Grand Master Martin De Redin, friend of Fra Agostino Grimaldi.Grand Master Martin De Redin, friend of Fra Agostino Grimaldi.

Reliable contemporary biographies of knights of Malta of the 17th century and earlier are easier to wish for than to come by. They are either inexistent or, when they exist, turn into committed eulogies rather than detached, clinical accounts of the lives they attempt to recount – always difficult to separate the solid fabric from the lace trimmings. More often than not, they give a highly distorted, two-dimensional profile of the person chosen as the subject of the exercise – how holy, how noble, how charitable, how heroic that knight was. Rarely how fallibly human.

One particular knight from Sicily was, in the sense of a more lasting memory, favoured better than most. He lost his life very young and would soon have been entirely forgotten had it not been for the fact that his family required to assert its nobility and distinction, and to leave its name and its mark.

The Modica branch of the Grimaldi family had its generations of aristocracy in impeccable order, but had never really distinguished itself in history. Nothing like their distant relatives, the Grimaldis from Genoa, who had already pushed upwards and were on the verge of founding the princely house of Monaco. The Sicilian Grimaldis needed an icon. The death of the young Fra Agostino in 1660, tragic though it undoubtedly was, happened just at the right moment.

Most of what we know about Agostino Grimaldi comes from a book published shortly after his death, no doubt inspired and encouraged, if not actually commissioned, by his family. Today extremely rare, this work is quite representative of contemporary biography: emphatic, engineered always to project the virtues and never the failings, of the subject. It has to satisfy an agenda, in this case the social assertion of the hero’s family by associating it with an established benchmark of achievement, the Hospitaller Order of Malta.

The author, Antonino Parisi, a rather obscure Discalced Carmelite friar, took on the religious name of Padre Gian Paolo dell’Epifania (or della Santa Epifania) and is recorded between 1633 and 1676. He writes copiously about Grimaldi’s life in Malta, but never actually says he ever visited the island himself. He certainly had friends in Malta among the community of the Discalced Carmelites, some of whom he mentions by name, like Padre Enrico di San Francesco, eldest son of the Marquis of Letnì in Piedmont.

Although the book sets out to be basically a biography of the young Grimaldi, it purports to explore horizons far wider than that. It aims at analysing the hospitaller ethos in the 17th century. Even its name is programmatic: L’Idea del Cavalier Gerosolimitano, mostrata nella vita di Fra D. Agostino Grimaldo, e Rosso, of which a translation could be ‘The Concept of Hospitaller Chivalry Explained Through the Life of Fra Agostino Grimaldi e Rosso’.

The author entrusted the publisher from Messina Giacomo Mattei to print the book in 1662, and it runs to 232 pages. The anonymous frontispiece identifies the author as a “padre Carmelitano Scalzo della Provincia di Santo Albetto (sic) in Sicilia. It also adds that the book was published on the initiative of the jurats of the city of Modica in Sicily.

Even the dedication of the book has robust political undertones. The recipient of the honour was Cardinal Girolamo Grimaldi, archbishop of Aix-en-Provence in France. The most prominent Grimaldi of his times, a former governor of Rome, the alter ego of Cardinal Mazarin, virtual prime minister of the France of Louis XIV, an astute political schemer, it served the Grimaldis of Modica to remind the world that they and the powerful cardinal were cousins, if rather distant ones.

They must have been quite distant; Agostino, reputed to be disturbingly handsome, while Cardinal Girolamo, was, let’s say, homely. When the cardinal’s tomb had to be opened 20 years after his death, his body was found to be intact, as if he had just died that very day.

L’Idea del Cavalier is a thoroughly fascinating and instructive book, if one manages to wade through it and live to tell the tale. Shear it of all its oppressively baroque embellishments, its limp literary flights, its down-your-throat pious agenda, its bloated rhetoric, its obsessive show-off erudition, its cumbersome quotations from the classics, reduce it to its bare essentials, and you have a rich and unexplored quarry of historical narrative on Sicily and Malta in the 17th century and of the everyday life of the aristocracy in both countries. Books like these should come with health warnings and a survival kit.

L’Idea del Cavalier is a thoroughly fascinating and instructive book… a rich and unexplored quarry of historical narrative on Sicily and Malta in the 17th century and of the everyday life of the aristocracy in both countries

Agostino was born in Modica on May 3, 1639, to Don Giovanni, governor-general of that county, and Donna Girolama Rosso-Landolina, their third son. That accounts for the fact that he adopted as surname the unusual combination ‘Grimaldi e Rosso’, which makes it sound like the registered trade name of some trendy vermouth.

Agostino may have been the name chosen for him, as other Agostini had made a name for themselves in the various Grimaldi branches of the family. According to his biographer, the boy Agostino became the favourite of his mother, who would not hear of parting with him or his being out of her sight.

Duomo di San Pietro, Modica. As a boy, Grimaldi showed off his cavalry and fencing skills on the square facing this church.Duomo di San Pietro, Modica. As a boy, Grimaldi showed off his cavalry and fencing skills on the square facing this church.

Allowing him to stray away from home and go to Malta to join the Hospitallers, as his father had decided, was not even to be considered. To soften the blow, Don Giovanni accepted to delegate to fortune the choice of whom of his children would be a knight of Malta. He drew by lot who among his sons (he fathered 11 children in all) had to be enrolled in the Order, and the lot fell on Agostino.

Donna Girolama threw a mommy fit, and to pacify her, the lottery had to be repeated the following day, drawn by a saintly Capuchin monk. And again it was Agostino’s name that came out of the ballot box. Heavenly intervention truly sealed his destiny.

No wonder the family required one of the Grimaldi siblings to join the knights of Malta – the Grimaldi had already, over the centuries, parked several sons with the knights of St John, and so had both the Rosso and the Landolina. Agostino’s candidature in the Order was registered when he was only six years old, and this entitled the toddler to wear the eight-pointed cross and carry a sword – and, more importantly, to have his seniority calculated, for purposes of career promotion in the ranks of the Order, from his infant years.

A reliable source gives the date of his acceptance as his sixth birthday, May 4, 1645. He eventually came to Malta and professed as a knight. His biographer records this happened on October 27, 1658, when Grand Master Martin de Redin ruled over the Order, but he had already settled in Malta in 1657 to perform his year’s ‘novitiate’ under Grand Master Jean-Paul Lascaris Castellar.

From his birth, baby Agostino showed odd, abnormal quirks. His toy, his pacifier, was not a comfort rag, a soft doll, or a rattle like any other baby’s would be. What worked with his infant tantrums was a hammer. He always had one in his cot, and made a scene when he could not lay his hands on it.

Not surprisingly, our good Padre Parisi reads a lot into this. Was not this a portent that the child would one day turn into the hammer of the infidels, the enemies of the true faith? Hmm, maybe so. I would have said he saw a future in ironmongery.

At school, when given compositions to write, Grimaldi would sometimes imagine he was on a galley of the Order of Malta on a mission in the pursuit of Turkish marauders. One such essay, in the form of a fictional letter to his mother from Malta, Padre Parisi reproduces verbatim. Unless it is a forgery, and there is no reason to think it is, its imagination, its focus and intensity appear pretty disconcerting for a child who had not even reached teenage.

Palazzo Grimaldi in Modica, Sicily, Agostino Grimaldi’s home.Palazzo Grimaldi in Modica, Sicily, Agostino Grimaldi’s home.

From his young years Grimaldi had shown a passion for music and poetry – the lyrics of a Christmas hymn he wrote when he was 11, were set to music and performed. He composed Latin poetry, mostly in the shape of epigrams – almost every letter from Malta to his family contained one. But he also became highly proficient in horse riding and fencing, the sports of the nobility.

Being accepted by the Order of Malta, he carried a sword from the age of six, which grew in length in proportion to his height. At a young age he joined the Congregation of the Nobles, run by the Jesuits, which aimed at furthering virtue and instil in its aristocratic members a devotion to all that belonged to God.

He won various equestrian shows held in the square of the church of the Madonna delle Grazzie in his native town. But then his father was governor-general of the area, so these successes may have to be seen as the prerogatives of those who occupy positions of trust.

The Ottoman and Barbary pirates and corsairs at that time (and long before that) tormented the coast of Sicily and often had the run of the place. Numerous coastal forts and lines of defence had been built to protect the island, but this did not stop the Muslims in their destructive razzie and their quest for booty and slaves; the inhabitants of the littoral of Sicily lived with the fear of corsair raids constantly at the back of their minds.

Frontispiece of the very rare 1662 biography of Grimaldi.Frontispiece of the very rare 1662 biography of Grimaldi.

The navy of the Order of St John prided itself in being among the toughest Christian policemen of the Mediterranean, though the knights deemed it mean to neglect to use their proud galleys for their own piracy too. Grimaldi believed all that killing and looting to be a religious duty. The age-old aggressive and defensive mission of the Hospitallers proved most congenial to Grimaldi’s fiery sense of Christianity and pious zeal, and these coincided exactly with the Order’s raison d’etre.

His letters to his parents, which his biographer Antonino Parisi had access to, document his stay in Malta (though they do not contain one single direct reference to a Maltese person). Four or five days after landing on the island, Grimaldi enrolled himself with the noble novices of the Order.

For one year the young entrants followed a strict discipline under three leading senior knights, veterans chosen from various langues for their skills and virtuous living. One taught the novices the arts of war, a second one their nursing responsibilities towards patients in the Order’s hospitals and the third instructed them in their religious duties.

Malta did not spare the young and “extraordinarily handsome” Grimaldi the conspiracies of lust. People could not help remarking how tall, slim and vigorous he appeared. The very ecclesiastical censor who authorised the publication of his biography found it difficult not to remark how Grimaldi was vestito pure d’un bellissimo corpo – also clothed in a very beautiful body.

In the 17th century, Malta had gained international fame as a hotbed of prostitution. Malta was the red light district of Europe. Most visitors agreed that more loose women solicited custom here than anywhere else

The book dedicates several pages to describe his appearance in the most minute detail: the angle of his eyebrows, the shape of his fingers, the number and placement of his beauty spots, the profile of his neck, the width of his nostrils, the proportion of his arms to his torso. Spooky.

In Malta, Grimaldi found himself targeted by the obsessive cravings of the principal whore who lorded over the island – “Satan was not asleep”. Several courtesans in Malta had set their eyes on him “armed by the devil and his furies to inflame the breasts of those depraved shrews, as vain as they are libertine – those women who are the precipice of our youth”.

These whores, bewitched by his striking features and physique, waylaid him. He had to turn into stone to resist their lascivious assaults even on the doorstep of his own home, armed as they were with the tools of vanity and seduction. Grimaldi’s vow of chastity was repeatedly subjected to a daunting stress test.

Portrait of the knight of Malta Fra Agostino Grimaldi.Portrait of the knight of Malta Fra Agostino Grimaldi.

Satan mostly resorted to the machinations of one evil woman, who in Malta was called by a special name, to try to stymie Grimaldi in his determined race on the road to virtue. She was “one of the leaders in that infamous profession who, ungrateful for the sublime beauty with which nature had graced her, used her beauty to offend the author of nature itself, who is God.

“After having in a thousand ways tried to seduce Agostino and to show him her scalding attraction, realising that the use of her beauty alone was insufficient to secure his fall, she finally determined to attempt to use the strength of other chains to tie him to her, seeing that the gold of her tresses had failed to do it. She then pushed her prodigality to oblige him to notice, with the lavishness of her gifts, the greatness of her love for him.”

She offered him 50 gold scudi a month if he became her boyfriend. But even the corruptive power of gold failed to seduce Grimaldi. This, if I understand rightly, records a rather bizarre inversion of roles – the prostitute paying money for sexual favours rather than pocketing it. It upsets all the neat symmetries of economic theory.

When both the delizie dei sensi and the gold trap failed, the desperate seducer unsheathed her third and final weapon, her cortesie infernali. Grimaldi was made of sterner stuff. And apologies for the clunky prose. It’s Padre Parisi’s, not mine.

The biographer here reflects: “My pen freezes in my hand observing the wily temerity of that infernal Amazon, and I remain dumb with admiration in seeing him invariably resist those fires, as if they were merely painted flames, without in any way burning that young man, where the incitements to lose your way are many, and how this solid laurel tree always remained unhurt by lightening.”

He won the prize for chastity, she for adhesiveness, the author for bad prose. There are many other pages of reflections by the author on the dangers of the “eternal femininity” of women. Too many. It must have troubled the friar more than it did the knight.

If Grimaldi really resisted the carnal advances of this ravishing courtesan, he must have been one of the very few novices of the Order who did. In the 17th century, Malta had gained international fame as a hotbed of prostitution. Malta was the red light district of Europe. Most visitors agreed that more loose women solicited custom here than anywhere else.

At about the same time as the teenage Grimaldi arrived in Malta, an Inquisitor, later Pope Alexander VII, recorded in a secret dispatch to Rome how difficult it was for the novel knights not to rush headlong into vice the moment they set foot in Malta: “On the very first night they arrive here, the novices sleep with prostitutes”.

Some time later an observer lamented how the novice knights spent their days in Malta: “They fritter their time away in the squares and cafes, playing billiards or gambling, chasing prostitutes with whom they squander their health and their money”.

Grimaldi’s biographer was certainly aware of the evil reputation of the island where the commerce of the flesh was concerned. Speaking of the snares to chastity foreseen in his new home, he adds that in Malta Grimaldi would have “to resist the onsets [to virtue] and lasciviousness that are the norm in that island”.

(To be concluded)

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