Maltese Archives... my choice
by Charles J. Farrugia, with illustrations by Daniel Cilia 
Miller Distributors Ltd,  2020

Let me first place on record a personal interest: I am reviewing a book to which I have contributed a short preface. Apart from that, I was totally extraneous to anything that went into the architecture of this volume. If this is a conflict of interest, I apologise. Malta is now promoted as the Republic of Institutional Loopholes.

Overlooking a pinhole does not place an unbearable strain on my conscience.

Where do I begin? Dr Farrugia has the overview of all the government archives and is familiar with, I guess, most of the other notable hoards of documents in Malta, whether they rest with private families, in clubs, in convents, in parishes, in businesses, in museums. All these turned into his trawling grounds – to enrich this truly magnificent book.

In spite of Malta’s insignificant size and of the majority’s endemic indifference to its cultural heritage, the islands still boast of an astounding archival wealth. Suffice it to say that Malta houses the only virtually complete surviving records of the inquisition in the world. The author must have been spoilt for choice. The problem must not have been what to include. It would have been what to leave out.

The over-300 large pages are mostly visual. Page after page witnesses what mining in the archives can yield. Daniel Cilia photographed each paper, seal, parchment, photo, binding, engraving, drawing and print, ever so lovingly, coaxing every object’s soul to eloquence.

We knew Cilia as a virtuoso creative camera artist; now we know him also as an equally creative recorder of macro- and micro-history. In full colour and stunningly printed to the highest standards, the end result turns into a tribute to its contents and to the passion that brought the whole project to fruition.

Though the accent of the volume very obviously falls on the visual narrative, snappy but highly informative captions support an exhaustive pictorial binge (if that is a good translation of the far more stirring Italian abbuffata).

These notes range from sport to satire, from factories to political events, from passport portraits to planned public works, from censorship to cabaret, from fashion to devotion, from anything to everything.

It is the secret ambition of every book reviewer to nitpick a few mistakes. Dr Farrugia, how frustrating, you trumped me – no luck, and not because I didn’t try hard.

Every page tells us a lot about Malta’s lesser-known heritage

Those who have never frequented an archive in their life (the majority, I believe) think of these depositories as musty piles of yellowed paper, covered in unreadable script, attractive only to bookworm, cobwebs and dust. But this book advertises what love, inquisitiveness and perseverance can quarry, deep from their bowels.

Hand-coloured, decorative certificate issued to John Magri, who graduated in pharmacy on January 24, 1775.Hand-coloured, decorative certificate issued to John Magri, who graduated in pharmacy on January 24, 1775.

They yield the expected – and the unexpected. Who would have thought that the very first poem in medieval Maltese would be tucked away in an idle page of a randy notary’s register? Or that another would preserve a rare antique feathered quill pressed between its pages, probably a forgotten bookmark?

The author subtitles his masterpiece: my choice. This turns into both a programme and a restraint. Out of a myriad artefacts to choose from, why this and not that? Is there an objective scale against which to measure preferences?

Farrugia opted for a subjective approach – more challenging, more intriguing. Every page tells us a lot about Malta’s lesser-known heritage, but it also tells us something about who determined the choices. Thousands of passport photos are preserved at Santu Spirtu in Rabat. Why were those particular 21 chosen to be included and all the rest excluded? My choice.

 Farrugia and Cilia have subdivided their subjective selections from the archives into 18 sections – a whole range of human life and activity: governance, food, fellowships, the sea, death, leisure, education, visitors, vanished Malta, infrastructure, national consciousness, design, language, trauma, religion, time, family and Maltese out of Malta.

Each section represented by relevant and meaningful picks from the archives meant to give visual energy to the chosen subject. This book is also a warning – to be proud of what we have and to take good care of these ephemeral and vulnerable treasures, many, if not most, still unexplored.

To those who have custody of these scores of archives scattered all over Malta and Gozo, I say: follow the dazzling examples set by the National Archives.

If there is one achievement Ugo Mifsud Bonnici deserves to be remembered by, it is not so much for a legal and political career of excellence, as for the fact that the National Archives were his brainchild, a dream which he chased with ruthless determination and which today speaks his name out loud.

One other immense treasure trove, the centennial Notarial Archives, seemingly destined to a lingering death, have now also taken the road to resurrection.

This publication, I am told, would not have been possible without the disinterested sponsorship of the Francis Miller Memorial Fund. Wittingly or otherwise, through it the fund also celebrated Farrugia’s 30 years immersion in archival practices. 

Archives are cultural prisons. They capture and lock memory up, hopefully not for life but for eternity. The archivist acts as a guard, watchful not to allow any of his wards to die or to escape.

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