The quiet usurpation of the titles “Illustrissimo” and “Nobile”, later “The Most Noble”.

It appears that in Malta by the year 1725, the titles of “Illustrissimo” and “Nobile” were being abused so much that Grand Master Vilhena decided to criminalize the attribution of either title to anyone in any writing, contract and public acts.


So, on the 30th April 1725, Vilhena ordered that all Lawyers, Notaries and Registrars were to immediately stop calling anyone of the Grand Master’s vassals “Noble” or “Most Illustrious”.


Some people were exempted, namely the holder of the office of “Capitano della Verga”, the two Magistrates of the cities of Notabile and Valletta, the BaroneMarc’ Antonio Inguanez and his wife the Baronessa, and their descendants. That is to say they could henceforth be called “Nobile” or “Illustrissimo” or both.


The Grand Master further ordered that if any lawyer, notary or registrar broke the law, then the errant lawyer would be suspended from office and the wrongdoing Notary or Registrar would be removed from office. All this quite apart – the Grand Master warned – from other undisclosed “arbitrary penalties”.


The Grand Master made sure that everyone knew about this order. In fact he had notices posted in all public places in Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua; In addition the Grand Master also engaged an official trumpeter to assemble the people to hear the Grand Master’s dogsbody Joseph Vella read out this very serious decision in a loud, clear and intelligible voice to a listening and intelligent crowd.


The following is the text of the Decree:-


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:-


It seems that the special favour of (the childless) Inguanez unnerved some other nobles-who-could-no-longer-be-called so, particularly the patricians Testaferrata. Their anger subsided when less than a fortnight later, namely on the 11 May 1725 the Grand Master issued a second notice exempting the Barone di Cicciano Fabrizio Testaferrata and his mother the Baronessa di Gomerino Beatrice Cassia Testaferrata and descendants by Grand Master Vilhena. For good measure the Grand Master also included the husbands of all of Beatrice’s daughters. This, however, was not enough as these two only represented one side of that family, leaving the other side out in the cold. This upset was rectified on the 9 July 1725, when yet another relaxation was given in favour of the Marchese di San Vincenzo Ferreri Mario Testaferrata.


It seems that the Grand Master took a short break once the prominent families were assuaged. – But not for too long because another Testaferrata lady and her husband as well as her sister in law’s family were all given their own exemption on the 13 June 1726. The lucky recipients were the Carlo Falzon and Eleonora Testaferrata and Salvatore Dorell and Teresa Falzon.

The Grand Master was creating a distinction between a titolato and a nobile. A titolato need not necessarily be a nobile whilst a nobile need not necessarily be a titolato.


The new Barone di San Marciano Diego Galea Feriolo became entitled to be addressed as a nobleman on the 2 September 1726 that is to say 3 months after receiving the barony, the Barone di Budacko Gio Pio de Piro on the 19 March 1727 (11 years), the di Costanzo family on the 24 May 1729, the Barone della Tabria Isidoro Viani on the 27 June 1730 (2 years), followed by D. Vincenzo Platamone and Antonio Bonnici, followed by Baldasare Bonnici on the 13 January 1732, and lastly Calcerano Mompalao, Giuseppe and Caterina Cuschieri on the 6 March 1732.


Grand Master Vilhena died on the 10th November 1736. By then the distinction was very real.


Indeed, the Grand Master did not exempt the new Barone della Marsa Ferdinando Castelletti. Ferdinando was therefore a Barone (at least since 1725) but neither entitled to Illustrissimo nor Nobile. 


This anomaly was not limited to Castelletti. In fact none of holders of those non-Maltese titles which had already been registered by 1736 were entitled to be called Illustrissimo  or Nobile. Thus, the new Counts Manduca and Preziosi had their titles duly registered in 1721 and 1720 but were not exempted from the harsh terms of the 1725 Decree.


Likewise the fief holders of Ghariescem and Tabia were not exempted. The Barone Cassia was therefore a Barone (at least since 1678) but neither entitled to Illustrissimo nor Nobile. 


In the case of the di Costanzo family, it appears that the Vilhena’s motives were to assist this family gain nobility in the City of Pozzallo.


Vilhena’s successor Despuig was not so generous to the new nobility and only made an exception in regard to the new Barone di Benuarrat Saverio Gatt on the 23 August 1737. His other new creations the Barone della Culeja Ignazio Bonnici and the Barone di Frigenuini Alessandro Mompalao were titled Baroni but not Nobili. 


The Barone della Culeja could however argue that being the son-in-law of Beatrice Testaferrata, his (personal) claim to being Illustrious and Noble was covered by virtue of the wide remainder in favour of Beatrice’s favour. Bonnici died unable to transmit his illustrious claim to his own descendants. As seen below, three Bonnicis had to receive their own exemptions separately.


Despuig, stopped meddling with individual Maltese Titles when he stumbled across a brainwave of regulating the Maltese Nobility as a whole by transposing this into a law clarifying the selection process of Giurati. In fact, Despuig is best remembered for having introduced on the 16 September 1739 the first of two legislations regulating the Maltese Nobility as a body during the Government of the Grand Masters in Malta. That is to say a very, very long time after 1090 which is the much vaunted date when Roger the Norman is supposed to have organised Maltese society into nobles, burghers and rustics. In this piece of legislation, the Grand Master emphasised the importance of one’s masculine descent from a Maltese title holder and distinguished a title holders into two classes, those based in Malta and those of foreign origin which were registered. The result of this enactment was to bring the foreign registrations into the Maltese fold and therefore to the coffers of the State. The Maltese titolati were appeased by the knowledge that their masculine descendants in perpetuity were more advantaged over the foreign-title-holders descendants.


Grand Master Pinto followed in 1741 and he appears to have shortchanged his trusted secreto Ludovico Bianchi with a measly “Illustrissimo” (What noNobile!!!) on the 25 Ocotber 1741. Bianchi should have been content, because that was the only illustrious concession by Pinto. The new Conte della BahriaDon Ignazio Muscati Falsone Navarra, the equally new Conte delle Catene Pietro Gaetano Perdicomati Bologna were not exempted from the 1725 decree and the second creation of Barone della Marsa in favour of Giovanni Antonio Azzopardi Castelletti suffered the same fate as the first creation, and remained non-nobile. By 1773, a number of new non Maltese titles were registered after relative payment at the Cancelleria; these were the Marchese De Piro, the Conte Manduca (second registration) and the Conte Fenech Bonnici. With the exception of the Marchese De Piro who already benefited from the 1727 rulingall the holders of these latest registrations were not exempted from the 1725 Decree.

Texada became Grand Master in 1773. He will be remembered for having given out one measly title only, namely the second creation of Barone di Frigenuiniin favour of Gaetano Pisani. Sadly, Pisani suffered the same fate as his predecessor Mompalao, and remained non-nobile. But there’s a bit more to be said about this Grand Master:- It appears that he had no time for registrations of foreign titles and the new Conte Fournier and Conte Sant only registered their titles after this Grand Master breathed his last.


Grand Master Rohan was a breath of fresh air for the Maltese petit-bourgeoisie as this randy Grand Master unruffled the nobility with more additions. Thus, we have the Marchese di Sciorp il-Hagin Claudio Muscati Xiberras, the (third) Barone della Marsa Gio Francesco Dorell Falzon, the new Barone di BulebenGaetano Azzopardi (who was addressed as a nobleman), the new Marchese di San Giorgio Carlo 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 Toffieha Ferdinando Teuma Castelletti, the many Marchesi di San Giorgio calculated from Gioacchino Ermolao Barbaro, the new Barone di San Cosmo Ugolino 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). – All of these brand new titles were not exempted from the 1725 decree.


Similarly, the revived title of Barone di San Giovanni in favour of Serafino Ciantar did not qualify him to be addressed as Illustrissimo or Nobile even though he registered his title.


Nor can it be argued that the 1725 order had fallen into disuse because on the 5th September 1794, Rohan issued his only exemption in favour of Ugolino Bonnici and Saverio Crispo.



Some months later in March 1795, Rohan issued the second of two legislations regulating the Maltese Nobility as a body. The result of this enactment was to confirm that precedence according to the date of creation of the title, and not the rank. . After that the good Grand Master issued the last two of his creations of nobility and died leaving to mourn his loss, his reputed bastard son the Conte della Senia Vincenzo Fontani and his trusted physician the Marchese di Ghain Kajet Geronimo Delicata. These too were not exempted of the 1725 order.


Hompesch as we all know too well, had no time to create titles. However, he did oversee the last investiture namely that of Ghariescem et Tabia in favour of the Baronessa Felicita Chiara Sant Xara Bonnici. The record only refers to her dad as a Magnifico, and not an illustrious noble.

The act of capitulation to General Napoleon in 1798 put an end to new additions. Perhaps the signatory the Barone Mario Testaferrata, grandson of his Illustrious namesake, relished the prospect of stopping the parvenus.

The French occupants promptly abolished all titles of nobility and each and every “noble” now became a “non noble”. The former noblesse consisting of Barons, Counts, Marquises, those deemed “Illustrious”, those “Noble” and their descendants all became plain Citoyens, their ladies Citoyennes, all destined to be obscured. Ironically, all the petty differences between them had come to naught.

The French dark age did not last long, and soon the Maltese Islands were to live in the blazing glory of the British Empire. The nobility however remained unregulated and questions and issues arose regarding one’s entitlement and remainder. A Royal Commission composed of two men learned in the law, examined the various titles granted by the Grand Masters as well as those which were somehow “recognized during the Government of the Order”.

In executing its brief the Commissioners did not mention, let alone consider, the various exceptions to the 1725 decree as relevant titles of nobility in their own right, even though it should be remarked that the 1725 decree itself specifically says that it was issued “Per I Titoli”. Moreover, any doubt as to the nature of the 1725 Proclamation is quashed when one considers that the exemption n favour of Ludovico Bianchi says that the Grand Master was ordering “che si dase il titolo di Illustrissimo al Signor Ludovico”; Likewise in Ugolino Bonnici’s case “e’ stato accordato il titolo d’Ilusstrissimo”. On the other hand, the effect of the 1725 decree was found to be relevant for the purposes of verifying the Order’s “recognition” of titles, namely the titles of Djar il-Bniet and Bucana , that of Cicciano, that of San Vincenzo Ferreri. In fact the Commissioners observed that these three titles were only first “recognized” as titles at different times in 1725 by reason of the aforementioned exceptions. There was no legislative act, the Commissioners continued saying, prior to 1725 which was tantamount to a “recognition”.

After the Report a Committee of Privileges was formed by means of a Despatch dated 16th August 1882. The first task of this committee was to do away with some of the Royal Commissioners’ inconvenient conclusions.


It was successful. Two titles erstwhile held to be extinct were resuscitated and another two titles erstwhile unrecorded were created and backdated. The four claimants could now and did take an active part in the new Committee. One of them was the Marchese Cassar Desain who was elected Secretary.


The Marchese a prolific writer about his own claims, wrote lengthy minutes for the benefit of all. Meticulous and careful not to miss a trick, the Marchesemade sure that all the Titolati were prefixed as Illustrissimi and Nobili. It appears that it never occurred to the Marchese that many of the titolati were in fact not entitled to this long-winded designation. Indeed, it is very surprising that Cassar Desain who was surely entitled to it did not make a song and dance about it, but perhaps the memory of the embarrassment he had suffered at the hands of the Royal Commissioners was too fresh in some memories. Minutes were first taken in Italian – which was the order of the day – but being progressive the Marchese later started rendering an English version, translating the compound Illustrissimo e Nobile into the English The Most Illustrious and Noble, shortened to The Most Noble.


The British Colonials wouldn’t have anything of this and all Government documents omitted any reference to either Most Illustrious or Noble or Most Noble.


The Committee of Privileges, whose role was now being actively questioned by the Assembly of Nobles (that’s another story) thought it fit to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby for permission to allow each and every Titolato the use of the style and title of The Most Noble.


In support of its petition dated 18 June 1884, the Committee said 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”. In addition, the Committee brazenly appended a list of all the grants cited above as proof of its untrue claim. 


The English Earl was outraged not with the Committee’s untrue version of facts, but with the Maltese claim to Most Illustrious. Writing on the 20 January 1885, he just could not accept the fact that a Maltese wog should be addressed in the same way as a prince of the English Blood Royal and sent a missive to this effect.


The Maltese – bless them – received news of the Earl’s disappointment and ignored him altogether. After all, if they got away with stating that every titolato was entitled, it was the Earl’s problem that he couldn’t accept a nobility in Malta which was more pretentious than the English.


Governor Simmons was however facing a very embarrassing crises. By November, he had looked very favourably on the prospect of a compromise between upholding the ancient privileges of the Maltese and the English pride. Writing to Colonel Stanley, the Governor said that it would be best to do away with the embarrassing implications of Illustrious by accepting an almost exact translation of Illustrissimo e Nobile into The Most Noble. 


It worked! 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.”


In this way, by a stroke of a pen, the title of “Most Noble” was created in February 1886 in favour of the titolati members of the Committee of Privileges. – Barely 92 years after the last real title of Illustrissimo was granted.


But the last laugh was not for the Maltese. In time, Malta’s official languages moved from English-Italian to Maltese-English. For the informed the official Maltese translation of “The Most Noble” is but a reminder of the duplicity of the guile practiced on the Secretary of State. Il-Wisq Nobbli translates into The Far too Noble. A more appropriate rebuke for a false pretence could not have been thought out.


In 1975, the newly Republican state of Malta withdrew all recognition of titles of nobility. With hindsight, this was probably the best way of ending the world that was turned on its head for almost 89 years.