Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1977)2(184-186)

GIACOMO FARRUGIA, Ismeria, a cura di Franco Lanza, Catania, Società di Storia Patria per la Sicilia Orientale, 1977, 123 pp.; 3500 lire.

It is safe to say that the Maltese public knows next to nothing about the cultural life of Malta in the seventeenth century — except, perhaps, that what literature there was almost invariably happened to be written in Italian. At best, Gian Francesco Abela's Descrittione di Malta of 1647 might be known. In the inter-war years of the present century and slightly before, scholars and others interested in the past Italian culture of our islands became interested in the poetry and prose written here during the long period of the Order's rule, and a couple of seventeenth century works were published. Cagliola's Le Disavventure Mannaresche was issued by Dr. Giovanni Curmi in Malta Letteraria in 1929 and separately as well. Prof. V. Laurenza, occupying the same chair of the University of Malta now held by Prof. F. Lanza, published a study and extracts of Enrico Magi's 'Dafne' and 'Rime' in Archivum Melitense some years before, proceeding [p.185] to a definitive study and publication of the Dafne, a pastorale, in Archivio Storico di Malta in 1932-33, and separately in 1936 by the Regia Deputazione per la Storia di Malta. R. Briffa wrote a study 'Due commedie di Carlo Magri' in Athenaeum Melitense in 1926, and Domenico Magri's Voyage to Mount Lebanon was published again in its original Italian version. All this was also accompanied with examples of eighteenth century writings and other documents, memoirs, etc., mainly of a historical character.

The plot of Ismeria, a work meant for the stage, is built round the legendary stubborn refusal of three knight captives of the sultan of Egypt during the siege of Ascalon in Palestine in the twelfth century to abandon their faith. Neither blandishments nor punishments had any effect on them. As a final ruse to break down their resistance, the sultan sent them Ismeria, his own daughter, to win them over to Islam by the use of all her wiles. Instead, however, she was herself much impressed by their fortitude; and the miraculous descent, borne down by angels, of a small statue of Our Lady into their midst finally clinched the matter. By divine assistance the whole four of them were able to escape out of Egypt, finding themselves in a trice wandering about out in the French countryside near to the town of Liesse, where they left the little statue. The church of n-Madonna ta' Liesse was one of the most venerated churches of Valletta during the times of the Order, and the devotees of Our Lady of Liesse were to be found in several other localities abroad.

The story had already been dealt with by chroniclers and antiquarian historians of the Order, and several accounts were also published abroad starting with one by Simone Calvarin in 1555. In a scholarly introduction, Prof. Lanza lists them all and shows in particular that stories of knightly prowess formed a major subject of the numerous poems and other literary works of the time. Other important subjects were those concerning the life of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order, and those connected with the coming of St. Paul to Malta. He has up-dated the text slightly in consonance with the modern usage of Italian orthography, specifying all his changes in a preliminary note, but has left largely untouched the curious snatches of Neapolitan Italian uttered by the slave Cemmino and by the devils masquerading as slaves.

Though our seventeenth century writers mostly wrote in Italian, they were frequently surprisingly widely travelled men. Enrico Magi studied philosophy at Aix en Provence, where G. F. Bonamico also studied. The latter subsequently travelled to Paris, the Spanish Netherlands, the Low Countries and Germany. Attard de Vagnolis, the author of some of the earliest known Italian poetry from Malta, was ordained priest at Graz in Austria before becoming parish priest of Qormi. Giacomo Farrugia (ca. 1641-1716), after studying philosophy [p.186] and theology in Malta, went over to Naples to study law. G. F. Abela, the historian and Vice-Chancellor of the Order, had studied jurisprudence at the university of Bologna and travelled on diplomatic missions to France and Spain. Both Magri brothers spent long periods of their lives abroad. Salvatore Imbroll, prior and historian of the Order, and his nephew Carlo Micallef, who continued Imbroll's history, also studied abroad. They all belonged to a republic of letters much wider than our shores.

G. Wettinger