E. R. Leopardi



Giovanni Francesco Abela, Vice-Chancellor of the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and Father of Maltese Historiography, died three hundred years ago. It is both proper and fitting that the memory of such a great man should be honoured and, very aptly, the Malta Historical Society took the initiative and commemorated Abela during the current year, with various events, in a manner befitting the man and his work.

Abela was indeed a great man and his activities were many sided. Any country would have been proud to be his birth-place. Within the Order of St. John to which Abela had be-longed since his teens, he made an outstanding career, both in the ecclesiastical and in the civil branch of the Convent, and by sheer merit he rose to occupy the high and responsible post of Vice Chancellor. He was not the only Maltese to leave his mark on the administration of the Order, for others, both before and after him, had filled very capably positions of trust and of a high order. But when we peruse the bibliography of published works of Maltese authors and historians, Abela's name is found to be of the first importance. This sketch is intended to be only a brief survey of Abela's "Description of Malta" in the vicissitudes of its fortunes throughout the years that have elapsed since his death.

Abela wrote his well known work on the description of Malta in Italian, which he published in the veal. 1647, with the following title page:

Della / Descrittione di / MALTA / Isola nel mare / Siciliano / con le sue antichità, ed altre notitie / Libri Quattro / del Commendatore / Fra Gio. Francesco Abela / Vicecancelliere della Sacra [p.24] ed Eminentissima Religione / Gierosolimitana / In Malta / per Paolo Bonacota MDCXLVII / Con Licenza de' Superiori.

The work, divided into four parts, was published in Folio, in one volume, and was printed on watermarked paper. It has an index of Chapters, and a general index and a register at the end of the volume. It contains 573 pages of text and is illustrated. The illustrations contain an elaborate frontispiece, a map of the Maltese Islands, a plan of the city of Malta at the time of the Romans, and several designs of statues, marbles and other antiques found locally. The hook was printed by Paolo Bonacota in the Press of the Government, then newly introduced in Malta under the grandmastership of Fra Jean Paul Lascaris, to whom Abela dedicated his work.

The book of Abela was received with enthusiasm by all students of history, won a quick success everywhere and soon became the recognized work of reference on Malta throughout the rest of the seventeenth century. It should, however, be stated that this was not the only book of reference on Malta compiled in that century. In 1660, thirteen years after Abela's publication, there appeared in Germany a work in Latin entitled Malta Vetus et Nova, written by Burchardus Niederstett.[1]

Niederstett travelled to Malta from Germany for the ex-press purpose of obtaining material first hand for his work, and in a letter he published as a preface to his book he stated that, although his intention had been to treat the subject briefly, omitting the Statutes of the Order of St. John, yet he had had much difficulty in compiling his work on account of the lack of reliable authors for reference purposes.

Still, when one compares the design of the title page of Malta Vetus et Nova with that of Abela, the similarity between them is clearly apparent and therefore it is easy to conclude that Niederstett at least made ample use of the pictorial presentation of Abela's frontispiece. Niederstett reproduces in the beginning of his work the eulogy in Latin: In laudem Insulae — Anonymi Authoris, with which Abela concluded his.

[p.25] Onorato Bres, a later Maltese historian, stated in his out-standing work Malta Antica[2] that the work of Niederstett was only an abridgment in Latin of Abela's book. Ferdinand de Hellwald in his work on the Bibliography of the Order of St. John[3] wrote the following cutting remark on the work of Niederstett: "Tres rare. On prétend cependant que ce n'est qu'une nouvelle édition de l'ouvrage d'Abela." Finally Dr. I. S. Mifsud[4] stated that Burchardus Niederstett disguised the name of a Knight of Malta.

Towards the beginning of the eighteenth century the work of Abela was translated into Latin by Johannes Antonius Seinerus, the translator making due acknowledgment to Abela as the original author of the work. This translation was published in Leyden, in 1725, and was inserted in volume XV of the work entitled Thesaurus Antiquitatum et Historiarum Siciliae. It was edited by Johannes Georgius Graevius, with a preface by Petrus Burmannus. The very fact that Abela's description of Malta was selected for inclusion in this encyclopaedic work shows that it was still considered as a classic among scholars in the early years of the eighteenth century. It is chiefly through this translation of Abela's work by Seinerus into Latin, the then universal language among cultured people, that the name of Malta and its description were spread wherever learning and culture were valued.

Agius de Soldanis (1712-1770), a Gozitan scholar and first Librarian of the Public Library in Malta, stated in his life of Abela[5] that it was his intention to reprint the work of Abela as it had appeared in its first edition of 1647 (che penso ristampare, se Iddio me ne darà tempo). At his time, de Soldanis stated, Abela's work had long been out of print (oggi [p.26] non se ne trovano piu esemplari). The intention of de Soldanis, however, was not realized by him, and it fell to another Maltese scholar, Count Ciantar (1696-1778), to publish Abela's work in an enlarged and corrected edition. Ciantar published this work in two volumes: the first appeared in 1772[6] while the second was published posthumously in 1780. These volumes were printed in Malta by Giovanni Mallia, in the Printing Press at the Palace. Ciantar, in his preface to this work, wrote how the work of Abela was unobtainable, how it was sought by many literary men both in Malta and abroad, and how he had often been asked by Maltese and foreign scholars to give to the public a new edition with a continuation of the series of events following those recorded by Abela. Such was the reason which had induced his publishing the new edition of Abela's work, wrote Ciantar.

Dwelling on this subject Onorato Bres stated[7] that as the original work of Abela had become rare and hard to obtain, Count Ciantar took it upon himself to prepare another publication. When he published the first volume he was 76 years old and had become completely blind. Not only did he fail to correct, or delete, errors existing in the original work of Abela, as he stated was his intention, but he actually added a few fallacies of his own to those already existing.

A further short account of Malta[8] appeared anonymously in French in 1791. It is, however, well known to be the work of Chev. de Saint-Priest. The book is neatly illustrated and contains, if short, a good description of Malta and its history. In the opinion of Bres[9] de Saint-Priest has done nothing more than make a nice abridgment of what Abela and Ciantar had written before. In justice to de Saint-Priest, it should be admitted that he quotes the sources of his information at the end of every Chapter.

[p.27] In the years 1804-1805 Chev. Louis de Boisgelin, a former Knight of Malta, published in London a work in English en-titled "Ancient and Modern Malta",[10] which was later translated into French. This is a good general work on Malta, but, as Bres affirmed, in relation to the part covering the ancient period, de Boisgelin wrote exactly what had been written by Commendator Abela and Count Ciantar[11] in their previous works.

The first work to appear showing independent judgment and a break away from Abela and his followers was Malta Antica, written by Onorato Bres (1763-1818), and published in Rome in 1816. This work covers ancient Maltese history up to the closing of the eighth century of the Christian era. The main characteristics observed in the work of Bres, of fundamental importance to the student of Maltese history, are: the deep critical acumen of the author, the good analysis of his subject and the fully documented presentation of the work.

A last attempt was made to publish another edition of Abela's work with the notes of Count Ciantar. This was started in the printing press of John Stocker[12] in 1842, and a few quires, in octavo, made their appearance, but the work was not continued to its final stage. A contemporary Maltese writer, Antonio Schembri, gives note of this in a work he published in 1855.[13]

There is no copy of this incomplete work at the Royal Malta Library, for an Act to provide the Public Libraries of Malta and Gozo with a free copy of works printed and published in these Islands was enacted only in 1925.[14] After Stocker's incomplete edition no further attempts were made to re-edit Abela's work either in its entirety or in an abridged form.

[p.28] In the middle of the last century a Storia di Malta — Raccontata in Compendio was written and published in Malta, in 1854, by G. A. Vassallo, which proved a successful venture. In the year 1943 there appeared in Milan a work written by Agostino Savelli, entitled Storia di Malta dai primordi ai giorni nostri. During the century that elapsed between the publication of the work of Vassallo and that of Savelli, various other histories of Malta have made their appearance. Though some of these are inferior to others it is apparent that all the compilers had recourse to Abela's book for reference. It is much to be regretted that the Father of Maltese Historiography has been pirated in so subtle and artful a way by modern historians who lacked the common courtesy to acknowledge their sources.

With the modern trend of specialization in all branches of human knowledge, it has become impossible for one man to work singlehanded and produce the whole history of any country. This applies to Malta: an Island small in size but having a long and varied history, ranging from prehistoric times to our own days and with a chequered list of dominating powers possessing it. An historical work on Malta to be of real value should be compiled by a team of historians, all specialising in a particular period. It is asking too much of one man to write a good survey of prehistoric Malta and an equally good account of the Island in the Middle Ages. If this task were ever to be attempted the result would be nothing but a statement of previous works and would therefore lack in the merits of originality and scholarship.

We have followed, very briefly, the fortunes of a book, the first work published in Malta on Maltese history. As we have seen, there was a time when it was considered erroneous to compile a new history of Malta once this had already been done. It was thus that the history of Abela was for a long time considered as complete and final, and therefore not to be corrected or altered. This state of affairs produced stagnancy and no one sought to delve in research for new material. Such theories have changed since those days, and we live in an age which considers that every generation has to produce a history of its country. It is not our intention to belittle the work of Abela, which embodied years and years of fruitful labour in every field of local history, and certainly has merits of its own. On the contrary, we feel sure that Abela's book will continue to be, for all future historians, a mine of information and an indispensable source for the production of a balanced, authoritative and documented history of the Maltese Islands.

[1]Malta Vetus Et Nova a BURCHARDO NIEDERSTETT, &c., Helmestadii, 1660.

[2]ONORATO BEES, Malta Antica illustrata co' monumenti, e coll'istoria, Roma, 1816.

[3]Bibliographic Methodique de l'Ordre Souv. de St. Jean de Jerusalem par FERDINAND DE HELLWALD, Rome, 1885. p. 283.

[4]Biblioteca Maltese dell'Avvocato Mifsud, Malta, 1764, p. 247, "nome mascherato di un Cavaliere".

[5]GIAN PIETRO FRANCESCO AGIUS SULTANA, known as DE SOLDANIS, compiled the life of Abela which was published by DR. IGNAZIO SAVERIO MIFSUD in the work already quoted, pp. 231-265.

[6]Malta Illustrata ovvero Descrizione di Malta corretta, accresciuta, e continvata dal CONTE GIOVANNANTONIO CIANTAR, ecc.

[7]BRES., op. Cit., p. 5.

[8]Malthe, par un voyageur Francois (LE CHEV. F. E. DE SAINT-PRIEST), s. 1. 1791, in -8.

[9]BRES, op. cit., p. 8.

[10]Ancient and Modern Malta, etc., by Louis DE BOISGELIN. London, 1804-1805, in-4, 3 volumes.

[11]BRES, Op. Cit., p. 8.

[12]In a Latin work printed in 1843 the name of these printers appears as follows: Ex TYPIS STOCKER FRATRUM & CO.

[13]ANTONIO SCHEMBRI, Selva di Autori e Traduttori Maltesi, Malta, 1855, p. 9.

[14]Act. No. II of 1925.