‘Portelli’s not stupid: he invests in festa and sports to disable his opponents’

“Reclaim the festa... and our communities... from the Portellis and Ċaqnus of this world, from political parties and business interests. Be part of them, by participating in them... – disapprove of blood money”

Revelator: Joseph Portelli is penning an Apocalypse for another Maltese town...
Revelator: Joseph Portelli is penning an Apocalypse for another Maltese town...

Joseph Portelli as Saint John the Revelator.

The Gozitan construction tycoon has enjoyed a holy accolade since 2019, when artist Adonai Camilleri Cauchi immortalised the reviled magnate and loved big man of football as the evangelist of the Apocalypse in a festa standard (pavaljun) for the Nadur feast.

Blasphemous marriage of Malta’s religious pageantry and the ‘blood’ money of urban destruction? Or simply folkloristic charm?

Perhaps nobody other than self-confessed lover of the Maltese festa, composer and musican Alex Vella Gregory, could have offered a more nuanced look at the folkloristic ascension of Portelli to the pantheon of Christianity.

Composer, pianist and festa enthusiast Alex Vella Gregory
Composer, pianist and festa enthusiast Alex Vella Gregory

“I must admit my initial reaction was disgust – but mostly because of my personal views on the man in question. Here is a man who has destroyed agricultural land, ruined streetscapes, littered our urban areas with cheap developments, contributed in no mean way to the ridiculous prices of the property market, and bulldozed his way over public interests,” Vella Gregory said.

But public figures and patrons of the arts – or donors – have long been immortalised in works of art, since the late Mediaeval and Renaissance. Vella Gregory proffers that even Dürer famously painted himself as Christ.

“We must also put this in a contemporary cultural context. We live in age of the selfie, where one’s own image is to be shared and glorified. The selfie has replaced the portrait as a vehicle for self-promotion, and though we no longer try to cast ourselves as saints, the selfie and the portrait still have a common function. It is about projecting a desirable – and often dishonest – image of ourselves,” Vella Gregory says.

However, here is Portelli, a construction magnate, legitimising his mogul’s status by appearing as a saint. No doubt a sign of gratitude for his donations to the local festa – Portelli was also Nadur FC’s president, and remains its main backer through his young son. “With rapidly rising costs and declining donations from within the community, many organisations turn to businesses and politicians to survive. As things stand they are rarely in a position to refuse,” Vella Gregory says.

Portelli knows his financial clout is buying him community influence and allows his mega-projects to face less popular opposition by bankrolling feasts and public projects. “They will not consider the environmental, social, financial, or moral implications of such projects... because the effects of these projects won’t manifest themselves until it’s too late. All they will see is a benevolent donor who is ‘rich but helps others’,” Vella Gregory warns.

And festas are not some street party or bizarro cult: the staying power of Malta’s religious feasts reflect the deep roots of being part of a community.

“It’s the need to be part of a community, the need to express fear, anger, hope, and even love, through ritual actions, the need to feel ownership and belonging, and the need to perpetuate stories that link us to our ancestors. Portelli knows this. He may be many things, but he sure is not stupid. That is why he invests publicly in festas and sports... it'’ the perfect vehicle for disabling opponents.”

And how to combat this? Again Vella Gregory’s love for the festa offers an opportunity for a “public” route to rout out the private channel of mega-construction cash.

“Simple: Reclaim the festa... and our communities... from the Portellis and Ċaqnus of this world, from political parties and business interests. Be part of them, by participating in them, by giving your time and where possible, money. Make your voice heard – disapprove of blood money.

“We are at a crucial stage in our political history – with politicians and businesses reneging on their duties to safeguard our heritage, wellbeing, and rights. It’s civil society which must fight for what is right.”