R. Bonnici Cali



Probably the greatest Maltese personality of the Seventeenth Century was Fr. Gian-Francesco Abela who put Malta on the map of the civilised world — a man of noble descent, a priest of great piety, a versatile scholar, an able lawyer, a tactful diplomat, a high-ranking member of the Sovereign Military Order of St. John and, above all, a true Maltese patriot.

Although his career was packed with various activities, all brilliant, Abela's work in the archaeological field was his greatest achievement. The book he wrote on Malta, entitled Descrittione di Malta (1647) is the best testimony to the author's knowledge of local antiquities, a knowledge he acquired from his own dedication to the study of history and its monuments, to the careful study of documents and old books, coupled with his meticulous observation of the ruins brought to light by his own toil and at his own expense.

Indeed, history and archaeology are two inseparable companions, the one supplementing the other. What, in fact, is the worth of Abela's Descrittione without the wealth of archaeological evidence with which Abela supports his work?

Count G. A Ciantar, the leading Maltese historian of the 18th Century, assures us that "Commendatore Abela was the first man to collect and publish the hidden monuments of ancient Malta for the convenience of historians and antiquarians as well as for the benefit of his fellow-countrymen". Ciantar goes on to say that the Commendatore was also wise and far-sighted enough to assemble his findings in the form of a museum at his country house in Marsa "e per lasciare anche la memoria delle sue diligenti applicazioni allo studio della venerabile antichita, uni le varie anticaglie the ricavati e ritrovati [p.71] avea; e ne formo un bel museo nel suo casino villereccio di Santo Giacomo".[1]

The above quotation is corroborated by other notable writers, all of whom acclaim Abela as the "Founder of the Malta Museum". Among these one may mention Canon Agius De Soldanis, Dr. A. A. Caruana and Sir Themistocles Zammit.[2]

Unquestionably there were a few collectors before Abela, but no one had ever formed a museum specially devoted to local antiquities. In his Descrittione Abela occasionally hints at the existence of such other collections. Cultured knights could not resist the pleasures of collecting, every one according to his own fancy, arms, coins, paintings, etc. and thus a rich variety of curios had gradually accumulated in Malta.

This collection mania took hold of Abela early in life and led him to collect objects of particular local interest. For him a clay bowl recovered from his native soil was far more precious than a golden one found on the Continent.

Abela possessed an inquisitive mind and judging from his writing he was also mentally alert. For example he tells how, when he was twenty eight years old, during a cruise he took the trouble of climbing up an old tower in the island of Lampedusa to read an old Gothic inscription. That was in 1610 when he was serving as Chaplain on board the flagship of the Order.[3]

It was natural to expect that one who took so much interest in foreign antiquities was undoubtedly very much concerned also — and to a greater extent — with the archaeology of his native land. In fact, acquainted as he was with the numerous collections of antiquities that he had visited during his travels in Italy, France, and Spain, Abela was well equipped to promote archaeology in Malta.

[p.72] His knowledge of letters and world history also helped him to a great extent, while his high office of Vice-Chancellor of the Order put him in contact with many important people and facilitated his correspondence with the leading continental antiquarians with whom he exchanged views on certain curiosities, as he frankly confesses in his Descrittione. Among those he consulted were the Knights Fra Paolo Grimaldi, Fra Martino Perello, and Fra Ernesto Ferdinando Libero, and the reputed antiquarians Guglielmo Choul of France, Vincenzo Mirabella of Sicily and Gregorio Gualtieri.[4]

A very important feature of Abela's work is his keen interest in the discoveries made at various localities in Malta and Gozo during his lifetime. Reading his book on Malta one learns of his visits to the places and monuments he speaks of, and sometimes he adds incidental details, admittedly of little use for history, but of immense help to us in reading Abela's inner emotions and his frame of mind.

Abela had talent and enough money to carry out his excavations. On the other hand, Providence rewarded his labour with a number of discoveries of major importance to the history of Malta. These finds greatly enriched Abela's collections and might also have stimulated his resolve to write his famous Descrittione.

We know for certain that a museum of local antiquities had been established by Abela on Marsa Hill some sixteen years before the publication of the Descrittione. This is corroborated by the inclusion of a number of engravings in Abela's hook showing exhibits from his collection, without which the book would have been far less useful. This leads us to consider the Descrittione as the Iegitimate issue of the Casino or Museo San Giacomo.

Let us now consider how Abela built up his outstanding collection. First of all the Vice-Chancellor presumably kept an eye on the large-scale works undertaken by the Order's engineers all over the island. Extensive digging was being carried [p.73] out to extend the aqueduct from the central part of the island to Valletta and to encircle the cities with bastions and other defences, especially the so-called Firenzuola lines extending from Vittoriosa to Senglea. Any accidental find made during these works could hardly escape the attention of our vigilant collector, however busy he might be. Abela's chief concern, how-ever, seems to have been the exploration of the central regions of the island. We shall now select a few instances to see Abela at work so that we will share his feelings for archaeology.

In 1624 he was busy recording the discovery of a Phoenician tomb in the garden attached to Ghar Barka at Rabat, that is the district around the Old City of Malta, where cemeteries and tombs of the oldest types have been found from time to time. He gives us not only a detailed description of the tomb but also an accurate drawing of its contents. Six years later, he marks the entrance of the garden with a cornmemorative tablet so that the monument be preserved for posterity. The inscription read as follows:


Next we accompany our Commendatore to St. Paul's Bay. There he is seen directing the transport of a Roman monument the discovery of which must have thrilled him very much. It consisted of a marble pedestal, according to his own words, which once supported the statue of Proserpine, but its shape rather suggests an altar. On one side of it there is a three-legged figure, a kind of emblem often to be met with in old [p.74] Sicily, while on the other side there is a man in the act of offering fish, all raised in bas-relief. Abela carries this monumental treasure in a boat and reaches Marsa where the pedestal or altar is placed among the other exhibits of his Museum.

Again we return with him to the old city of Notabile and take note of the numerous remains of classical architecture, pieces of marble blocks, shafts and capitals of columns and other mutilated parts scattered here and there. Afterwards we proceed to Rabat and go down the damp corridors and chambers of the Catacombs, where our patient archaeologist is seen recording every sign he can discover in the dim flickering light of a candle, to show how early the Maltese people had embraced Christianity. He also compares our Catacombs with those of Syracuse — a comparison made also by Fr. Ferrua, S.J., recently, in a lecture he delivered on St. Peter's Crypt and Christian Cemeteries, at the Royal University of Malta.

If we go through Abela's Descrittione page by page we meet with numerous instances of Abela's untiring efforts to collect material for his Museum and we see his great power of observation and admire his spirit of inquiry.

Abela's great contribution to local archaeology was acknowledged by his contemporaries both in Malta and on the Continent, but after three centuries of marked progress in every sphere of studies, some of his theories not unreasonably have lost ground. To this extent some of his faults, therefore, are to be excused. For this reason we should count the inclusion of Calypso's tale in his Descrittione as a desire to preserve a tradition. In fact, we have two localities connected with the tale of Calypso, one at Xagħra in Gozo, the other at Mellieħa in Malta. In both cases there is a cave traditionally held to have been the abode of the Nymph.

As to Abela's belief in the giants who might have lived once on our island, he is by modern critics accused of mistaking Malta for another island and also of mistaking animal bones for human ones. However mistaken he might have been in palaeontology, we wonder if our archaeologist could ever be mistaken in the case of a tooth which, he alleges, had been [p.75] extracted from a human skull found at Imrieħel, a tooth which the Knight Fra Paolo Grimaldi treasured in his own private collection in Malta.

The name Ġgantija, which the Gozitans still use for their prehistoric megalithic building at Xagħra, also points to the traditional belief in giants who must have built those huge blocks of stones. Indeed, Abela attributed these megalithic works to the period of the Phoenicians' occupation, for in his time the Stone Age theory was not yet born. Today, we positively know from the stone balls recently found in situ (1915) under the big blocks of stone forming the Tarxien Neolithic Temples, that those blocks were simply carried there on these rolling balls. This device and, perhaps, the use of wooden rollers and levers do not, however, dispense altogether with the exceptional muscular strength required to handle the tremendous blocks.

Now let us return to consider Abela's Museum. To begin with, even the site of the Museum, we are inclined to think, was not chosen at random. The Marsa was a place known for the various monumental remains it contained. This we know from the grottoes and subterranean works "...molti sepolcri degli antichi the chiamansi catacombe dai nostri maggiori...",[6] which were to be found within the precincts of the grounds attached to Abela's Museum. In the same region other finds were made in 1768 and 1861.[7] The building of Abela's villa and Museum seems to have been started in 1628 and completed in 1631, when various commemorative tablets were placed at the back of the garden and on other points of vantage. Besides the multitude of trees there were garden decorations consisting of fanciful caverns, fountain pieces, old statues, inscriptions and other monumental fragments fixed to the walls or scattered along the paths of the garden.

The Museum building stood in the middle of these grounds. It was reached through a court-yard in the middle of which [p.76] rose an obelisk, while to the left stood the little private chapel where Abela used to say Mass when staying at the Villa. The building consisted of a ground floor and an upper storey, the greater part of which was available for the preservation of the Museum exhibits. The architectural lines of the facade were simple but dignified. The arched doorway was surmounted by three coats of arms — of De Paule, the reigning Grand Master of the time, of the Castillian Langue to which Abela belonged, and of Abela's own family. Flanking this door were two windows, while three other windows graced the upper storey, and the top of the house was crowned with a cornice and finally dominated by the unfailing eight-pointed Cross of the Order. Among other decorations displayed on the facade was an inscription recording a prayer to God, whom Abela kept as his chief source of inspiration in all his deeds, including his archaeological studies.

It appears that the Museum consisted of five rooms in which only perishable and fragile exhibits were sheltered from heat and rain, and where coins and small objects were kept for greater safety. Therein one could see idols, sepulchral pottery, vases, glass, lamps, decorated earthenware, remains of coffins, bones, mummies, inscriptions, coins, medals, and metal objects, etc. Marble remains of statues, architectural fragments, and other weather resisting objects of considerable weight were exhibited in the open along the garden, which for the learned Abela was a paradise on earth.

This was the place Abela had planned in every detail, the place that the good priest was anxious to preserve for posterity. At first he thought of leaving it in the hands of the Knights, but in 1637 he chose to entrust it to the Jesuit Fathers, who at that time led in the field of education in Malta.

Abela's death occurred in 1655, and all went well with the museum for the first century or so. Prominent visitors to the island did not fail to see Abela's Museum, among these a certain Thomas Bartolin of Copenhagen, who came here in 1664. The Jesuits had at some time or other turned Abela's villa into a holiday place for members of their Company, but in the middle of the 18th Century, they left Marsa for St. Francis' Villa at Ghajn Dwieli, [p.77] leaving Abela's villa in the care of a secular priest who obviously could do very little for its upkeep. The Museum fell into neglect while the collections suffered considerably from burglary which was comparatively easy in such a solitary place.

During the priest's tenure, in fact, an important Phoenician jar of which we can see an illustration in Abela's Descrittione (p. 153) was found missing together with other objects. It was neither the first nor the last case of theft from the Museum. On another occasion the burglar in his act of vandalism cut off the head of Hercules' statue that then adorned the garden and offered it for sale in Valletta. Needless to say, the authorities redeemed the head and returned it to its original place. After this mishap, the statue and, we presume, many other important monuments were given shelter inside the building.

In the 18th Century there were two other small private museums worthy of note, one in the house of Marquis C. A. Barbaro in Valletta, and the other in the country house of Marquis Testaferrata, a relative of our great Commendatore Abela, at Marnisi, in the limits of Zejtun. It seems that the hobby of collecting was on the increase among both the Knights and the Maltese nobility.

In 1768 Grand Master Pinto ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Islands of Malta and also the confiscation of their property, including Abela's villa with its collection. The Museum thus becane national property and the collection was removed to the Order's Library in Valletta for better protection. It is said, however, that a few objects found their way to the Magisterial Palace. Eventually the Villa at Marsa fell into total neglect and it must have been reduced to ruins by or about the end of the century.

The building of a new Library was planned in G. M. De Rohan's time (1775-97), but it took far too long to be completed. Because of this delay both the Order's books and Abela's collection were not taken to the new Library building before 1811 when they were transfered under instructions from Sir H. Oakes, then British Commissioner for Malta.

[p.78] An eye-witness of the mid-19th Century gives the following description of the collection: "In the same room with the Library is also kept a small collection of antiquities and curiosities, found at various times in this island and at Gozo, together with a few birds, a wolf, a wild cat and a snake all stuffed".[8] From the details he gives of the exhibits we can identify at least a few which belonged to Abela; these include Hercules' statue, Proserpine's pedestal or altar, the reliefs of the heads of Tullia, Claudia and Zenobia, and other important objects. The same writer also hints at the later additions, such as the marble torso of Diana found at Porto Novo, in the vicinity of Abela's Villa, in 1865, and the idols recovered from the later excavations at Hagar Qim.

It should be remembered that archaeological research w as being conducted in many lands on the shores of the Mediterranean in the 19th Century. Malta was no exception, thanks to the interest of a number of English gentlemen who were quick to appreciate the importance of the island's archaeological wealth. Every now and then new objects found in the course of excavations on the island, as well as various donations were added to our small Museum. In this way many objects were being collected, thus adding to the confusion in the restricted space of the Library until Sir W. Reid, who governed the island from 1851 to 1858, took care to organize the collection into the inner two rooms of the Library, thus drawing a line of demarcation between the Library and the Museum. The small apartment of the Museum was thereforth called Cabinetto delle Antichitΰ.[9]

Dr. A. A. Caruana, ex-Director of Education and Librarian, published a few interesting works on the antiquities of the island at the end of the 19th Century describing, among other things, the ancient pottery most of which was in the Museum collection. The same writer also extensively quoted Abela and [p.79] his collection and hailed him as the "Founder of the Museum Collection".[10]

The 20th Century has brought with it important additions and improvements to the Museum. Lord Grenfell, Governor of Malta from 1898 to 1903, put himself at the head of many enthusiasts for the antiquities who worked together to make of the Museum an institution on its own, quite independent of the Library. He also saw to the cataloguing of the Palace Armoury by an English expert[11] and made a fine donation to the Museum of a number of Egyptain antiquities he had personally collected in the land of the Pharaohs.

In 1901 Sir Themistocles Zammit was briefed to prepare for the transfer of the ;:ileum from the Library to its new seat at Palazzo Xara, opposite St. John's Co-Cathedral, and two years later a committee was formed to take care of the whole business of the new Institution. It also happened that in 1902 a great discovery was made at Paola; it was the Neolithic Hypogeum from which very important pottery and other objects were recovered to enrich our Museum. Palazzo Xara was adapted in a short time to house the various sections of our Museum; each section was to represent a particular period, namely the Neolithic, the Roman, the Order of the Knights of Jerusalem and the Modern. There was also a section de-voted to Numismatics.

Sir Them. Zammit, the Curator of the new Museum, was able to publish his first report in 1904 while the Annual Report of the Librarian of the same year announced that "the Museum was severed from the Library".[12]

Many antiques, paintings and other suitable objects formerly in the possession of the Government Departments were transferred to the Museum while various donations from public-spirited citizens came forth steadily from time to time.[13]

[p.80] The Antiquities Committee instituted by Sir H. M. L. Rundle in 1910 was a complementary institution to the Museum for promoting the protection of the Monuments scattered all over the islands of Malta.

In 1913 an important find was made at Tarxien. It was the Neolithic Temple rich in carvings, decoration, pottery and other material that has greatly widened our knowledge. Sir Them. Zammit has thereon showed his scientific skill and used his untiring energy in directing the excavations which earned him many laurels.

With the advent of Responsible Government in 1921, the Malta Museum Department was put under the Ministry for Education which gave it the best attention possible, first by the appointment of an Inspector of Fine Arts and of other guardians of our monuments on its staff and then by providing better premises capable of housing the ever increasing collection. It was at this time, too, that Dr. Lewis Mizzi donated his numerous and costly collection of mineralogy, which definitely called for bigger premises than Palazzo Xara.

In 1923 the building of Auberge d'Italie was allotted to the Museum and it was also directed that each of the various collections be put under the care of a separate curator, with Sir Them. Zammit as Director. The Director, however, retained for himself the curatorship of Archaeology while Mr. Giuseppe Despott became curator of Natural History, Chev. Vincenzo Bonello of the Fine Arts Section and Dr. Lewis Mizzi of Mineralogy. The Auberge d'Italie was officially opened as the seat of the Museum on November 19, 1925.

During the next ten years a marked improvement was registered, but with the death, in harness, of Sir Them. Zammit on November 2, 1935, Malta lost her "Second Abela". But worse was to follow. World War II not only closed the doors of the Museum but also wrought havoc among a number of the exhibits. The Auberge received a direct hit from aerial bombardment, but most of the damage was caused by dampness.

After the bad years which followed the War we witnessed the experimental opening of a token Museum at Casa Leone, [p.81] Hamrun, in 1952, but unfortunately it met with very little success.

Writing in the 18th century, De Soldanis opined "that Commendatore Abela would burst into tears if he were to re-turn to life and see the neglect of his Museum". We do not know what he would do today, but we like to think that both he and Sir Them. Zammit would find consolation in the fact that once again the National Museum has been opened in the heart of the City, in the beautiful building of the Auberge de Provence.

In this rapid review of the main facts contributing to the birth and growth of our National Museum we have seen events taking place one after the other like rings in a long chain that connects our hero Gian-Francesco Abela to ourselves.

On this occasion, therefore, let us repeat with Count Ciantar, De Soldanis, A. A. Caruana and Them. Zammit that "Abela has the honour of being the founder of our Museum".

[1] CIANTAR, G. A., Malta Illustrata Malta, 1772 — Ristretto della Vita del Comm. G. F. Abela, L. I., N. II., p. X.

[2] MIFSUD, I. S., Biblioteca Maltese, Malta, 1764, pp. 231-65 — Vita di G. F. Abela per Gian. Piet. Fran. Agius Sultana; CARUANA, A. A., Ancient Pottery ... Malta, 1899., p. 1. ZAMMIT, THEM., Guide to Valletta Museum, Malta, 1931 — Preface.

[3] ABELA, G. F., Descrittione di Malta Malta, 1647.

[4] "Scientia", Oct-Dec., 1955. p. 148.

[5] CIANTAR, op. cit. L. II, N.II., V, p. 456.

[6] Aliesun, LS., op. cit. pp. 257-258.

[7] BARBARO, C. A., Acanzi d'Alcuni Antichissimi Edifizi, Malta. 1794; CARUANA, A. A., Ancient Pagan Tombs and Christian Cemeteries, Malta, 1898, p. 17.

[8] BADGER, G. P., Guide to Malta, 1851. Second edition, pp. 185-9.

[9] MUCAT, Giov., Publishers. Guide to Malta, 1910 — Brief description of the monuments of Malta, p 272.

[10] CARUANA, A. A., Ancient Pottery … p. 1.

[11] LAKING, G., Catalogue of the Armoury and Arms … London, 1902.

[12] Government Gazette — Annual Reports — 1904.

[13] BONNICI CALI, R., Gian Fran. Abela — reprint from "Scientia", April-June, 1953, p. 88.