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Paper trail retraces a 400-year-old murder

Drawn up by Carmelo Farrugia, Chief Notary to Government, in 1947, this document says that King George VI grants permission for a representation of the George Cross to be depicted in a blue box on the official Maltese flag. This drawing is attached to a contract between Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta Francis Campbell Ross Douglas and Chief Justice George Borg. This is one of the restored documents at the Notarial Archives in Valletta, but there are thousands more in need of restoration. Photos: Chris Sant Fournier

Drawn up by Carmelo Farrugia, Chief Notary to Government, in 1947, this document says that King George VI grants permission for a representation of the George Cross to be depicted in a blue box on the official Maltese flag. This drawing is attached to a contract between Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta Francis Campbell Ross Douglas and Chief Justice George Borg. This is one of the restored documents at the Notarial Archives in Valletta, but there are thousands more in need of restoration. Photos: Chris Sant Fournier

Some of the volumes at the archives allow a detailed glimpse of Malta that cannot be found in history books.Some of the volumes at the archives allow a detailed glimpse of Malta that cannot be found in history books.

When Nicolao Ciardo left a Sicilian merchant dead and naked on a Vittoriosa street, he hopped from one Cottonera church to another seeking protection, according to one of the oldest murder chronicles in Malta.

On the day of the murder, documented in 1637, shipmaster Ciardo and the victim had lunch together. After dumping the nude corpse later that night, Ciardo sought refuge in various churches – starting with the Greek and moving to the Carmelite and the Capuchin Friary.

He tried to make use of ecclesiastical immunity but was caught trying to embark a ship at the harbour and was arrested 1,000 steps away from the friary.

This account was recently discovered in a document at the Notarial Archives in St Christopher Street, Valletta, where a team of experts is conserving the documents through a sponsorship programme called Adopt a Notary.

Letto e albergo: This document for a room rental in a Vittoriosa hostel is the earliest known of its kind.Letto e albergo: This document for a room rental in a Vittoriosa hostel is the earliest known of its kind.

The document records a dispute between the Bishop’s Court and the Gran Corte della Castellania, both of which claimed that a murder case involving a Sicilian merchant and a patron was to be adjudicated by their court.

Historian and founder of the Notarial Archives Resource Council Joan Abela.Historian and founder of the Notarial Archives Resource Council Joan Abela.

Historian and founder of the Notarial Archives Resource Council Joan Abela told this newspaper that some of the volumes at the archives allow a detailed glimpse of Malta that cannot be found in history books.

Another discovery at the archives is that of the earliest known documented renting of a room in a hostel in Vittoriosa.

The constant flow of people in this locality in the mid-16th century added to the flourishing of the busy harbour town, but the limited information makes it difficult to picture the type of accommodation and leisure activities available.

However, according to a 1561 contract by Giuseppe DeGuevara, a room in Vittoriosa for two weeks probably cost around five scudi. The notary drafted a contract on January 14, 1561 for landlord Genoese Lorenzo Ardissione, who was owed five scudi from Antonio Prat from Catalonia.

The latter had to effect the payment by the end of the same month.

Even the wills at the Notarial Archives shed light on everyday life.

When Pietro Pawl Vella of Żabbar passed away without leaving a will, the guardian of his son Felice ordered the drawing up of an inventory of personal belongings.

This included debts from people who are referred to by their nickname, such as Carmelo tal-Ħofra, Giuseppe Pulis il-Ġurdien and Martina taz-Zopp.

An interesting list included in this 1902 inventory was drafted by James Gardner, a diver, who evaluated diving equipment.

The list, taking up nearly four pages, includes diving equipment such as air pumps and pipes, diving dresses, rock-cutting tools, chains, helmet screws and valves and pick axes, suggesting that the late Pietro Pawl made a living from diving.

Grant warrants to experienced and qualified conservators, says archivist

Protect our heritage from amateurish conservation work and set a system of warrants for qualified conservators, urges Joan Abela (above), founder of the Notarial Archives Resource Council.

Malta has an incredible amount of paper heritage that dates to medieval times, and the council is working hard to ensure that any conservation work carried out on manuscripts and books respects their historic value.

“Unfortunately, the damage done through bad conservation practice is often undetectable to the untrained eye and people often mistake bookbinders for book and paper conservators.

“While one is a skill which can be learnt like any other, the other is a profession which requires rigorous academic training and continued professional development,” Dr Abela told this newspaper.

This makes the granting of warrants to experienced and fully qualified conservators even more urgent. “We need to protect our heritage from amateurish conservation work, which is destroying rather than preserving invaluable details in our collections,” Dr Abela insisted.

‘MPs should set an example and adopt a historic document’

One of the most detailed portraits of Grand Master Antoine de Paule, embossed on a wafer seal that was attached to a document signed by the father of Maltese history, Ġan Frangisk Abela, has just been restored.

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi ‘adopted’ and financed the conservation of this document, originating from the Chancery of the Order of St John in 1629.

The edict granted permission for the lease of land in the priory of Auvergene during the time that Ġan Frangisk Abela was the vice-chancellor of the Order. The latter signed the document, making it even more important.

Joan Abela has urged other MPs to take part in the Adopt a Notary initiative and help finance the conservation of the thousands of documents at the archive.

Another document that has not yet been restored is a volume by Michele Ralli, who witnessed Abela’s painful death on May 4, 1655. Ralli confessed that he burst into tears while writing a contract at 2pm, because he had witnessed the suffering of Abela, who was in great pain because of water retention.

Benefactors can help preserve thousands of historic documents by adopting centuries-old manuscripts, sponsoring their conservation and donating any sum from €250 to €50,000.

Dr Abela can be contacted on joanchabela@gmail.com.

Rare block-printed papers need conservation

Block-printed papers were produced inexpensively, made in bulk and used commonly in late 18th and 19th century Europe. These decorated papers were mostly used as wrappers for bindings and were considered ephemeral, which makes the 30 examples surviving at the Notarial Archives quite rare.

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