Giuseppe Donati – the man who made world headlines for one day
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Giuseppe Donati – the man who made world headlines for one day

In 1929 Lady Margaret Strickland endowed St Edward’s College in Cottonera as the British College in Malta. She insisted on including Italian in the curriculum as one of the foreign languages. She also demanded the replication of a policy of the University of Malta at that time; that of employing professors from the respective tongues of the relevant language.

This decision ultimately was to prove useful to the interests of the British Empire because several students of St Edward’s went on to pursue a military career. Knowledge of Italian was beneficial in their postings after the Anglo-American invasion of Italy in 1943.

College rector Mgr Frederick McClement went to London to search for a possible Italian master through an Italian professor he knew, Angelo Crespi, who was teaching at Birbeck College.

Crespi was an avid anti-fascist, who admired the British Empire so much that he wrote a book eulogising it as La funzione storica dell’Impero Britannico.

It so happened that Crespi was a close friend of Don Luigi Sturzo, founder of the Partito Popolare, who was living in exile in London. So he sought his advice.

Sturzo recommended his own right-hand man, formerly editor of the party’s newspaper Il Popolo, Giuseppe Donati. Upon consideration of his creden-tials, McClement immediately decided to engage Donati for the Malta appointment.

Donati was born into a working class family in Granarolo di Faenza on January 15, 1889. He studied at the seminary and later at the University of Florence.

Soon he became actively involved in Catholic journalism and politics, joining the Lega Democratica Cristiana.

Although a pacifist, he volunteered during World War I. In 1921, Sturzo lured him out of the orbit of the Lega, switching to the emerging Catholic political party, the Partito Popolare. A year later, Benito Mussolini rose to power.

His government was generally supported by most political parties in parliament.

Liberals and the official Catholic Church tended to appease fascism as the lesser evil in preference to communism.

Prior to the 1922 March on Rome, Donati was among other Catholic thinkers who guided the Catholic electorate into a modern secular alternative, with a heavy emphasis on social problems.

Like Sturzo, Donati refused to submit to fascism and this position would later bring them at odds with the Church hierarchy.

The murder of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924 shocked the democratic parties in Italy. The widely read Corriere della Sera immediately denounced the silencing of a fierce opponent of the regime.

However, rather than publishing the revelations discovered about the conspiracy, it furnished the information to Donati, who would print them in Il Popolo. The Milanese daily would then comment on the reports carried in the Catholic newspaper.

The fascist thugs who murdered Matteoti were quickly identified and arraigned in court. Donati had already shown remarkable courage when he volunteered, a year earlier, to give evidence in court in the case of the murder of Don Giovanni Minzoni, archpriest of Argenta, by aggressors from Ferrara, later to be known as Il Matteotti cattolico.

The editor of Il Popolo showed the same courage in the Matteotti case when he formally accused General De Bono in the senate. De Bono was the commander of the fascist militia at the time of the murder.

As was widely expected, the judgment ultimately delivered by the senate turned court of justice absolved De Bono.

Subsequently, Luigi Federzoni, the fascist Minister for Internal Affairs, wanted to make sure Donati was outside Italian borders before the verdict was known, out of the sight of the fascist thugs. He did not want another martyr in addition to the two eminent people Donati had valiantly defended. Donati was forced into exile and denied the company of his wife and children.

Donati’s tempestuous confrontations were widely reported all over the world hitting the front pages of newspapers and making him famous for one day, as was later noted by his successor at St Edward’s, the socialist intellectual Umberto Calosso.

Donati wandered for five years in France. When the Italian authorities stripped him of his citizenship in March 1925, he returned to King Vittorio Emmanuel III the silver and bronze medals bestowed to him for his bravery during World War I.

He continued his campaign in France against fascism, sometimes misunderstood and betrayed by his colleagues.

Thus, the directors of St Edward’s College could not boast of a better political pedigree for the post of master of Italian. There were talented Maltese who could match Donati’s academic credentials, but hardly anybody with such prized background.

Soon after he joined St Edward’s teaching staff in September 1930, Donati started to get accustomed to the peaceful environment of the sunny and rural surroundings.

He liked the college. It seemed to him that his life was pretty much organised. He was away from the squabbles of the anti-fascist circles in Paris. He was also out of the range of fascist spies and agents provocateurs. He enjoyed the company of his pupils and even missed them when they were absent.

The college rector was exceedingly kind to him. There was a sense of camaraderie between the members of the teaching staff.

He was satisfied with his pay, which permitted him to spare eight pounds and 50 shillings out of his salary and remit them every month to his family.

One of the foundation students, the late Major Maurice Micallef Eynaud, remembered Donati as “a gentle man, full of humour, much admired by the staff and older boys, for he was most simpatico, yet he was always in pain and poor health”.

On arrival in Malta, Prof. Arnaldo Fabriani, Italian master at the Lyceum, paid him a visit at the shabby hotel, Hotel de France, that he was staying at, in Strait Street, Valletta.

Fabriani was a well respected academic of Malta’s resident Italian community. Despite his anti-fascist leanings, he was also held in regard by the Italian consulate because of his constant support of Italianitá. He became a Christian Democrat Member of Parliament after the war.

During his exile in Paris, Donati became familiar with the Maltese political situation through his reading of Italian newspapers. His arrival in Malta coincided with the highly volatile situation that developed after the suspension of elections in Malta in 1930.

Donati immediately took stock of the fiery political situation in Malta. He kept in touch through correspondence with his postal confessor Don Luigi as well as with his mentor, also in exile, Prof. Gaetano Salvemini, a former teacher of his. Salvemini was considered “the wandering Jew of anti-fascism”.

In these letters, Donati discussed both the political situation of Italy as well as that of Malta. While in Malta, he was determined to keep aloof from politics and focus his mind on more positive things, like improving the college’s curriculum.

Yet, Donati kept company with the Italian and Italianite intellectual community which brought him in touch with Enrico Mizzi. These people regularly met at the Café Premier in Piazza Regina (Republic Square).

Mizzi was always looking for capable contributors for his newspaper, Malta. He would have been well served by an experienced journalist, the one who was co-founder of the Lega Democratica Cristiana, erstwhile college of Don Romolo Murri, Mizzi’s nemesis during the latter’s stay in Italy.

Murri, eventually embraced fascism and was ultimately excommunicated by the Church.

Donati was in a dilemma. Mizzi’s newspaper vigorously attacked his employer, Gerald Strickland. At the same time, Donati was so satisfied with the pay that he wrote to his sister Carolina in Faenza telling her: “They pay me in gold.”

Still, he did not agree with Strickland’s vision of Malta’s link to the British Empire, especially if at the expense of Malta’s perceived Italian connection. Conversely, he sympatised with Italianitá, forcefully defended by the Nationalists and equated by Strickland and his followers with the adulation of fascism.

Donati’s uncompromising anti-fascism was not even mellowed by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, through it was hailed by the Jesuit journal, Civiltá Cattolica as “the hour of God”. By anology, writing in Malta was tantamount to writing in Mussolini’s Popolo d’Italia, which had called Donati: “Italy’s public enemy number one.”

He, therefore, solved the dilemma by contributing anonymously a series of 20 articles for Malta, generally supporting the Nationalist’s arguments on the language question and criticising the Constitutional Party, especially Lord Strickland and Sir Augustus Bartolo.

After Donati’s death, the fascist apologist Annibale Scicluna Sorge, published these articles without citing the author in a book printed in October 1931 entitled: In difesa della civiltá Italiana. Scicluna Sorge was later employed in Italy by the Ministry for Propaganda.

In his magnum opus, Rajt Malta Tinbidel, Herbert Ganado described the literary café atmosphere of Piazza Regina, and was first to disclose Donati’s articles in Malta.

This was the first and last journalistic experience of Donati in Malta, whose health was deteriorating. In his penultimate letter to his wife, Vidya, showing his constant optimism, he said he would do everything possible to make his stay at St Edward’s last as long as possible.

The desire to continue actively combating fascism started to wane. In reality, he sensed that his end was near. He left Malta on July 1, 1931, and arrived in Paris on July 4, physically shattered by tuberculosis.

He battled for life for six weeks but died there on August 16, 1931, at the residence of his friend Giuseppe Stragliati. A priest from Faenza, Monsignor Costantino Babini, bestowed the last rites. He died serene, lucid to the very end and highly resigned to fate.

Donati was buried in the cemetery of Pantin surrounded by about 100 anti-fascists. Two days after his death, the Corriere della Sera announced both the end of Donati and the belated restitution of his citizenship by the Italian government.

Stragliati informed Vidya Donati of her husband’s demise and tried to comfort her, saying she must consider herself proud to have been the spouse of such a noble and an extraordinary person. After the war his remains were returned to his native town on May 8, 1948.

Vidya Donati and her two children had no financial support. His death had caught her unawares. As she wrote to Arnaldo Fabriani, her husband’s last letters gave no inkling that he was in such dreadful shape, except that he complained about the scirocco. He had moaned that he needed peace very badly and pleaded for his children to pray so that he could overcome the terrible moment.

Fabriani suggested to her that she ought to write a letter to the Lieutenant Governor in Malta explaining her plight. On receipt of her letter, his secretary, Edward R. Mifsud, talked to his legal advisor, Philip Pullicino, who suggested the opening of a subscription in the college in aid of Vidya Donati.

Apprised of the situation by Mifsud, Lady Margaret Strickland, then at Westmorland, instantly wrote a cheque of £50 as the initial contribution.

Mifsud, ever so efficient, promptly informed Vidya Donati Morici’s of the generous donation. In addition, teachers and parents matched Lady Strickland’s £50. This was a considerable amount of money, considering that according to McClement the Donati family was depending on Vidya’s father pension of £80 per annum.

In reply to Mifsud, Mrs Donati showed her gratitude to Lady Strickland: “I want to lose no time in expressing through you to the kind and noble Foundress of the College (Lady Strickland) all my gratitude for her spontaneous and most generous act which touched me very much.

“I do not blush in accepting it: I accept it with pride, as homage paid to the memory of a man so worthy but so unfortunate.”

Giuseppe Donati had ended his turbulent life of political agitation in relative peace. In his short interlude in Malta, he could exercise his talents in harmony.

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