Portrait of Grand Master Hughes de Verdalle who ruled Malta when the Ciambanin murder occurred. Photo: Courtesy of Heritage Malta.Portrait of Grand Master Hughes de Verdalle who ruled Malta when the Ciambanin murder occurred. Photo: Courtesy of Heritage Malta.

The desolately luxuriant criminal energies prevalent in Malta during the first century of the rule by the Order of St John have not been properly studied so far. Many reasons account for this information blackout – mostly the poor documentation available. The Order of Malta generally suffered from compulsive record-keeping manias during its stay on the islands, and most of its written data have been preserved. Not so those of the two major systems of criminal justice: the one of the knights for the knights, and that of the prince for the rest of the population.

These were two completely autonomous and independent organisations – the Castellania criminal justice for the people, while the Sguardio system regulated exclusively crimes committed by knights or those com­­mitted against knights. The first was left almost entirely in the hands of the natives: Maltese judges, lawyers, prosecutors, registrars, jailers and executioners. The second remained the jealously guarded preserve of the Order. In 1781, the internationally-famed jurist Giandonato Rogadeo, invited to Malta to reform the laws and the court system, confessed he had never seen anything as appallingly corrupt and inept as the Maltese administering justice.

The written records of the Order’s criminal trials have disappeared. Virtually nothing is left of the thousands of fat files that documented in clinical, but often gory, detail the reports of criminal offences committed by knights or against knights, the investigations, the evidence, the statements of witnesses, the pleadings by the lawyers, the final judgments.

Nobody seems to know when or why this mountain of history was destroyed, or by who, when most of the other records were, more or less conscientiously, preserved. The fact remains that today we can only attempt to reconstruct the criminal scene through the flimsiest of evidence, the most evanescent of documentation.

All that remains, and because they were recorded in a different set of volumes, are the minutes of skeleton final deliberations by the adjudicating council. The precious Libri Conciliarum, which register the decisions of the Council of the knights, have thankfully survived. But these only contain the skimpiest and most economical annotations imaginable: “Today Fra XY was condemned to prison for theft; today Fra AB was found guilty of the homicide of CD and sent to the guva. In the otherwise bleak circumstances, thanks providence for little mercies.”

These records are the equivalent of what we still today refer to in old Italian legal jargon as prime note. Nothing else. The full criminal files have vanished.

The Council of the Order met regularly and frequently in the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta, and generally it had a very loaded agenda to go through – administrative and diplomatic matters, promotions, supplies and services, commissioning and examination of reports – and criminal proceedings. Strangely and quite unusually, for the meeting of July 12, 1588, the Council placed only one item on its agenda: the trial of the knight Fra Andrea de Chiambaly, accused of homicide.

Usually these criminal trials did not take up a lot of the time of the Grand Master’s counsellors: they examined the report drawn up by the two commissioners delegated to compile the evidence and draw their conclusions, and then they took a secret vote on its contents – guilty or not guilty (called lo scrutinio delle palle). In the former case, the Grand Master in Council also deliberated on the punishment to be awarded.

Engraving after Cavalier d’Arpino showing a criminal trial of a knight of Malta, from Grand Master Verdalle’s Statutes. Photo: Courtesy of the National Library, Malta.Engraving after Cavalier d’Arpino showing a criminal trial of a knight of Malta, from Grand Master Verdalle’s Statutes. Photo: Courtesy of the National Library, Malta.

Fra Andrea’s real family name was Ciambanin, not Chiambaly, but scribes, in those days, jotted down proper names quite approximately, not according to any strict protocol, but just as they believed they sounded phonetically. The fact that the clerk recorded him as “de Chiambaly” possibly indicates that the delinquent was believed to be of French origin.

Fra Andrea stood charged with the wilful homicide of a Maltese subject, Nicola, known as Cola, Borg. The Council found him guilty and condemned him to a five-year term of imprisonment. Quite likely the counsellors could not reach a unanimous verdict, as the minutes would otherwise have recorded nemine discrepante – no one disagreeing. That is all the surviving records state – the name of the accused, that of the victim, the nature of the crime charged and the sentence passed. Nothing about the date and the circumstance of the crime, its motive, what way it was carried out, the weapons used, the defence of the accused, the details of the penalty.

This bleak dearth of information has, in this particular instance, been somehow relieved by a fortuitous find in the Notarial Archives. Among the thousands of loose papers, unclassified documents, and what-is-this-doing-here bric-a-brac, the staff working there under Dr Joan Abela spotted a cinquecento petition connected with a murder investigation, which she kindly drew my attention to.

This I instantly recognised as being linked to the Cola Borg homicide. It is the original of a petition filed by Pietro Ciambanin, the grieved father of the accused knight, to Grand Master Hughes de Verdalle. The supplica does not have a date, but the deliberations that follow it on January 20, 1588, allow us to establish the temporal sequence. The petitioner wrote quite legibly, though the subsequent annotations by the Grand Master’s bureaucrats prove more difficult to decipher.

The father of the knight accused of murder, himself a member of the lower ranks of the Order (a Fra donato, not professed with solemn vows, and only authorised to wear a six-pointed cross, not the full eight-pointed one) wanted the Grand Master to be aware that “the wife, the mother, sons and relatives of [the late] Cola Borg, not satisfied with having accused and proceeded with the alleged homicide of the said Cola, against Fra Andrea Ciambanin, servant at arms, his son, who, in fact had been provoked, insulted and ill-treated (maltrattato) suffering wounds; but to inflict further pain on the petitioner” they pressed their criminal charges not only in front of the Grand Master’s tribunal in the Castellania, but also in front of the tribunal of the Order of St John, to show how he has been unjustly accused and to prove his innocence.

The father humbly petitioned the Grand Master to instruct two impartial (non suspetti) knight commissioners to compile the evidence to establish the true facts of the case and refer to the Council in order that justice be done.

The Ciambanins had already left faint, unremarkable footprints of their presence in Malta. In 1575, Pirro Ciambanin had put his name down as a founder of the Corpus Christi confraternity in the parish church of Porto Salvo, St Domenic, Valletta. Pirro as a Christian name is an old Italianate variant of Piero, Pietro.

Among the thousands of loose papers, unclassified documents, and what-is-this-doing-here bric-a-brac, the staff spotted a cinquecento petition connected with a murder investigation

Parts of the rest of the texts following the suppplica appear rather illegible to me, both because the ink has faded and because it has seeped onto the other face of the paper, interfering with the writing’s legibility. The Council appointed the two investigating commissioners, the senior knights Commendatore Nicola Sciortino from Noto, who had joined the Order immediately after the Great Siege, and Fra Antonio Caccialepre, who I have been unable to trace.

The only Antonio Caccialepre I know of was one of the two brothers of Greek descent who established in Malta the devotion of the Risen Christ by erecting the chapel of the Lunzjata, Rabat, and endowing it with an image of the Resurrection. But this Antonio does not seem to have been a knight of Malta. Were two Antonio Caccialepre concurrently in Malta when the homicide took place? Possibly but unlikely. These notes also mention the relatives of the murder victim: Pauluccia, his widow, and Mario and Martino Borg, his sons.

The name of the priest Giuseppe Famigliomeno appears in the records too, though the poor condition of the petition does not make it easy to establish why. Quite possibly, this document includes his name as the Council had, in 1587, appointed him acting Vice-Chancellor of the Order during the absence in Rome of the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, Fra Didaco de Ovando.

Fr Famigliomeno happened to find himself at the centre of another unruly brawl at exactly the same time as the homicide of Cola Borg, though the two episodes do not seem to be connected. He got involved in an argument during which the young troublemaker, Fra Cassano Bernizzone from Genova, slapped him soundly across the face. After a full trial, Bernizzone first ended in jail, and later lost his seniority, and Fra Giulio Cesare Raspa from Vercelli was defrocked; the Council also expelled the nobleman de Gabot from the Order for having perjured himself when giving evidence at their trial.

This was neither Bernizzone’s first, nor his last brush with the criminal law. In 1587 the Council had tried him for grievously wounding Fra Filippo Cesarino “with copious shedding of blood”. Condemned to jail, he escaped and had to face a second trial for absconding from prison. Shortly later, the Council charged him with the murder of Fra Giuseppe d’Aragon, and, having served his sentence, he resolved that his criminal record needed further embellishment and he added a duel against Fra Filippo la Surda.

Despite Bernizzone’s familiarity with the insides of prisons, the Grand Master selected him as special envoy with a delicate mission for the Pope and the King of Spain. And, to confirm his rather unsteady piety, in the 1590s he built from his own purse the chapel of Our Lady of Graces in the new church of Porto Salvo, St Domenic, Valletta, and also pledged to endow it with an artistic altarpiece. That he failed to maintain this last promise is quite beside the point.

Engraving after Cavalier d’Arpino, showing the execution of a former knight of Malta by being placed in a weighted sack and drowned in Grand Harbour. From Grand Master Verdalle’ s Statutes. Photo: Courtesy of Heritage Malta.Engraving after Cavalier d’Arpino, showing the execution of a former knight of Malta by being placed in a weighted sack and drowned in Grand Harbour. From Grand Master Verdalle’ s Statutes. Photo: Courtesy of Heritage Malta.

The supplica allows us to reconstruct some clues of how the trial proceeded: who the commissioners investigating the crime were, the fact that the victim’s family took an active part in the prosecution, and what defence the accused pleaded: extreme provocation and self-defence. Still, plenty of questions remain unanswered. One is: why and how did this supplica find itself in the Notarial Archives, when, apparently, it has no connection with anything notarial?

The usual penalty for wilful homicide committed by a knight was expulsion from the ranks of the Order, as this then enabled the culprit to be handed over to the lay criminal courts and condemned to death (the statutes and custom exempted those who were still knights from the death penalty). The fact that the Council only inflicted a five-year term of imprisonment on Fra Andrea Ciambanin confirms that his judges accepted his pleas of provocation and self-defence in mitigation.

The year of the homicide, 1588, was not a particularly spectacular or turbulent one for Malta. Pope Sixtus V had promoted Grand Master Verdalle to the rank of Cardinal of Holy Roman Church and he had been lavishly welcomed in Rome when he travelled there to receive the princely hat. Not everyone, however, approved of this promotion: Cardinal Ascanio Colonna openly slighted and ridiculed the new cardinal during an official banquet given in Verdalle’s honour in the Pope’s city, because he made no secret of considering Verdalle unworthy of becoming a cardinal.

On his return to Malta in 1588, the freshly-promoted Cardinal Grand Master built Verdala Palace in Boschetto, limits of Rabat, but he also needed to settle scores with Cardinal Colonna, whose coat of arms was an upright column. Verdalle’s escutcheon showed a wolf. A malicious sense of humour inspired his vendetta. He ordered that Palace Square be embellished with a column, on which a wolf squatted, defecating. Verdalle wanted his revenge on Cardinal Colonna to last through the centuries and in his will he even established a substantial legacy for the maintenance and repair of his wolf crapping on Colonna.

We know that after the trial, the Ciambanins remained in Malta, occasionally aspiring to some degrees of fame or notoriety. An entry in the Udienze records of 1609 shows that a certain Signor Ciambanin had erected a building on his own land but had, no doubt absent-mindedly, nicked a large tract of public land, incorporating it stealthily in his property. In 1619, Caterina Ciambanin married Pietro Caxaro, descendant of the Cantilena poet. Pietro Ciambanin bought the vineyard “tas-Sinjur” in St Julian’s, and in 1634 he petitioned the Grand Master to allow him to enlarge it by encroaching on public land. Trophimo Deodato Ciambanin (1631-1658), son of Pietro and Argenta, took holy orders. Though baptised in St Paul’s church, Valletta, he was buried in Porto Salvo, St Domenic’s, when he died, only 27 years old.

Another Pietro Ciambanin in 1679 married the noblewomen Agostina Perdicomati – a family related to the ancestors of the former Prime Minister of Malta Sir Gerald Strickland (Pietro must have been a distinctive name in the Ciambanin family). One of their daughters, Maria Teresa Ciambanin, strayed from the straight and narrow. She became the long-term mistress of a leading knight of Malta, the Bali Louis-Alphonse de Lorraine-Armagnac, and I dare anyone to find more supremely rarefied lineage than that. The Lorraine-Armagnacs counted as one of the most aristocratic and well connected families in Europe, related by marriage alliances to half the sovereigns of the continent.

Maria Teresa Ciambanin never married Louis-Alphonse, but she, rather carelessly, bore him at least three daughters, informally known as d’Armagnac. The eldest, Anna d’Armagnac, married Gio Nicolò Baldacchino in 1715; the middle one, Teresa d’Armagnac, that same year married Francesco La Speranza, while Pietro Galea took the younger one, Giovanna Maria d’Armagnac, as his spouse the following year. Miss Ciambanin, with her three illustrious bâtardes, must have magnetised the combined frowns of the rest of the God-fearing Maltese community. The target of blithe and rather jealous gossip, no doubt.

Though by nobility of birth Bali Lorraine-Armagnac ranked among the highest possible dignitaries of the Order, Louis-Alphonse never seems to have distinguished himself in anything at all, good, bad or indifferent, except for his commitment to flouting his solemn vow of chastity and providing tangible evidence to anyone who doubted his dedication. He died in Malaga on his 29th birthday, on August 24, 1704. His father was the brother of Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, also a knight of Malta, but better known for his legendary beauty and for having been the lifelong gay lover of Philippe d’Orleans, the transvestite younger brother of Louis XIV, king of France.

Hints of Ciambanin DNA and of the dazzlingly blue blood of the Lorraine-Armagnacs must still lurk discreetly in the crannies of Maltese arteries and veins.

My heartfelt thanks to Dr Joan Abela who put me on the right track and to Maroma Camilleri, who just can’t help being helpful and to Dr Theresa Vella who introduced me to the Udienze reference.

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