Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 14(2004)1(125-126)
[p.125] William Zammit, Il Naufragio di San Paolo in Malta osia la conversione di San Publio e dell'Isola, opera morale 1748: A Maltese eighteenth-century play by Vittorio Gristi Publishers Enterprises Group, Malta 2004. pp. 266, illustrations, bibliography, appendices. Lm 6.75 (paperback). ISBN: 99909-0-383-2.
While undertaking his Ph. D. research, William Zammit discovered in the National Library of Malta the play by Vittorio Gristi, entitled Il Naufragio di San Paolo in Malta osia la conversione di San Publio e dell'Isola: opera morale, 1748. He quickly set out to transcribe the text in a meticulous way, and undertook a study of the historical context which explains its very existence. The book is very interesting because it throws light on the political and social aspects of the island in the eighteenth century, with particular emphasis on the burgeoning consciousness of a national identity.
Zammit starts by providing biographical information about Gristi. He was born in 1714 and initially occupied high office as Head of the island's Supreme Court of Appeal (1732-37), then Head Notary of the Gran Corte della Castellania up to 1743. He was eventually appointed Chancellor of the Maltese municipal authority, the Universitą. Moreover in 1752 he was appointed chancellor to the Maltese Inquisitorial tribunal, a very prestigious post which he occupied until 1782. Gristi died in 1787.
The play about the shipwreck of St Paul, and the consequent conversion of St Publius and the Maltese forms the subject of Zammit's study which precedes the text of the play. It constitutes an opera morale: a typical Counter-reformation stage performance aimed at transmitting a moralising and triumphant message. Zammit underlines how such plays, which were often staged in makeshift open spaces, were common in Malta during the eighteenth century even prior to the construction of the Teatro Pubblico by Grand Master Vilhena in 1732. The author is rightly convinced that 'the survival of the play's complete text .... enables a detailed examination of what to date constitutes a unique example of Maltese eighteenth-century patriotic drama'.
Briefly, the play revolves around Publius, the prince of the island when St Paul's shipwreck occurs. Publius was engaged to Teodorica, but he already had dreams that he should not marry her because the gods intended a different fate for him and Teodorica. The island is meanwhile devastated by inclement weather, and the prayers to the pagan gods have proved fruitless. When news is brought to Publius that a ship had been shipwrecked and that a certain Paul is doing miracles, he is interested and goes to see what was happening. He recognises in Paul the man who had talked to him in a dream and becomes convinced that the man is in [p.126] some way special. After keeping Paul guest in his palace, and following the healing of his father and that of many Maltese, he decides to convert to Christianity.
Zammit stresses the historical significance of the work, especially since the play was written and staged during a heated debate as to the actual location of St Paul's shipwreck. In fact, St Paul's shipwreck was being shifted to Meleda (nowadays Mljet). Maltese historians, chief among whom was Giovanni Antonio Ciantar, rebutted these claims. Gristi's play was yet another attempt to underline that the shipwreck did actually occur on Malta. This insistence on St Paul's shipwreck and Malta, as well as the emphasis on Publius being Maltese (which, historically speaking, is gratuitous) indicate how that episode was exploited by the Maltese intellectuals to show that they had an identity, one which was ultimately derived from a religious authority.
Zammit's study is indeed very interesting, and, given that in recent years other scholars, both local (M. Buhagiar, J. Azzopardi) and foreign (T. Freller) have contributed much to the Pauline tradition, we may now be in a position to assess what exactly was happening during the eighteenth century as regards national consciousness. From a historical point of view, Zammit's book is a very valid contribution to our knowledge of the Settecento. The book has also made available an interesting text in Italian of a play which I reckon has still to be assessed within an Italian literary context. I feel that the main plot and sub-plots are influenced by the Baroque penchant for the marvellous and the extraordinary. Since Zammit himself hints that the text might, at least in part, be the work of Vittorio's maternal uncle, the renowned Maltese playwright Giacomo Farrugia (1670-1716), it would be really worthwhile if some italianista were to study Gristi's work and collate it with that of his uncle, or with that of others - especially in the Jesuit circle - who produced plays in the same genre.