Source: Melita Historica : A Scientific Review of Maltese History. 5(1968)1(67-68)

[67] Reviews 1968

G. WETTINGER ― M. FSADNI O.P., Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, a poem in medieval Maltese, Malta, 1968, 52 p.

The poem dedicated to Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner (1663-1680) by G.F. Bonamico (1639-1680) has constantly been pointed out by scholars of Maltese Literature as being the earliest evidence of written Maltese. The search for earlier examples of written Maltese had always proved fruitless. G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni, however, have succeeded in unearthing an earlier document in Maltese: Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena, which they discovered in the Notarial Archives in Valletta in a register containing the deeds of Brandano de Caxario. It is to their credit that this unique example of written Maltese dating from the latter half of the fifteenth Century has come to light.

This book presenting the discovery of these two gentlemen is a synthesis of the conclusions arrived at, after long research work in the Notarial Archives and the Archives of the Royal Malta Library ― a scholarly work in which assertions are supported by documentary evidence.

In Part One of this publication, after some brief notes concerning the actual discovery of the Cantilena, the authors give a survey of the studies made by other scholars in their search of early examples of written Maltese. The question of.the authorship of the Cantilena is then treated at full length. The interesting biographical details about Brandano de Caxario and his ancestor Peter make the reader familiar with the prominent Caxaro family that flourished in Malta in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In dealing with the cultural life of the Island at the time, the authors do not hesitate to tackle the question of the place of the Maltese Language in fifteenth and sixteenth century Malta. These paragraphs help the reader in placing the Cantilena in the Literature of Malta. The authors rightly assert that “it forms an invaluable ... link between the Arabic and later literary Traditions of Malta. Its archaic language conveniently bridges much of the gap that lies between Modern Maltese and Arabic.” This statement indicates appropriately the place of the Cantilena in Maltese Literature: since, in the absence of earlier evidence of Maltese, one might well refrain from describing the language of the Cantilena, written at a time when the Middle Ages had come to an end in Europe, as Medieval Maltese.

In the second part of their publication, the authors give a transcription of the Cantilena. This is followed by a transliteration of the poem into the modern Maltese alphabet ― an attempt that might well have baffled the two authors had they not passed long hours in deciphering the handwriting of Brandano de Caxario and in studying the system which he followed in writing Maltese words, at a time when there existed no agreed system of Maltese orthography. It is consequently, understandable that a correct and complete analysis of the text of the Cantilena would indeed be difficult. [p.68] With the help of the earlier Maltese lexicographers and a comparative study of the language used in the Cantilena with Arabic words, that might illustrate the meaning of its text, the authors made a successful attempt in giving a textual analysis of the poem.

A genealogical table of the Caxaro Family, a facsimile of the Cantilena, and the photo-reproductions illustrating the handwriting of Brandano and Peter Caxaro render this publication still more interesting to the learned reader for whom it is meant.

Anthony Zammit Gabarretta