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Meet the authors of the secret ‘histories’ toasting Giovanni Bonello in Merlin’s festschrift

Merlin Publishers’ “Awguri, Giovanni Bonello!” celebrates Giovanni Bonello with ten fictitious interpretations of his favourite historical characters

24 February 2017, 8:44am
Cause for celebration: Judge Giovanni Bonello
Cause for celebration: Judge Giovanni Bonello
One of the most exciting festschrifts of the last years sees ten of Malta’s best loved and upcoming authors, each penning a fictitious interpretation of some of Judge Giovanni Bonello’s much loved historical characters, documented in his Histories Of Malta compendia. From the founder of Malta’s first women’s hospital, to noblemen facing destitution and lovers of Maltese knights, this tribute is a fantastical peek behind the scenes of Maltese history.

Giovanni Bonello’s quotes below are taken from his “Histories of Malta” volumes (Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti) and from his Sunday Times of Malta articles

 

Clare Azzopardi • Photo: Virginia Monteforte
Clare Azzopardi • Photo: Virginia Monteforte
Caterina Scappi

Varjazzjonijiet fuq il-ħajja ta’ Caterina Scappi – Clare Azzopardi

“With her money Caterina Scappi founded the very first hospital in Malta dedicated exclusively to women – a radically revolutionary step.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Caterina Scappi lived and died in Malta, though she was known throughout her life as La Senese, which suggests that she, or her family, came from Siena. A devout benefactor, Scappi first appeared in Maltese history in 1597, in records dealing with her bequest to the convent of the Repentite. Before her death in 1643, she established the first hospital in Malta dedicated exclusively to women.

FICTION  Azzopardi delivers a tour de force triptych of reactions to Scappi’s death. Each of the characters mutters and muses on Scappi’s possible testamentary dispositions: we have the high society ladies dissing her; a patient in a hospital founded by her worrying about how her legacy will live on; and a third lady remonstrating with the notary about the minute proportion of the inheritance left to her.

 

John Bonello
John Bonello
Nicholas Bonet and Mattew Falzon

QUA – John Bonello

“Bonet’s genius stands out on the lists of victims of the prejudice that scientific thinking and Christian faith have somehow to be incompatible ...” – Giovanni Bonello

‘Matteo Falzon must have known that his dissidence would lead him into headlong conflict with the Inquisition. That did not bend his spirit.’ – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Philosopher, theologian and cosmologist, Nicholas Bonet was appointed Bishop of Malta in 1324. His work on metaphysics was outstanding for its time. He is also known in history for leading a missionary legation of the papacy to the Far East in 1338. He died, probably in Malta, in 1343.

Mattew Falzon was a nobleman from Mdina, elected Capitano della Verga in 1561. Earlier Falzon had been drawn by the reformist zeal of Lutheranism, yet succeeded in getting cleared of heresy in 1545. Some thirty years later he was charged again under the new Inquisitor. Falzon escaped from Malta and never returned. His land was confiscated by the Inquisition, including the site of the later Palace of the Inquisitor in Girgenti. A doodle in the margins of a manuscript at the National Library depicts Falzon, and is the earliest known portrait of a Maltese person. He lives on in popular fantasy, known as Is-Saħħar Falzun.

FICTION Bonello, one of the best-known fantasy writers in Malta, gives his trademark touch to this story, allowing Bonet and Falzon – who lived in different centuries – to meet and help each other out. Falzon has just been accused, again, of heresy and can see no way out of the Inquisitor’s cell. Until a precious book found earlier at the University Library illuminates a path: a path that carries him across time, realities and loyalties …

 

Kristina Chetcuti
Kristina Chetcuti
Gian Francesco Buonamico

For the Love of Chocolate – Kristina Chetcuti

“Buonamico makes an exhaustive tour through the fashionable beverage [chocolate] which he perceives from a curiously Mediterranean standpoint. South American Indians resort to chocolate drinking, he says, because they have no wine!” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Born in Valletta in 1639, Gian Francesco Buonamico was, by profession, a medical doctor. When studying at Aix-en-Provence, aged 19, he wrote one of the earliest treatises on chocolate, and later another one on coffee, aged 26. As physician, botanist, antiquarian, linguist, scientist, poet, writer, theologian and enlightened traveller, Buonamico was a post-Renaissance genius. He wrote extensively and is best known for his travelogue, written between 1657 and 1666, the years when he visited 69 cities. In 1666 he married Ursula Cangialanza, of a notable Maltese family. He died, only 41 years old, in 1680.

FICTION A seventeenth century bon vivant, Buonamico enjoyed good friendships, scholarly education and discovered the intoxication that is chocolate. Whilst savouring the joys and sense of excitement and possibility of university life, Buonamico makes an unusual new acquaintance who forever changes his outlook on life. Chetcuti wraps this life up in a warm, sophisticated read with a sprinkling of intrigue, as flavoursome as chocolate itself.

 

Maria Grech Ganado
Maria Grech Ganado
Laura Battiferra

Her Version – Maria Grech Ganado

“Battiferri is an eminently fascinating character – a firm, sensitive, highly cultured aesthete who lived for her husband, her intellectual gluttony and her devotions, a dreamer with a devouring addiction to poetry.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Laura Battiferri was a poet, born in Florence in 1523, who wrote four poems about the Great Siege, making her probably the only woman poet to write about the Siege of Malta. Her talent was widely recognised, an achievement in its own right considering the male-dominated sixteenth century. In her youth, Battiferri’s was painted by Bronzino, who depicted her in almost ascetic plainness, holding a book of sonnets by Petrarch in her hand.

FICTION This volume is further enriched by the presence of a poem among the nine other prose offerings. Grech Ganado, the doyenne of Maltese contemporary poets, delivers an impassioned ode to womanhood, fertility, art and artfully blends the present-day poet with her sixteenth-century counterpart.

 

Emma Mattei
Emma Mattei
Sebastian Zammet

Confessions of a cordwainer – Emma Mattei

“The pervasive shadow of Sebastian Zammet haunts one long stretch of French history … he was one of the most renowned and influential figures in early seicento France.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Sebastien Zammet was born to a Maltese father in Piedmont, Italy in 1547. He was drawn to France in the retinue of Marie de Medici, under whose patronage he gained influence in the French court. Zammet’s Paris home in rue de la Cerisaie was the regular meeting place for the King and his mistresses. He accumulated a fortune through his entrepreneurship and was famous for his lavish banquets. Publications were dedicated to Zammet, and he features in a popular eighteenth-century comedy, The Vainglorious, by P.N. Destouches.

FICTION Mattei takes us through a journey of a textbook case of social climbing. We trail Zammet’s life – from his birth to a son of a shoemaker raised in the whiff of shoe leather, to his ascent in the royal court of France. Written with a flourish of deadpan wit, the tale of Zammet recalls the oft typical Maltese status-seeking trait.

 

Immanuel Mifsud
Immanuel Mifsud
Ekaterina Grecque

Ekaterina l-Griega – Immanuel Mifsud

“Sadly, the royal decree says almost nothing else about the Grand Master’s mistress – in the sacred old tradition of women being faceless and expendable.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT The name of Ekaterina Grecque suggests her origins in the Greek Islands, possibly amongst the Rhodiots who travelled to Malta in 1530, in the retinue of the Order of St John. In 1568, Ekaterina’s name surfaced in the papers filed by Barthelemy de Valette, the son of Grand Master Jean de Valette, when petitioning the French sovereign, Charles XI for his legitimation.

FICTION In his inimitable style, Mifsud parts the curtains of the hidden lives of the Grand Masters to bring us, in all its pathos and longing, the life in the shadows of de Valette’s mistress Ekaterina. The short story is a little gem showcasing Mifsud’s writing at its best, and reminding us of why he is one of the Mediterranean’s best authors.

 

Walid Nabhan
Walid Nabhan
Gaetano Mannarino

Ir-Rewwixta tal-Ħebża – Walid Nabhan

“The memory of Mannarino, this sad, dysfunctional anti-hero was not allowed to rest in the pious darkness of oblivion.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Nineteenth-century novels and accounts established Mannarino as a national hero. Commonly believed to be a Maltese patriot in the 1774 uprising of the Priests, Mannarino’s story turns out to be one of treachery, leading his family to change their surname out of shame.

FICTION Bread-inspired revolts are present multiple times throughout Maltese history. This one led Nabhan to a flight of fancy and create the character of Ġanni l-Fieres, who is approached under cover of night by a band of conspirators, ostensibly to lead a popular revolt in the city. Through Nabhan’s exquisite sense of place, as we read we see, smell and hear Ġanni’s surroundings as the hushed conspiracy takes life before our eyes.

 

Teodor Reljic
Teodor Reljic
Caterina Vitale

Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appellatam – Teodor Reljic

“After the death of her husband, the young widow took over the running of a stable of lovers and of the pharmacy of the Sacra Infermeria … probably the first female chemist on record in Malta.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Caterina Vitale was born in 1566, of Greek origin, and first appears in Maltese records in the 1580s. Barely into her teens, she was married off to Ettore Vitale, the pharmacist of the Order; at his death, she ran the main pharmacy of the Sacra Infermeria. Vitale was a prominent benefactress of the Carmelite friary in Valletta, yet also an enterprising prostitute, litigator and sadistic torturer of slaves. Her generous endowment of the Redenzione degli Schiavi singled her out for public veneration in Maltese churches.

FICTION A religious benefactress, a prostitute and a torturer, all rolled into one character. She’s a dream character for any author, and in the hands of Reljic this story turns into a gothic extravagance that will shock, excite and intrigue. From religious piety to an underground dark science scene, this is a tale like no other in Maltese literature, and a sublime taste of what Reljic’s writing has to offer.

 

Alfred Sant
Alfred Sant
Domenico Magri

Testment – Alfred Sant

“Domenico Magri could not resist the temptation of tucking Maltese lore, whenever the occasion arose, inside the thick folds of ecclesiastical culture.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Domenico Magri was born in Valletta in 1604, yet lived and died in Italy in 1672. In 1644, Magri published the first encyclopaedia of ecclesiastical terms, with a wealth of information about Malta. His younger brother Carlo continued his work. There followed nine Italian editions, a Latin one (with six reprints up to 1788), and three German ones. Carlo, who in 1693 ended his life as a parish priest in Gozo, also wrote plays, and left a foundation for the use of Maltese students studying in Rome. Together, Domenico and Carlo were the first Maltese to print and translate words from their native tongue.

FICTION This anthology features, among its literary heavyweights, Alfred Sant who for the occasion penned an original story around a fragment of the life of the Magri brothers from the seventeenth century. A whispered tale of the comings and goings around the last days of Domenico Magri, Testment introduces us to a young notary who is employed to assist the dying Magri is a task that was to have important consequences for the written word.

 

 

Mark Vella
Mark Vella
Luigi Borg de Balzan

L-Irkant – Mark Vella

“Ostentation, flashiness, waste, shallowness, those were God-given rights one clawed at relentlessly – but then Borg de Balzan also threw in a lottery for the relief of the destitute.” – Giovanni Bonello

FACT Luigi Borg de Balzan was born in Valletta in 1812. He led a brilliant consular career that had resulted in extensive travels and in the collection of works of art from many parts of Europe, especially from the North. His ambition led him to rise in social ranks through the accumulation of honours, decorations and orders of chivalry. His presence in California in 1848 links him to the Gold Rush. He also took on pioneering ventures, namely the setting up of a museum of psychology in Florence. Borg de Balzan died destitute in 1896, two years after a grand auction sale of his extraordinary art collection.

FICTION Vella follows up his critically-acclaimed novel X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? with this tale of an ostentatious night-time party in Borg de Balzan’s palazzo. Vella’s trademark rich Maltese voice makes this a story to savour slowly, enjoying the verbal tapestries he creates and clearly delights in. Something is amiss with Borg de Balzan, and amid the smells of lard in the kitchen, his hangers-on feverishly argue about their, and his, future.

“Awguri, Giovanni Bonello!” is published by Merlin Publishers and is available in a limited edition gift-box hardback, and in paperback. Illustrations by Marisa Attard

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