While Malta argues about the ceremonial sword presented to Jean Parisot de Valette and now held at the Louvre, hardly anyone knows that the sword said to have been used by the Grandmaster in battle has been on display for years...in Vittoriosa.
A centuries-old tale has it that at the end of the Great Siege, de Valette laid down his sword and hat at the altar of the chapel of Our Lady of Damascus, in Vittoriosa, as a votive offering. The chapel is now part of St Joseph’s Oratory, which houses a number of exhibits curated by the Vittoriosa Historical and Cultural Society – and the sword is the museum’s prize exhibit.
Historians agree that the tale is very probably grounded in fact.
When examined, the sword was found to date to the correct period. Moreover, scholar and historian Giovanni Bonello explained that the tradition is referenced in literature dating to 200 years ago.
Similarly, Order of St John academic Emanuel Buttigieg agreed that the tradition is usually accepted as real.
The story of the sword is tied to that of the Vittoriosa chapel, which took its name from an icon of Our Lady of Damascus, brought to Malta by natives from Rhodes, who accompanied the Knights when they first came to the islands in 1530.
It was in front of the icon of the Madonna that de Valette was praying during the crisis of the siege. He later returned victorious and laid down his sword in acknowledgment of the Order’s gratitude.
The sword lately came to the attention of the Malta Historical Fencing Association (MHFA), a group dedicated to the study and practice of traditional European martial arts with swords and other edged weapons.
One of the association’s main objectives is to teach and practice the use of weapons left by the Knights of St John, exhibited in the Palace Armoury and other museums.
After nearly a year of research and trials, fully functional practice swords, based on de Valette’s sword, have finally been created for the association’s members to practice with.
The style of the sword, according to MHFA president and instructor Andrei Xuereb, is closely related to military swords produced in Saxony in the mid and late 16th century.
However, its appearance is very restrained, exhibiting no decorations on the guard and a very plain grip and pommel.
The blade itself appears to be sparsely engraved. Surviving decorations include what appears to be a rosary, engraved around the fuller (the groove in the middle of the blade), and a crescent moon at the point of balance.
“This was not meant to be a gentleman’s accessory but a practical weapon for use in battle.
“Contemporary accounts paint de Valette as a hard, practical man, a seasoned veteran not given to vanity. One can easily imagine that he would have heartily approved of this kind of weapon,” Mr Xuereb said.
The sword is surprisingly light, weighing 1,110 grams.
After being given the privilege of handling and examining the sword in detail, the MHFA passed on the drafted designs to a specialised UK firm, which created two replicas suitable for practice.
The blade is marginally heavier and slightly thicker, which makes it blunter than the original.
The MHFA will be giving a lecture organised by the Malta Historical Society tomorrow at 6.30pm at the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa.
The lecture by Mr Xuereb, will explore the use of swords and other edged weapons from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
For the first time, a demonstration will also be given on how de Valette would have used his sword.
For further information visit www.maltahistory.eu.
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