Who was Giannicolo Muscat?

Muscat (1735-c.1800) was an enlightened reformer with contacts with such influential people like Kaunitz, the chancellor of the Emperor Joseph II of Austria.

Muscat's La Giurisprudenza Vindicata (1779)
Muscat's La Giurisprudenza Vindicata (1779)

Gio. Nicolò Muscat can certainly be described as a most outstanding and remarkable statesman.

He dared to challenge the hegemony of the Catholic Church in an age when it needed more than common courage to do so. Muscat was a typical agent of the enlightenment who tried to establish the boundary between State and Church in the circumstances of his times.

Undoubtedly, his vision and enterprise are worth discovering in their entirety, not only for their historical value but also for their relevance today.

There were several well-known Maltese personalities during the second half of the XVIII century. These included the Capuchin Padre Pelagio, Fr Ignazio Saverio Mifsud, Canon Agius de Soldanis and Mikiel Anton Vassalli.

But Gannikol Muscat, a Maltese lawyer, is barely mentioned, and now there are enough documents to show that he was an important politician, especially in the area of jurisprudence.

His patriotism was highlighted through a book published in 1783, Apologia a Favore dell’Inclita Nazione Maltese (‘In Defence of the Renowned Maltese Nation’) in which he defended Malta against Giandonato Rogadeo, a Neapolitan lawyer brought over by Grand Master Rohan to prepare a new code of Maltese laws. The work was in response to Rogadeo’s book Ragionamenti sul Regolamento della Giustizia, e sulle Pene which criticised the Maltese legal procedure and institutions.

Muscat was an enlightened reformer with contacts with such influential people like Kaunitz, the chancellor of the Emperor Joseph II of Austria.

Nicolò Muscat had two main goals. First, that foreign courts should not exercise jurisdiction in Malta. In 1786, the law of the exequatur or vidit was issued. This meant that every legal document coming from foreign courts, even from Rome, could not be executed in the Maltese courts unless approved by the Maltese government. Second, that in Malta there was to be a clear distinction between State and Church. Muscat felt that the courts of the bishop and the inquisitor could not judge lay affairs which had nothing to do with religion.

In 1787 a barber attacked the accountant of the Sant’Ufficju. Inquisitor Gallarati Scotti was to start the trial against him but a witness was warned that as a lay man he was not subject to the Inquisitor but only to the grand master as his superior.

Muscat, with the backing of Rohan, approached the inquisitor to warn him not to take any action against the barber. Muscat informed the Inquisitor that such actions taken by him and his predecessor were a barbaric abuse which was not to be tolerated any longer.

Muscat kept on trying to discredit the Inquisitor in the administration of justice. The case arose when a dependant (patentato) of the inquisition fired and injured another patentee. He was arrested but Muscat considered that the inquisitor had dealt with the case superficially and asked Rome to take over the case. The pope defended the decision taken by the inquisitor and claimed that the interference of the government in the case was an extraordinary step.

In September 1791, Count Joseph Fenech petitioned the grand master that a court case against two patentati of the inquisitor and the procurator of the oratory of St. Philip, Vittoriosa, be heard in the court of the government. The inquisitor and the bishop protested that this was an attempt against the freedom of the Church.

On 8 October Fenech made another petition, charging both parties as acting against the sovereign authority of the grand master, the vicar of God on earth. Nicolo Muscat claimed that Malta was always the last country to follow the examples of foreign countries, such as Tuscany and Naples and stressed that the Church can exercise its jurisdiction only when relating to the sacraments, faith, morals, and ecclesiastical discipline. The grand master referred the matter to the supreme court of justice but the report presented by the judges was only a summary of the ideology of Muscat: the authority and jurisdiction in temporal matters by the sacerdozio is only a concession by the impero.

In November of the same year 1791 the pope ordered the removal of Muscat from uditore and attorney general. Muscat defended himself vigorously. He insisted that he had never wanted to cause trouble between L-Istola u x-Xabla (The Church and the State). The inquisitor was surprised by these statements since Muscat’s ideals were well known and he had himself declared that ‘This is no longer the century of the Church!’, and ‘If it were in my power I would leave the bishop with only the crosier and the mitre!’

At the beginning of the following year, Rohan informed the inquisitor that he had removed Muscat from office, but only a few months later he re-instated him. It was also reported that he had interfered in a marriage separation case and insisted that marriage was a civil contract, which should not be decided by the church tribunal. Furthermore he threatened with exile a lawyer who had defended a farmer in the bishop’s court over a question of debt.

The pope once again demanded his resignation. This time Muscat went to Naples in July, where he met Acton, the minister of foreign affairs. The papal secretary of state asked the nuncio in Naples to keep an eye on him though he could not understand how ‘a declared enemy of the Pope’ could win the support of the Neapolitan government.

When Muscat returned to Malta he went straight to Rohan and the next day he entered the court in triumph. However, the grand master stated during a council meeting that although Malta had endorsed the principles which were approved by other states, these principles were condemned by the pope. A commission was set up to examine any possible offence which had been made to the Church and Muscat was removed once again from his posts.

In July 1792 Muscat sent a memorandum to the pope. He felt he was being accused of a crime he never committed. He avowed his faithfulness to His Holiness and his resolution to defend the jurisdictional rights of the Catholic Church in Malta though he claimed he was in a dangerous position ‘between the devil and the deep sea.’

But again, to the great consternation of the inquisitor, the grand master in September 1793 reinstated Muscat in all his former offices. The official reinstatement was carried out with great pomp and ceremony. Muscat himself declared that his enemies were only ‘la briga papalina’ (the papist clique).

But these were dangerous times for kings. It was the time of the French revolution with its battle cry against throne and altar.

In the light of these developments across Europe, the pope insisted on the final removal of Muscat. The Grand Master gave in to these demands and Muscat was replaced by Benedettu Schembri as Avvocato del Principato. 

Five years later, in June 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte brought to an end the 268-year era of the Knights Hospitallers in Malta, together with that of the Roman Inquisition. Muscat was actually part of the delegation aboard Napoleon Bonaparte’s ship, L’Orient, to negotiate the capitulation. During the next two months, during the French tenure of Malta, Muscat was appointed President of the Civil Courts.

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