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Malta: a refuge for Italian exiles

Angela Picca: Pugliesi per l’Italia Unita, dalla Rivoluzione Partenopea (1799) a Porta Pia (1870)
2v Roma, L’Esagramma, 2012-2017

This is an attractive, very readable and nicely illustrated addition to the vast literature on the Italian Risorgimento. Angela Picca has taught in Italian upper secondary schools. As a researcher her interest has been in Italian history and in personalities such as the 18th century historian and jurist Pietro Giannone, about whom Picca published an unusual book in the form of a long drama with end-notes and many illustrations. The theatre is undoubtedly Picca’s great love.

The present work is certainly not in a dramatic form, but Italian reviewers have commented on her bringing to life the personalities of many of the Apulian personalities of the Risorgimento in the first volume. I shall limit my comments to the second volume, bearing the subtitle ‘Sulle orme degli esuli’ and specifically to pages 352-439 dealing with the Apulian and other patriots who sought refuge in Malta where many of them continued to contribute to the Italian struggles for unification.

Because of their geographical closeness to Italy, Greece and Malta were countries of refuge sought most by fleeing Italian patriots, so much of this volume is devoted to the exiles in Corfu, an island very close to Apulia, and in Malta to which the exiles found it easy to cross from ports in Sicily.

Since Corfu also fell under British rule in 1815 (Treaty of Paris) and remained under that rule until 1864, the exiles found in both Malta and Corfu similar legal structures and political attitudes. Sometimes, such as during the years (1813-1824) when Sir Thomas Maitland – nicknamed ‘King Tom’ in Malta – was both Governor of Malta and Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands (including Corfu) they had to suffer unpleasantly autocratic treatment.

The Malta section opens with an account several pages long about Maltese history up to the early British period which also gives much importance to some Italian painters who distinguished themselves in Malta: Matteo Perez d’Aleccio (or Lecce as it is known today), Caravaggio and of course Mattia Preti, while Filippo Paladini gets no mention.

The migration of Italian exiles to Malta was in three waves: 1820-1839, 1839-1848 and 1848-1860.  Earlier in the century there were a few political exiles coming to Malta, most notably the prominent anti-Napoleonic journalist Vittorio Barzoni, rememberd mostly for his editorship of newssheets like Il Cartaginese and most famously for having started Il Giornale di Malta, still published today as The Malta Government Gazette. Barzoni arrived in Malta when the British were already here, so Picca is wrong when she wrote that Barzoni first started his newspapers when the French were still in Malta.

The first wave beginning in 1820 brought with it the Mazzinian Tommaso Zauli Sajani and his wife Ifigenia (arrived in 1838) both of whom published literary works in Malta, such as Tommaso’s Marco Botzaris or Ifigenia’s historical novel Gli ultimi giorni dei Cavalieri di Malta. Tommaso did something even more important when following the granting of freedom of the press in Malta. In 1839 he founded and co-edited the important newspaper Il Mediterraneo which survived his departure from Malta in 1847 and stopped being published much later, in 1871.

The Malta section opens with an account several pages long

An  even more important arrival in the same period was that of Nicola Fabrizi, a prominent Mazzinian and a great Risorgimento figure, who had fought during the Savoy expedition and in the Spanish war (1835). His arrival together with his brothers Paolo, a medical doctor, and Carlo, a merchant, signalled the start of a wave of Italian exiles coming to Malta. Picca points out that by becoming the coordinator of revolutionary committees in Sicily, and subsequently joining Garibaldi’s forces, Nicola signalled a break with the republican Mazzini.

The presence of the exiles in Corfu and Malta caused Britain many awkward moments when powers like Austria protested about what these exiles were doing and saying. The change in Britain’s official attitude towards the Italian nationalists followed the publication in the 1850s of W. E. Gladstone’s Letters to Lord Aberdeen containing a heavy condemnation of the despotic rule exercised by the King of the Two Sicilies. Picca gives an interesting account of the problems caused from time to time by the presence in Malta of the King of the two Sicilies’s  younger brother, Carlo, Principe di Capua. His name remains associated with the house in Sliema (in what is now Triq Ġorġ Borg Olivier) where he lived, Palazzo Capua, and his relations with Luigi Zuppetta, a great opponent of King Ferdinand and a sympathiser with Carlo’s political desires for a separatist Sicily.

Picca’s account of the great disageement between Britain and King Ferdinand regarding the great sulphur mines in Sicily, when Ferdinand ignored Britain’s treaty rights over sulphur mining and handed over the mines to a French industrialist gives the reader some idea of the virulence of  the conflict. It  makes one understand why Britain now shifted its diplomatic interest to the liberals in Piedmont who could possibly stave off the fear of a revolutionary republic that might be produced by the troubles in the south.

The second wave of exiles included a number of intellectuals and scientists. These included Gabriele Rossetti, a poet who made a name for himself in Malta as a clever improviser of verse. After his later transfer to England, he would father the Pre-Raphaelte artist Dante Gabriele, and the fine lyric poet Christina. Another arrival was that of Lorenzo Borsini, satirist and journalist, who ended up having to leave Malta, according to Picca, after having written adversely against the Jesuits. Oliver Friggieri says his voiced expression that the Maltese should govern themselves made Governor O’Ferrall recommend he be deported.

Some of the literary exiles participated actively in the Gabinetto di Lettura founded by the Maltese Luigi Tonna, where plays were performed and poems recited.

The ill-fated expedition of the Fratelli Bandiera in 1844 seems to have been planned in Malta by Domenico Moro and probably one of the Bandiera brothers, Attilio. Another expedition, with just as disastrous an issue, planned in Malta, came much later in 1857. This was the expedition led  by Carlo Pisacane to Sapri, which turned out to be a forerunner of Garibaldi’s very successful ‘Mille’ expedition to Sicily.

The governorship of Richard More O’Ferrall was marked by official acts against Italian exiles, most important of which was forbidding the disembarkation of over 100 soldiers of the defeated Roman republic. Popular discontent and strong criticism in the British Parliament forced him to resign the governorship in 1851.

Two years later the great Francesco Crispi, leader of the unsuccessful rebellion in Sicily, arrived and set up house in Tarxien. In 1859 he left for Sicily where he joined Garibaldi’s ‘Mille’. Another protagonist of Italy’s Risorgimento, Ruggiero Settimo, had also been a leading figure of the rebellion in Sicily and after its putting  down he fled to Malta where he lived the remaining years of his life. Picca reproduces the text of a letter he sent Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860, voicing his being in favour of Sicily’s joining Piedmont in the newly forming kingdom of Italy.

Picca occasionally comments on how the presence and activity of the exiles, some of them remarkable people, influenced the slowly emerging desires of some Maltese intellectuals for achieving some degree of self-government..

Oliver Friggieri’s La storia della letteratura maltese, his Italian version of a work he wrote  originally in Maltese, and of course the Bonello-Fiorentini-Schiavone Echi del Risorgimento a Malta (2nd ed. 1982) to which Picca is certainly indebted, are two works worthy of being consulted by readers.

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