E. R. Leopardi

GIAN FRANCESCO ABELA : His Life and Career




In 1955 the Malta Historical Society commemorated the Tercentenary of the death of Gian Francesco Abela, father of Maltese historiography. In doing so the Society had a twofold purpose in mind, the first being a sense of duty proper to the occasion as homage to a great man who had worked untiringly for the betterment of the land of his birth. The second was the hopeful thought that from the celebrations interest would be awakened and enlivened in the glorious pages of the past, and that many who previously had neglected the History of Malta would become aware of its depths and pursue its study. It is only by such knowledge that we can gain a deeper consciousness of the values of our cultural and historical heritage which have left on us imprints of a special shade — characteristics of our own — throughout the development of mankind towards civilization.

Malta has throughout the ages been referred to by historians and travellers in their works. The earliest instances of a reference to these Islands are to be found first in Greek and later in Latin Literature. Also not to be overlooked is the reference to Malta in the Acts of the Apostles, where the conversion to Christianity of our forefathers is described.

The Maltese Islands were but scantily mentioned by writers in the first ten centuries of our era; also later, during the Arab domination, and down to the first half of the sixteenth century, when Malta became the home of the Knights of Jerusalem.

In the early years of the rule of the Knights Quintinus wrote and published a short account of Malta. Later, in the same century, Giacomo Bosio, in his History of the Order, published another account of these Islands with a detailed description [p.8] of the Great Siege of 1565. Other foreign authors published important pamphlets and monographs on this Siege and a rich bibliography on the subject is extant.

Shorter descriptions of these Islands continued to appear throughout the remaining part of the sixteenth century, when the fame of Malta as a strong Christian fortress had already been well established in every corner of Europe.

From the above it is evident that these writers and historians were all foreigners, and we have to come nearer to our time in order to find the first Maltese who ever attempted to compile and publish an epitome of all that was known about Malta up to his period. In other words, we have to reach the year 1647 to find the publication of a description of Malta, written by a Maltese and on a scale hitherto unattempted. This is the work of Abela whom we acclaim as the foremost historian of Malta.

Gian Francesco Abela was born of noble parentage, in Valletta, in the year 1582, when Fra Ugone Loubenx Verdala was Grand Master of the Order and ruler of these Islands. His parents, Marco Abela and Bernardina, daughter of Mariano Vella and Francesca Xara, were married in 1566, the year following the Great Siege. The issue of this marriage were a daughter and a son. The first born was the daughter, Marietta, who was married in 1583, to Giacomo de Robertis, a gentleman from the city of Bologna, who was in Malta in the service of the Order as Commandant of the Artillery. The son, who was destined to become famous, was born some years after his sister.

Abela received his first education in Malta, probably in the College of the Jesuit Fathers then recently instituted in Valletta. He was also admitted among the body of young aspirants in the service of the Order of St. John, known as Chierici Conventuali di Giustizia, and was attached to the Venerable Tongue of Castile, in the Priory of Portugal. After receiving sufficient preparation locally in the study of the humanities, arrangements were made for Abela to continue his higher studies [p.9] abroad. Bologna, then acknowledged as a foremost seat of learning, was chosen to enable him to acquire a sound know-ledge in legal sciences.

In the preparation necessary for this long trip and for his stay in Bologna, Abela was much aided by his kinsmen Monsignor Leonardo Abela and Monsignor Luca Vella, Precentor of the Cathedral; and in a special way by his brother-in-law Giacomo de Robertis.

In Bologna Abela attended the Archigymnasium, where he showed his abilities as a keen and intelligent scholar. In the year 1607 he obtained the doctorate in both civil and canon law. A remarkable feature of his stay in Bologna was when he was conceded the privilege of being appointed a Counsellor for the Islands of Malta and Gozo in the said University.

After having successfully terminated his course of studies in Bologna, Abela considered it a necessary complement to his cultural pursuits to visit the principal places of Italy. When he arrived at Pavia, a grave disease overtook him. By a stroke of good fortune, a Maltese Augustinian monk, Antonio Attardi, was also in Pavia at that time. Hearing of his compatriot's illness he hurried to his bedside and assisted him with every care and attention until he recovered. Abela acknowledged this attention with gratitude and praises Father Attardi with these words: dalla cortesia di questo noi ricevemmo nella città di Pavia molte amorevolezze in una grave e pericolosa infermità the quivi ci sopravenne, ritornando da' studi dell'inclita Città di Bologna.

When Abela returned to Malta he devoted his attention to the choir of St. John's Conventual Church, to which he had been attached in his early days. His zeal in the attendance of his duties soon attracted the attention of his confreres and the admiration of the Knights. In 1610 he received Holy Orders from the hands of Bishop Gargallo. Then came the time required for him to perform certain obligations as a member of the Order of St. John. These were the so called caravans, which were a period of service at sea in one of the galleys of the Order, in the capacity of Chaplain. He performed this duty [p.10] for the whole period required — four cruises — in person, a somewhat remarkable procedure, as it was not unknown for a member of the Order to delegate this duty and go to sea by proxy.

As a young member of the Order, Abela was selected and given the rank of Secretary to accompany different embassies sent on special missions to the Courts of France and Spain, and also to the Holy See. On these occasions Abela showed remarkable tact and diplomacy.

The Prior of St. John, Monsignor Pietro Urrea Camarasa, appeared to be benevolent towards Abela, whom he appointed Master of Ceremonies, when this post fell vacant. While in this office he introduced necessary reforms by removing those inconsistencies which had been created by the presence of a mixed Greek and Latin rite, introduced in Malta when the Knights first came from Rhodes.

Considering another side of Abela's career, we find him practising as a lawyer in the Civil Courts of Justice. It is known that he had not abandoned his legal studies, and that he had devoted some time to acquiring a proficient knowledge of the Statutes of the Order. After having defended many cases, he was nominated Advocate for the Poor. This appointment brought Abela much to the fore and he became a very popular figure in the civil service of the Order. One promotion followed another and from Advocate for the Poor he became Treasury Counsel (Avvocato del Comun Tesoro).

All these high offices occupied by a man gifted with a vast store of erudition, brought further tributes and recognition. He was subsequently nominated Honorary Chaplain to Grand Master Alofio Wignacourt, and held the appointment of Latin Secretary to more than one Grand Master. Later he became Secretary in charge of the correspondence exchanged with the five Receivers of the Province of Spain. For some time he also exercised the office of Chaplain to the Holy Infirmary.

When Monsignor Salvatore Imbroll was sent to Rome in 1626, as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Holy See, Abela was nominated by the Grand Master and the Venerable Council [p.11] to look after the spiritual side of the Convent, and so he was created Lieutenant to the Grand Prior, during the absence of Imbroll.

The highest promotion he received was on the 13th of October, 1626. At a sitting held on that date, the Venerable Council unanimously appointed him Vice Chancellor of the Order of St. John. The office of Vice-Chancellor was a high and responsible one for which the following dispositions appear printed in an edition of the Statutes, published in Rome in 1609: Statuimo che il Gran Cancelliero habbia un Vice-cancelliero, huomo dotto e sofficiente, deputato all'esercizio delta nostra Cancelleria.

In the year 1631, a Chapter General of the Order was held at the Palace in Valletta, in one of the halls called at that time La Sala del Conclave. Abela was entrusted with the task of making the necessary preparations for the whole complex system designed to carry into effect the holding of the Chapter General and its deliberations and he attended in his capacity as Vice Chancellor.

Of his many beneficial acts towards Malta, Abela must surely be remembered for the formation of the first Noterial Archives, where all Deeds of public notaries are preserved. Before the enactment of this provision, Deeds remained in the custody of Notaries, after whose death they passed into the hands of private persons, without any control whatever on the part of the government. Such a dispersal of important public acts resulted in the loss of all the records of nearly two hundred years i.e., up to the second half of the fifteenth century the period of our earliest notarial deeds which have survived, and are now preserved in the Archives under the control of the Notary to Government. These public archives were instituted in the year 1640, by an enactment made by the Grand Master and the Venerable Council. Promoter of this project was Cornmendatore Abela, whose name must therefore be mentioned today as the creator of this important institution.

Abela was nominated Uditore to Grand Master de Paula, through which office it devolved upon him to advise the Grand [p.12] Master on important matters of state and administration. He was also appointed one of the triumvirate to conduct the election in which Fra Jean Paul Lascaris was elected Grand Master of the Order.

During his term of office as Vice Chancellor, Abela had his private apartments in the Chancery, which occupied the building facing the Palace of the Grand Masters, and now housing the Garrison Library. For the greater part of the year Abela lived in this building in Valletta, busily engaged in his exacting work, and where he was kept fully occupied with his many other onerous duties. He also found time to receive numerous friends who frequently sought his advice.

To escape occasionally these normal occupations, whenever circumstances permitted, Abela built a country house on the promontory known at that time as it Kortin at the Marsa, overlooking the inner part of the Grand Harbour. Three hundred years ago the inner basin of the harbour was much different from what we see today. It was a peaceful and picturesque spot, not yet marred by those necessities brought about by the development of modern commerce and industry.

The country house which Abela called Villa di San Giacomo, later known as Villa Abela, was accessible both by land and from the sea. On passing through a gateway, a terraced garden was reached, in the centre of which stood the house. The garden was embellished with various grottos and playing fountains. Many trees gave welcome shade; predominant among which were carob and olive trees. The house was well pro-portioned but not ostentatious. On the ground floor were four rooms, two on either side of the hall. The upper floor was reached by a spiral staircase rising from the hall.

On the floor of one of the rooms Abela had traced the meridian line. This is an interesting fact, as it shows how abreast of his times was Abela, for the famous and perhaps the earliest meridian line was traced in 1653, in San Petronio, in Bologna, by the celebrated astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini.

The outside of the house was decorated by three coats-of-arms: those of the Language of Castile — to which Commendatore [p.13] Abela belonged; that of de Paula — the then reigning Grand Master; and that of Abela's family.

Adjoining the house was a Chapel dedicated to the Guardian Angel. It was there that Abela offered Mass when in residence.

Facing the house in the centre of a courtyard stood an obelisk of local stone, with a base of antique marble. Appropriate quotations both of religious and classical sources were inscribed on stone, a notable instance was the old motto: Deus nobis haec otia fecit, from Virgil's first eclogue.

The villa taken as a whole, with its library and museum, was a veritable witness of the refined tastes of its designer and owner. It was not the epicure who lived there to indulge in a life free from all care; it was the house of a refined and cultured man, of a gentleman who retired to that quiet spot, a place where he found solace between busy days where he could enjoy meditation on, and study of the antiquities of Malta of which he was a renowned collector. It was in this calm and delightful place that Abela penned his famous work Descrittione di Malta, which he published in the year 1647, in the printing press of the Order, then newly introduced in this Island.

All men of letters in Malta were his friends, and important visitors from abroad sought to see him during their stay in Malta, while he was in regular correspondence with foreign scholars. People having any difficulty about the history or the antiquities of Malta, or on the Order of St. John, all had re-course to Abela to solve their problem. He was the arbiter in these matters and his word was accepted without further discussion.

As a citizen and as a priest Abela lived true to his convictions: exemplary in his character and philanthropic in his deeds. The legacy he left for the permanent lighting of a lamp in the Chapel of his Language in St. John's, his other connections with Churches he endowed, such as St. Paul's in Valletta and the Jesuit Church and College; the rural Chapels at Tal-Marnisi and Ta' Bria; and finally the erection of a Chapel at [p.14] Ta' Giesu in Valletta, at his expense, the Chapel where his parents are buried, are all evidence of his religious fervour.

Simplicity was a remarkable trait of this unassuming man; he was gifted by nature with a pleasing appearance and had a gentle manner in dealing with people. All who came into contact with him felt his amiability and charm. His contemporaries originated the tradition which posterity recorded, and we read these words: visse nel comune credito di essere uomo sagace, umile, modesto, limosiniero e dotto.

Among the treasured friends that Abela made in the Island was Monsignor Fabio Chigi, when Inquisitor of Malta. Monsignor Chigi, after a long career in the service of the Church, was created Cardinal and, on the 7th of April, 1655, was elected Supreme Pontiff. Abela wrote him a letter of congratulations on this occasion and His Holiness very graciously replied to his old friend in a letter full of praise and esteem, wherein he suggested that Abela would proceed to the Papal Court at Rome. But Abela's days were numbered. When that letter reached Malta, he had already departed this life. A fatal malady, accompanied by dreadful pain, thwarted every activity and he died on May 4, 1655, at the age of 73.

He was buried according to his wish in the Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos, at St. John's, the Conventual Church of the Order. Fra Abela had not made any dispositions as to a tombstone and its inscription. The marble slab at present seen over his grave was ordered to be placed there by Abela's grand-nephew, who in grateful and affectionate memory, composed the words which are insribed in Latin.

Although three centuries have elapsed since his death, Commendatore Gian Francesco Abela is known, and his work is cherished by all who love Malta and its histnn-. The sight of his portrait in the Main Hall of the Royal Library in Valletta, together with the numerous copies of his famous work sought everywhere by scholars, historians and hook-collectors, a valued heirloom in many families, are a pleasant assurance to all of us that the good work of this man was not interred with his bones.