Antonio Cremona, popularly known as Ninu or Is-Sur Nin, was born on May 27, 1880, at 3-4, St Mary Street, Victoria. He was given the names of Antonio, Giuseppe and Giovanni and baptised the day after at St George parish church.

Ninu aged six, pictured in 1886.Ninu aged six, pictured in 1886.

Ninu was the son of notary Dr Felix and Margaret Pace, who was the niece of Gozo Bishop Mgr Pietro Pace (1877-1889). He was the youngest among three siblings; his sisters, Giovanna and Maria Assunta, were four and two years older respectively.

His father died at the age of 55 when he was just three. Two years later, he was sent to live with his uncle, Achille Pace, in Tunisia. There he attended a school run by the De La Salle Brothers (Frères), and later at the French-run college of St Charles, today Lycée Carnot.

In 1888, Cremona returned to Malta with his uncle after a hiatus of three years. He was enrolled as a student at the Flores College in St Paul Street, Valletta, (later the premises of the Allied printing press). But his stay at the college was very short because, at the age of 10, he was registered as a student with the Jesuit-run Gozo Seminary under the rectorship of Fr Alberto Amico. He spent two years at the seminary during which he acquired a sound grasp of the Italian language rather than English.

At this young age, Cremona showed a love for acting, so much so that he enlisted with the seminary’s theatrical group, which was composed of older members. He also took part in poetry reading during Christmas festivities organised at the seminary.

Cremona continued his studies at the Seminary in Floriana for five years. There he studied mainly Latin and Italian, but also took up mathematics, physics and English. He differed from the traditional professions of his family who were more inclined to the legal profession, namely his grandfather from his father’s side, notary Dr Joseph Cremona, and other relatives.

During his studies at the Floriana Seminary, Cremona acquainted himself with Fr Carmelo (Dun Karm) Psaila, later the national poet of Malta. He deepened his studies in Italian in light of the Italian language predominance within Malta’s academic circles. He wrote his first poem A Maria Vergine in his last year of the seminary course. He even wrote prose in Italian and used to spend his summer holidays reading literature in Italian as well as Maltese.

His friendship with the Fr Psaila, who was ordained in 1894, led to visits to the latter’s home in Żebbuġ. In his teens, Cremona, together with fellow students and friends, would also spend the evenings there singing and playing tunes on a mandolin. Cremona’s love for literature made him especially familiar with the Italian works of writer and professor Augusto Monti (1881-1966) and the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873).

A young Ninu Cremona in 1924.A young Ninu Cremona in 1924.

Meanwhile, Cremona’s sisters established a private school in Sliema to help their mother make ends meet, and he also felt the need to do his share. He first found employment as a government clerk at the hospital stores in Floriana, and later, in 1904, at the age of 24, he managed to secure a job as a sanitary inspector with the government. In connection with this latter employment, after some time he was sent to further his studies at Ashton Hall School of Hygiene at the Liverpool University in UK. There he followed the courses in sanitary engineering and bacteriology.

On his return to Malta in 1912, Cremona’s inclination towards academic studies in the Maltese language started to gain prominence. Cremona’s writings covered all kinds of genres and are published in English, Italian and Maltese, but the latter occupy the biggest share of his literary works. Apart from the inventive narrative verse of his poems, novels, drama and romance, he also excelled in historical research, especially biographies and folklore.

Apart from the inventive narrative verse of his poems, novels, drama and romance, he also excelled in historical research, especially biographies and folklore

In 1913, Cremona penned his first and the most powerful classic drama, Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa. It was published in serial form in The Teacher magazine in 1936. He also wrote the biography Mikiel Anton Vassali u Żminijietu, which was the first-ever extensive research carried out about Vassalli, and was translated into English by May Butcher in 1940. He also published a series of works about philology and grammar, and had poems of his translated into French by his Gozo compatriot, Laurent Ropa.

He applied for a new job at the Lyceum in Valletta, teaching Maltese in evening courses as from October 1927. After nine years, he was appointed as the first teacher in Maltese at the Lyceum from 1936 to 1941, entrusted with the last three years of matriculation course. This was the first step for the teaching of the Maltese language as an obligatory subject in schools. Meanwhile, he was appointed as a translator of the Maltese language and editor at the Government Press from 1927 till 1941.

He was appointed as the first teacher in Maltese at the Lyceum from 1936 to 1941

Cremona’s command of the Maltese language was further recognised when he was appointed secretary to the government commission for the translation of the police laws and the Criminal Code, in view of court reforms in connection with the use of the Maltese language during court proceedings at the time.

Ninu (third from right) with a group of Maltese writers in the 1960s.Ninu (third from right) with a group of Maltese writers in the 1960s.

The Maltese language engaged Cremona in a hectic academic life as he sat on several government boards charged with the first competition for novel writing as well as the compilation of the English-Maltese dictionary (1947-1955), which was later on taken over by Fr Psaila. Cremona was also appointed as one of the principal examiners in Maltese on several boards of the public interviews.

A milestone in Cremona’s academic Maltese achievements was his membership in the founding committee of the Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti, today the Maltese Academy. Together with Fr Psaila, he was one of its 10 founding members. He occupied the post of vice president of the Għaqda till his old age, notwithstanding that its council offered him the post of president several times. He was in charge of the Għaqda’s publication Il-Malti, which was published every three months.

Ninu (front row, first from left) at the exhibition about Laurent Ropa in Xagħra in 1970.Ninu (front row, first from left) at the exhibition about Laurent Ropa in Xagħra in 1970.

For a time, his role at the Għaqda was characterised by the issue of the proper Maltese orthography to be used in all official documents. Cremona was charged with laying the ground of the Maltese alphabet and grammar rules with which the new Maltese orthography would be built upon. In this task, he was assisted by another member of the committee, John Vassallo. This was finally published in a publication Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija at the government press in 1924. The new Maltese orthography was officially recognised and adopted by the government in 1934.

Ninu CremonaNinu Cremona

In 1947, the Maltese Governor, Sir Francis Douglas, awarded Cremona the Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi medal for his intense work on the Maltese language. Thirteen years later, the University of Malta bestowed on Cremona the honorary degree of Doctorate in Literature (D.Litt.). The last honour Cremona received was conferred by the Federation of the Civic Committees, consisting of a silver medal in recognition for his distinctive work and achievements which honoured his country.

Cremona spent the last years of his life in Gozo. It was just over 50 years ago, on January 4, 1972, when the news spread that the 91-year-old Is-Sur Nin had passed away. The news was broadcast on Rediffusion and on television. Dr Anton Buttigieg, then Minister for Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, and an old friend of Ninu, delivered a short address at the parliamentary sitting on that same day, to which the leader of the opposition associated himself. The main papers of the subsequent day were dominated by the news of Cremona’s death. The funeral mass was held at the Gozo Cathedral. It was attended by prominent people and representatives of several committees across the Maltese spectrum. He was buried at Santa Marija cemetery in Xewkija.

Dr Anton Buttigieg, then Minister of Justice, donating Ninu’s documents to the Gozo Public Library in the 1970s.Dr Anton Buttigieg, then Minister of Justice, donating Ninu’s documents to the Gozo Public Library in the 1970s.

Soon afterwards, a fundraising committee under the chairmanship of the Gozo Lyceum headmaster, Peter Paul Grech, and Joseph Camilleri as secretary, was set up by members of the staff to raise money for the erection of a bronze monument to Cremona. The sculptor, Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, was commissioned to produce a model for the monument, for which he worked gratuitously. The monument was cast in bronze at St Carlo foundry in Marsa. Funds were collected from among the Gozo schools’ students, some members of the staff and from other activities organised by the committee.

Initially, it was planned to erect the monument in Savina Square, Victoria, but it was eventually set up on the grounds of the former Lyceum complex in Victoria. It was inaugurated on May 25, 1973, by then Education Minister Agatha Barbara. Three thousand students attended the inauguration ceremony. Poet George Pisani and linguist Joseph Aquilina delivered speeches on Cremona’s personality and his works. Peter Paul Grech also announced that the Gozo Civic Committee would name the road by Villa Rundle Gardens after Ninu Cremona.

The inauguration of his bronze monument in 1973 by then Education Minister Agatha Barbara.The inauguration of his bronze monument in 1973 by then Education Minister Agatha Barbara.

The ceremony concluded with an address by the minister who congratulated the students and teachers for the initiative. This was followed by the unveiling of the monument and a marble plaque mounted on the sidewall of the building where Cremona was born. Another plaque was fixed to the wall of the last residence where Cremona lived in St Ursula Street, Victoria, on the initiative of the Klabb Kotba Maltin.

Several writings published in Il-Malti of March-June 1972 are testament to Cremona’s humble character yet literary prowess. His small physical stature, being just five feet tall, also belied his status as a giant of the Maltese language. Cremona’s character is candidly portrayed in N. Biancardi’s poem Xbieha bil-Kitba published at the beginning of Fr Alfred M. Previ’s biography about him in 1973.

 

Acknowledgements

The author thanks Toni Calleja, Joseph Camilleri, Joseph Camilleri of Victory Photo Studio, Xagħra, John Cremona, Fr John Mejlaq, National Archives of Malta, Department of Information and Gozo Public Library.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us