Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 6(1974)3(328-331)
M. FSADNI, Id-Dummkani fir-Rabat u fil-Birgu sa 1-1620. Il-Hajja Printing Press 1973, pp. 332, illustr. 22.
With this volume, Father Michael Fsadni has completed his history of the Dominican Order in Malta, up to 1620. In two previous volumes he had covered, first, the arrival and initial activities of the Order in Malta (1450-1512) and, secondly, the history of the Order's activities in Valletta (1569-1619). Now, in this third volume, he carries on the history of the Order's activities at Rabat and Vittoriosa up to 1620.
The book begins with a short summary of the first volume, in which the author recalls the relatively rapid flourishing of the Order of Preachers in Malta in a half-century. The first centre was at Rabat, about a mile outside the then capital city of the island. The conditions of life in Malta worsened after the turn of the 16th century; the population (around 20,000) was constantly exposed to the ravages of pirates and of pestilence and endured serious poverty. Nonetheless, around 1528, the Dominicans were fortunate enough to receive a house at Birgu, at exactly the time when Birgu was to become the new capital of the Knights; moreover social and economic conditions there were taking a turn for the better and the Dominicans again forged ahead for another thirty years. Then, around 1560, there came another crisis and another decline in numbers, but there also came the challenge of establishing a [p.329] new priory at the new city of Valletta, which the Dominicans begun in 1569. For a long time, these three priories, established in fairly rapid succession at the three cities each of which became the centre of Maltese life within a single century, were signs of the fact that the Order of Preachers had evidently placed itself in the mainstream of the social life of the island.
The next section of the book contains detailed descriptions of the two Dominican churches at Rabat and Birgu. The documentation supplied by Fr. Fsadni here should provide useful references for historians and students of art and architecture in Malta — including some firm data related to the work of some of the finest Maltese artists, such as Tumas Dingli, who appears as an assistant sculptor working in stone at Rabat. The detailed accounts of the history of every chapel in the two churches can be of great help to anyone attempting a more aesthetically oriented evaluation of both these two churches and the two annexed convents. The Rabat complex is surely one of the most exciting architectural events which happened to the Maltese landscape, and it deserves further attention from this point of view: a task made much easier with the data which Father Fsadni has now made available.
Father Fsadni then turns from buildings to institutions. He gives accounts of the confraternities, the teaching establishments, and the governing bodies of the two priories. The account of the confraternities brings to the fore the constant dialectic between laity and clergy in the life of the Church; the account of the teaching shows the passage from the embryonic to a slightly more respectable condition of higher education in Malta at the time; the account of the government shows that, although formally dependent on a Sicilian Provincial, the local order was for practical purposes both autonomously and very competently run.
The final section of Father Fsadni's book is the one most likely to prove of the greatest interest to the reader who has no specialist concern for either Maltese Architecture or the Dominican Order, but has a more general curiosity about the social life of the island in the century of the Great Siege.
Father Fsadni begins the section with a broad picture of the life of the Dominicans before the Great Siege; there is little direct evidence for it, but some conclusions can be fairly drawn from the quantity and quality of gifts made to the priories, from the number and kind of young men who joined the order, from the accounts of services rendered to parishes and courses of sermons preached. Father Fsadni concludes that the first half-century of the Order of Preachers in Malta was, in general, one of healthy growth.
Next, he describes the disturbances in the life of the Friars caused [p.330] by the ups-and downs of the struggle of the Knights of Malta with the Berber pirates and the Turks (with particular reference to the role of the Friars in the Great Siege). Those disturbances were one of the contributing factors which turned the second half-century of the life of the Order of Preachers in Malta into a critical period. Another contributing factor, it seems, was the more general crisis in the Order and the Church provoked by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Father Fsadni, however, notes his impression that it was perhaps not so much the Protestant propaganda then reaching Malta as much as the decline in the moral life and the deficiencies in the doctrinal training of the clergy which explain the kind of crisis of faith (of which the decline in religious vocations is one symptom) which occurred in the decades following the Great Siege.
Here begins the heyday of the Inquisition in Malta. Among the main sources of documentation for the period are the archives of the Inquisition; hence it is natural that the gross misdeeds of the few should be recorded in greater detail than the mediocrity of the many. Father Fsadni puts the matter into a correct statistical perspective; but he does not fail to give the highly colourful life stories of the misdemeaning Dominicans brought up before the Inquisition. In another section, we find the Dominicans in their more familiar role as theologian-consultants to the Inquisitors, rather than as the accused before them. The association of the Inquisition with the Birgu Priory was one of the latter's main claims to fame. The association begun through the august personality of Thomas de Vio, who came to Malta to be the advisor of bishop fra Tomaso Cubelles. In 1561, this Bishop of Malta had received full authorisation from the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome whereby he was appointed Inquisitor in the Maltese Islands.
Finally, Father Fsadni gives accounts of other activities by the Dominicans, leading to the perception, that, after the critical period, the Order of Preachers not only recovered the moral impetus of its initial half-century, but, furthermore, built up a system of education which led to the Order in Malta acquiring the same reputation for theological learning as it had elsewhere. It is on this happy note that Fr. Fsadni concludes his study.
He has built on foundations which others of his confreres (Callus, Vella, Forte) had laid, but he has added a large amount of hitherto unpublished material and he has organised in a systematic way the history of the Dominicans in Malta from 1450 to 1620. In the course of the book he alludes to other research projects that could be undertaken (e.g. study of the property left to the Order), and it is to be hoped that, [p.331] although a cycle of research has now been successfully completed by Father Fsadni, he will continue to produce more and more documented information from the archives.
P. Serracino Inglott