competing claims to this title. However, in his summation of the Commissioners’ Report, the British Secretary of State wrote that each of the titles considered is either personal to the holder of a fief, or descends in order of primogeniture so as to be held only by the eldest male descendant. This would mean that in the case of Baron of Gomerino the title descends in order of primogeniture so as to be held only by the eldest male descendant.
ANNEXATION OF TITLE OF BARONE DI GOMERINO TO THE “TESTAFERRATA” ENTAIL IN FAVOUR OF ERCOLE MARTINO TESTAFERRATA AND SUBSEQUENT ROYAL ASSENT
In 1734, the widowed Beatrice in a public instrument bearing date 5th November 1734, and received by Notary Tomaso Gatt, availing herself of the power given her by the sovereign, named to the succession of the title of Barone di Gomerino, her son Ercole Martino Testaferrata and his legitimate and natural children and descendents and annexed the present title to the possession of the primogenitura, in the following terms:- “Cum hac tamen conditione, quod praedictus titulus Baroniae Gomerini, ut supra, praedicto Don Erculi Martino ejus filio, suisque filiis et descendentibus datus et relaxatus, sit et esse debeat, cunctis futuris temporibus et in perpetuum, adjunctus datus et concessus ili filio seu filiae et descendenti, qui vel quae consequutus vel consequuta fuerit Primogenituram fundatam per praedictos dominos jugales De Testaferrata, in quodam donationis instrumento rogato in actis quondam Magnifici Benedicti Vassalli, sub die septima Martii Millesimi Septingentesimi decimi quarti." The deed dated 7 March 1714 refers to the Testaferrata Ta’ Xbiex primogenitura.
In fact Ercole Martino was by Royal Assent of Grand Master Despuig invested in the title of Gomerino on the 1 May 1737. The said investiture makes specific reference to the fact that it was being done in accordance with the 1710 grant and consequent to a deed made in the acts of Notary Thomaso Gatt of the 5th November 1734 (“Baronissa D. Beatrice ad hoc huoi Barones Titulum consequendum in actio Egregj Notarij Thoma Gatt miletenani, sub die v. novembris anni 1734, nominator, et electus, Nos, et Ordinem nostrum, sicut ). This is the first time a Magistral title was made subjected to a private entail. A similar position obtained in 1745 when the then Grand Master Pinto subjected the succession of the title of Conte della Catena to a private entail.
As seen above, notwithstanding the private nomination made by Notarized deed in 1734, Ercole Martino had to be later formally invested in the title in order to succeed the title. It follows that although a power of nomination is contemplated by the 1710 grant, the use of this power is ineffective unless it receives Royal Assent. In the context of the Commissioners’ Report, the title of Gomerino is the only Magistral title created with a power of nomination, where such power was actually made use of during the Government of the Order of Saint John.
PRECEDENCE ENJOYED BY THE HOLDER OF TITLE OF BARONE DI GOMERINO
In terms of the general 1739 legislation (Despuig), it follows that all of Ercole Martino’s male-to-male descendants (“Il discendente per linea mascolina”) were made automatically entitled to a precedence.
By virtue of the later general legislation of 1795 (Rohan) the Barone di Gomerino and his agnate descendants were to rank before the holder of any title created after 1710 and respective descendants. Therefore, it follows that the Barone di Gomerinoranks before the Conte della Bahria(created in 1743), Marchese di Scriop el Hagin(1776) and the Marchese di Ghajn Kajet (1796) even though all the latter titles purport a higher rank. The same position holds in regard to the respective male-to-male descendants.
Grand Master Rohan is also credited with codifying various laws in Malta. Amongst these, we find in the Code enacted in 1783 which states that the determining criteria of primogeniture in Malta operate in the following order:- Line (the first line excluding all the others), Degree (the closer degree of relationship excluding the remoter) Sex (the male sex being preferred to the female), and Age (the elder being preferred to the younger).
THE ROYAL COMMISSION APPOINTED TO ENQUIRE INTO THE CLAIMS OF THE MALTESE NOBILITY
After the Capitulation of the Order of Saint John the new French Rulers formally abolished all titles of nobility. A total of 3 general orders were made to this effect. The French in turn lost Malta in 1800 when the Commander in Chief Vaubois surrendered to His Britannic Majesty. On the 30 May 1814 (Treaty of Paris) it was stipulated that the island of Malta and its dependencies belong in full right and sovereignty to his Britannic majesty.
In time, the use of nobiliary titles was resumed. However, it appears that the unregulated and improper use of titles of nobility and other honours was tolerated by the local authorities who were themselves found to be at fault for encouraging such improper use. Throughout this period, a group known as the Assembly of Maltese Nobles is known to have functioned at this time but it did not enjoy any official role.
In 1876, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies commissioned a report on those titles alleged to have been conferred to Maltese families before the annexation of Malta to the British Dominions, namely 1800. The Commissioners’ Report and Supplemental Report were published in 1878 together with relative correspondence.
To facilitate the preparation of the report, an “ad hoc” Committee of Nobles was requested to provide a list of claimants. In that list, two individuals are named as holding the same title of “Barone di Gomerino”, namely Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela Moroni and Augusto Testaferrata Abela. This listing which does not indicate any competition between the two, is at variance with that published in 1870 by the Marchese Giorgio Crispo Barbaro in his “Maltese Nobility and the Maltese Gentry holding Foreign Titles” where only Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela Moroni is described as the holder of the title of Barone di Gomerino.
NO DECISION BY ROYAL COMMISSIONERS ON CLAIMS OF PIETRO PAOLO TESTAFERRATA ABELA MORONI AND AUGUSTO TESTAFERRATA ABELA
In the committee list, Pietro Paolo only claimed under the creation dated 1710, whilst Augusto claimed under a creation dated 1317 and another dated 1710.
The Commissioners did not interview either claimant but described the bases of the respective claims.
In the first place, Pietro Paolo’s was the first born son in the primogenial line of Paolo and Beatrice Testaferrata. Secondly that the title belonged to him also because he was the holder of the entail to which Beatrice had annexed the baronial title.
Augusto’s claim was that he was the possessor of the garden and lands of Gomerino. Secondly because he was appointed to the title by Francesco by a testament published on the 12 January 1861.
It resulted that this issue first arose in 1861. In that year 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, Giuseppe Testaferrata, father of Pietro Paolo, 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.
Presented with these different claims, the Commissioners thought that the matter will reach the courts. They therefore thought it fit not to ask the claimants to appear before them. Consequently neither Pietro Paolo nor Augusto appeared on the list of approved title holders.
As predicted by the Commissioners the matter was taken to Court. In fact Augusto Testaferrata Abela filed a case against Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela Moroni claiming that he was the rightful holder of the Gomerino title on the basis that he possessed the Gomerino property and that his rights stemmed from various nominations.
A decision of the Corte Civile di Sua Maesta Prim Aula 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 Fabrizio Testaferrata to Ercole Martino in 1744 down to Augusto Testaferrata Abela in 1861. Effectively the Court upheld the argument that a title could be willed away. Moreover, the court dismissed the 1737 investiture as irrelevant.
As a result of this decision, genealogies published after 1882 started enumerating Fabrizio Testaferrata as the 2nd Barone, without any reference whatsoever to the 1737 investiture and its circumstances. With the exception of Montalto’s publication, it appears that published histories of the title repeat the same omission but there is good reason to omitting it because had the 1737 investiture been published, the supposed 1713 succession and subsequent 1744 nominaton would be ‘Non sequitur’. In his publication 20 years later, Ruvigny appears unaware of the 1737 transmission. However, in principle he would have criticized the court’s decision because he maintained that whereas land could come into possession of illegitimate children or be willed away, on the other hand the right to title of Nobility could only descend by primogeniture.
The first controversy is that the 1882 judgment is historically inaccurate. Fabrizio was not regarded by two contemporary Grand Masters, or even his mother, as the holder of the title of Barone di Gomerino created in 1710. This results from the 1725 decree, the deed of 1734 and the investiture of 1737.
The second controversy is that the 1737 investiture was never annulled. In the case of Barone di Buleben the Royal Commissioners found that the formula of the oath for the 25 April 1778 investiture of Calcedonio Azzopardi in that title after succeeding the entail described in that decree, was afterwards, together with the petition, the decree, and the document, therein inserted, cancelled, as appears from the original records in the Cancelleria. On the other hand, in the case of Barone di Gomerino there is no such cancellation of the record of the 1 May 1737 investiture of Ercole Martino Testaferrata in that title after succeeding the entail described in that decree. Therefore the 1737 transmission remains historically valid and relevant.
The third controversy is that there are two titles, not one. Although the judgment was adverse to Pietro Paolo Testaferrata Abela Moroni in 1882, it is equally true that the title was succeeded by Ercole Martino in 1737. It follows therefore that there are in effect two titles of the same name, one (or “Barone Testaferrata”) which was held by Ercole Martino in 1737 as successor to his mother and another (or “Baronial fief of Gomerino”) which was held by the same Ercole Martino in 1744 as nominated successor to his brother Fabrizio in the lands of Gomerino. In effect, the 1744 transmission would not be referring to the 1710 title but to the original allodial fief originally granted Gio. Maria Cassia by Grand Master La Valette.
The fourth controversy stems from the argument that the title of Barone di Gomerino may be willed away. The Royal Commission did not make any specific pronouncements or conclusions about the validity of certain 19th century nominations claimed before them but did make a general observation that private transactions cannot have the effect of explaining, construing or extending a title of nobility, and that the power can only proceed from the Crown. This view was shared by the British administration which ruled that no public officer, not even a Secretary of State, had the power of conferring titles of honour, for which the personal sanction of the sovereign in each case is necessary; and even assuming such acts to have been done by British officials with full knowledge that the titles were non-existent, their want of power would prevent these acts of supposed recognition from having the slightest effect. Moreover, in his summation of the Commissioners’ Report, the British Secretary of State only considered two modalities of succession and nomination was not one of these. This view is shared by Ruvigny who maintained that whereas land could come into possession of illegitimate children or be willed away, on the other hand the right to title of Nobility could only descend by primogeniture.
The fifth controversy would arise if it is established that the property held by Fabrizio in 1713 was in fact a noble fief which would therefore entitle the holder to the personal title of Baron. Since 1969, the holding of properties in fief in Malta has been revoked by law. However, provision is made in that law in the sense that nothing therein ‘affects any title of nobility’, thereby ensuring a statutory exception to the automatic extinction of a nobiliary title in the event of an extinction of the fief to which the title refers. Thus although the fief of “Gomerino” was extinguished in 1969 and thereafter held like any other property, the title (on the assumption that the fief was in fact a noble fief) remained protected. An examination of the genealogy shows that in 1969 the then holder of the fief was Adriana Maria Testaferrata Abela, (1907-2002), who therefore remained in possession of the personal title by reason of that legal provision. However, this consideration alone does not render a personal title transmissible to future possessors of the erstwhile fief.The resolution of this question would give rise to another; If the title is deemed transmissible, should descend according to the rule of primogeniture, or should it “follow” the ownership of the property.
For the purposes of precedence amongst the Nobility in Malta, in terms of the the 1739 and 1795 legislations combined, the holder of the title of Barone di Gomerinowould rank according to antiquity of creation. This title being the first of those created by the Grand Masters would outrank all other titles. However in view of the fact that the Commissioners ante-dated the titles of Barone di Djar il-Bniet et Bucana and Barone di Ghariescem et Tabiato the year 1350 and 1638 respectively it follows that the holder of the title of Barone di Gomerinoranks after these.
The limited use of the title “The Most Illustrious and Noble” was first regulated in Malta in 1725 and was extended by the Grand Masters to only some families, not necessarily titled-families. However, this title was considered unacceptable to the British authorities who opined it could only be borne by Princes of the blood Royal. A compromise was reached allowing the introduction of the style “The Most Noble” on the premise that all title holders were entitled to the title. Thus, as from the year 1886, the holder of the title of Barone di Gomerino became entitled to be styled “The Most Noble”. On the one hand, this was unnecessary in regard to Gomerino because the Baronessa di Gomerino Beatrice Testaferrata’s descendants were already entitled to the title of “The Most Illustrious and Noble” by reason of the aforesaid decree dated 1725.
The British Colonial administration also allowed presumed successors of titles of nobility, the diminutive style of the respective titles, in this case Baroncino di Gomerino. But the Colonial administration did not allow any legal right to the use of these styles.
Other descendants of the various holders of this title are by custom entitled to be styled dei Baroni di Gomerino. Again, the Colonial administration did not allow any legal right to the use of this style.
Since 1950, succession by entail was abolished in Malta by Act 12 of 1950 dated 5 May 1950.
Since 1969, succession by fief was abolished in Malta by Act 30 of 1969 dated 21 November, 1969. Provision is made in that law that nothing shall affect any title of nobility, and the laws in force concerning any such titles shall continue to have effect.
Since 1975, a general duty is imposed in the Republic of Malta not to recognize any title of nobility. (Act 29 of 1975 dated 17 October 1975). However, in his 1992 publication Gauci reproduces a Presidential instrument dated 1989 indicating that the title of the head of the Gomerino line was in fact acknowledged by the Republic.
1. Grant of title of Barone di Gomerino by Grand Master Perellos to Paolo Testaferrata and his wife Beatrice Cassia on the 24 December 1710 (Recorded in the Archives of the Order, National Library, Malta Ref. AOM 514, ff. 129v-134v,)
2. Investiture of Ercole Martino Testaferrata in the title of Barone di Gomerino by Grand Master Despuig on the 1st May 1737 (Recorded in the Archives of the Order, National Library, Malta Ref. AOM 541, f. 184r) with reference to a deed received by Notary Tomaso Gatt dated 5th November 1734;
3. Deed dated 5th November 1734 received by Notary Tomaso Gatt
4. Donation in favour of Fabrizio Testaferrata dated 1713
5. Will of Fabrizio Testaferrata dated 1744;
6. Judgment of the Civil Court, 9 January 1882