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Archivist sheds fresh doubts on name of the Grand Master

Debate continues over city founder’s spelling

What’s in a name..? The statue of Grand Master de (la) Valette stands proudly in the city he founded. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

What’s in a name..? The statue of Grand Master de (la) Valette stands proudly in the city he founded. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Four-hundred-and-fifty years after his death, Malta’s most famous wartime Grand Master is still locked in battle – over two letters in his name.

After 450 years of calling him ‘La Valette’, it just felt like people took all of five minutes to decide that was wrong

Popularly known as Jean de La Valette, scholars have recently argued that the French nobleman who led the 1565 Great Siege against the Ottomans had no ‘La’ prefixed to his name and was simply Jean de Valette.

But the head of the Vatican’s secret archives has now cast fresh doubts on that claim, telling a local researcher that letters sent from the Holy See were always addressed to “Jean de La Valette”.

The letter, sent by archive prefect Archbishop Sergio Pagano, states that “in pontifical correspondence addressed to him, the person is always referred to as Jean de La Valette”.

Mgr Pagano wrote the letter to enterprising amateur researcher Eman Bonnici, 24, who last month had written to the Vatican seeking clarification over the matter.

“I first tried to hunt down correspondence of his at the National Archives, but was told they only had one signed document. One signature isn’t enough to determine a name.

“So instead I wrote to the Vatican, explained the issue and asked for permission to go through their archives. Two days ago, I received this letter from Mgr Pagano,” Mr Bonnici said.

The casual historian said he was moved to contact The Times following an article by scholar and former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, who had categorically ruled out the possibility of the Grand Master having been referred to as “Jean de La Valette” during his lifetime.

Dr Bonello had gone on to offer an apology to anyone who could “dig up a single use of La Valette or De la Valette during the Grand Master’s lifetime”.

Mr Bonnici said he had no axe to grind. “I’m not looking for an apology, nor am I interested in proving anyone wrong. But I just felt that people were being a little bit hasty in deciding ‘La Valette’ was wrong.

“After 450 years of calling him ‘La Valette’, it just felt like people took all of five minutes to decide that was wrong. I thought it merited further questioning.”

The avid researcher has now written back to Mgr Pagano, asking for a copy of one of the archived documents in his possession.

“I know it’s difficult because the documents are part of the Vatican’s secret archive, but it would help clear up this naming confusion once and for all,” he said.

For the time being, Mr Justice Bonello’s challenge still stands. “Let’s see these documents,” he told The Sunday Times yesterday. “I’ve yet to see an authentic document which dates back to the Grand Master’s lifetime which refers to him as La Valette.”

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