To mark Malta’s EU Presidency, the historic dagger of Grand Master Jean de Valette is being loaned to Malta by the Louvre from March to June this year. Its accompanying sword is apparently in a very bad state of repair and cannot be transported.
Questions about whether these weapons should be returned to Malta permanently have done the rounds for ages. A few years ago, a Facebook group had campaigned for their return.
The emotional response to heritage is powerful. But while it would be nice to have the dagger and sword housed in Malta, the idea is not straightforward.
The best-known controversy about returning cultural artefacts to their country of origin concerns the Parthenon Marbles, taken to Britain from Athens by Lord Elgin in 1805. The Marbles were later acquired from Elgin by the British Parliament and displayed in the British Museum, where they have remained.
While these weapons and marbles engender similar emotions, the two cases are different. The British claim that Elgin was granted permission to take the marbles by the Ottoman Empire. As rulers over Greece at that time, the Turks could dispose of its cultural assets, including handing them over to an Englishman if they chose to do so. But the validity of this agreement is disputed.
Apart from the legal angle, strong moral and cultural arguments have been made that the marbles are part of the Parthenon and should be displayed in their original context. The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is ready to house them. This is a state-of-the-art museum by architect Bernard Tschumi. I visited it last summer and it is quite fabulous. The ancient statues and remains are so beautifully displayed, that the physical spaces and lighting are a memorable aspect of the experience.
Returning cultural objects to their place of origin opens a can of worms for museums worldwide
On the other side of the debate, the British Museum holds that in London the Marbles are displayed in the context of Athenian civilisation as part of world history. The issue hotted up in the media in 2014 when the glamorous human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, was engaged by the Greek government on the legal case to have the Parthenon Marbles returned to Greece. Unesco also offered to act as mediator in discussions between the British and Greek governments. So far nothing has changed.
Malta’s sword-and-dagger case is different. When the weapons were taken to France, the French were rulers of the island. Once the Knights of St John had signed over Malta to them, for two years the French ruled over the administration of cultural assets in Malta. The moral argument is another matter and could be applied to countless artefacts housed in museums outside their native country. Returning cultural objects to their place of origin opens a can of worms for museums worldwide.
There is of course a difference between the administration of cultural property and outright looting. Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to set up a huge museum in Paris, filled with artefacts from other nations. A procession was held in the streets of Paris to display artworks seized from Rome by the French.
The winner taking the spoils of war goes back to the beginning of history. Yet the French seizure of artefacts from Rome and Germany had led to a public outcry at the time, and as a result many of the looted objects were returned. There was no outcry in Malta and the sword and dagger stayed in France. A stash of silver and precious objects looted from Malta sank with the French ship L’Orient in Aboukir Bay in Egypt.
Questions of who legitimately owned cultural assets at various times in history are a quagmire.
It is therefore to be appreciated that, presumably as a gesture of goodwill, the French government has agreed for the dagger to be displayed in Malta, for people here to view and enjoy.
These two elaborate, jewel-encrusted weapons probably mean more to us here in Malta than anywhere else. They were given to Grand Master Valette by Philip II of Spain after the Great Siege of 1565 to honour the victory of the Order of St John. They are therefore intimately linked to this famous battle fought here in Malta.
They were never used for actual fighting but were ceremonial objects and regularly displayed at important feasts by the Knights, who toured them around the streets of the city in the manner of religious statues or relics.
Right until the departure of the Knights from Malta in 1797, the sword and dagger were displayed at the annual September 8 celebrations commemorating the end of the Great Siege. A procession of Knights would walk through the streets, with a page holding the weapons up high in his hands. The Our Lady of Victory church in Valletta has an image of a putto holding a sword and dagger.
Besides the religious aspect of victory over the Turks, these weapons represented military and political power and authority. It is no wonder that Napoleon took the sword and dagger of the Order of St John for himself. Swords were always a symbol of victory.