Two works of art conceived by artist Gianni Vella (1885-1977) shape our collective memory of the June 1919 riots. For those of us whose knowledge of Malta’s post-Great War uprising against foreign domination is only second-hand, Vella’s images, hovering somewhere between myth and reality, root our imagination into something tangible.
One image, like some raw news footage, seemingly gives us a straight rendition of the trouble that took place at the Circolo La Giovine Malta on that fateful June 7. The other, a funerary monument, is that day’s apotheosis, its exalted epitaph. Between them, these two images, one narrative and one devotional, convey two facets of the heroic, if gruesome, events of 92 years ago.
On June 7, 1919, Vella was at the Circolo La Giovine Malta in St Lucy Street, Valletta, where the Assemblea Nazionale was discussing a course of action in its dealings with the British colonial government.
Gianni’s magistrate brother, Serafino, was one of the protagonists. Relations between the Maltese and the British had long gone from bad to worse but, on that fateful day, things came to a head.
Many young people congregated in Kingsway intent on setting off some disturbance. The crowd, initially quite docile, started to get agitated and restless due to the weighty presence of police and military men.
In the melee, three men got killed; a fourth, seriously injured, died some days later. Vella made a watercolour illustration as a first-hand witness at the Giovine Malta. It is an almost monochromatic, relatively large, image that captures the frantic atmosphere of the moment.
The members of the assemblea, some of whom easily recognisable, such as Filippo Sceberras (1850 -1928) and Mgr Joseph De Piro (1877-1933) are nervously trying to get to grips with a situation that had got well out of hand.
The image has all the qualities of a lived veracity, but I cannot help wondering whether Vella was being solely objective. For, like a master storyteller, he surely stoked up the drama.
He freeze-framed a number of cord-bottomed chairs (tas-sogħda) as they were about to topple over. He also included a still-life in the left foreground made up of an umbrella and a bowler hat – two objects whose intrinsic Englishness makes them stand out in a gathering of people whose political leanings were largely pro-Italian.
Vella included a seriously injured person, carried, with some difficulty, inside, and another, standing on a chair, who flags a bloodstained white handkerchief. I certainly do not question the factuality of these events; Vella must have seen it all.
But there still remains the niggling feeling that the image, made from memory by Vella soon after the event, is somewhat staged. It is Vella the artist rather than Vella the improvised journalist who is at work here.
If the Maltese had undergone a bloodied intimation of nationhood in 1919, Russia’s coming of age, starting with the 1917 October Revolution, was bloodier and longer drawn out. And as is understandable during any civil war, throngs of civilians started to escape the country, some of whom found a haven in Malta.
The sculptor Boris Edwards (1861-1924) and a young three-year-old girl named Anastasia or Assia (or Asya), daughter of his sister Lidia, arrived in Malta, along with some other 800 Russian refugees, in 1919.
For the first couple of months they set themselves up in Vella’s house. The friendship between the Maltese painter and the Russian sculptor went back to the period of the Roman Accademia, where Edwards was on a state-funded scholarship, and Vella did his utmost to help his former companion.
Mary, Gianni’s wife, doted upon Assia, mothering her as if she were her own. In return, Boris modelled a full-length portrait of her, comfortably sitting cross-legged on her armchair – a work he called Reverie (present at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta).
Edwards was to live the last five years of his life in a rented house in Fleur-de-Lys Road, Birkirkara, just next to his friend Gianni Vella. Aldo (b.1917), Vella’s son, clearly remembers Assia (with whom he used to play) and Edwards in the house of his parents, but he has no recollection whatsoever of a wife.
And yet, Edwards did have a wife, actually his second, (his first wife was perhaps killed in the Bolshevik insurrections) even though her legal bearing, upon the sculptor’s demise, was somewhat put into question. He must have contracted this marriage some time during late 1922, somewhere on the continent. Her name was Rosa Reisz.
Edwards and Vella collaborated together on one important project: a monument honouring the four men killed during the Sette Giugno riots. It was inaugurated at the Addolorata cemetery on June 8, 1925.
As much as he would have liked to, Edwards did not attend the unveiling ceremony. It would have made an apt palliative for his suffering, but it was not to be.
The sculptor was just about finishing this monumental work when he suffered a fatal stroke. He breathed his last on February 12, 1924.
The idea for this funerary monument came about as early as October 16, 1919, proposed by Enrico Mizzi, secretary of the Comitato pro-Maltesi Morti e Feriti il 7 e 8 Giugno, an ad-hoc committee, set up in all earnest on June 8, intended to perpetuate the memory of the victims and to help their destitute families.
Mizzi specifically chose Edwards and, as recorded in the minutes of the Comitato, he described the Russian refugee as a very talented sculptor and a patron of the Giovine Malta.
Just a week later, Mizzi presented Edwards’ bozzetto to the rest of the committee together with a letter of approval written by the art connoisseur Vincenzo Bonello who also commented that the £200 promised were too little for a work of such high calibre. Mizzi’s enthusiasm was, however, gradually stalled in its tracks as other ideas and proposals started to take shape.
Some months later, the Comitato received a letter recommending a certain Gio. Maria Bajada as a possible candidate for the execution of the monument. Soon after, a competition was organised and this time round four artists submitted their ideas, namely Edwards, Ruggiero Calì, Beniamino Sultana and Vella.
Vella’s design won the competition but it was decided that the actual sculptural work was to be carried out by Edwards. The sculptor was promised £170 for the work, inclusive of casting and installation. Vella and Edwards requested the re-internment of the four victims of the riots in a new, better sited, grave.
And thus, for the third time, the resting place of Lorenzo Dyer, Giuseppe Bajada, Carmelo Abela and Emanuele Attard changed.
Stylistically, the finished bronze monument, very much in the guise of a high relief set against a simple background of coralline limestone, has an undulating and graceful rhythm with affinities with the Liberty style. It is dominated by a female figure who inconsolably mourns the death of one of her children; very much a secular, politicised Pietà.
The down-turned palm frond, evocative of victory over death, and the national flag draped over the dead body are emblematic of heroic martyrdom.
It is a rhetorical image full of hope and defiance; a rousing, political statement in the face of death. The inscription ‘Ai Caduti del 7 Giugno 1919 la Patria Riconoscente’ on the monument’s stone background was coined by Mizzi.