The conflict arising from the ‘abduction’ of the murderer Nicolò Ciardi has to be viewed against the general resentment by Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris, Bishop Miguel Balaguer Camarasa and the papal Inquisitor in Malta, Fabio Chigi, of any encroachment by others of their jurisdictions. But one has also to factor in the catastrophic personal animosity that existed between Balaguer and Lascaris.

Balaguer’s letters to Rome constantly harp on the persecution of the Bishop by the Grand Master, or perhaps his paranoid perception of it. He wrote to Cardinal Francesco Barberini: “If one single day passes without my lord the Grand Master having done something against me, he will feel without a reason for living... The Grand Master is solely concerned with exterminating me”.

The whole matter avalanched. First Balaguer formally declared that Ciardi was under ecclesiastical jurisdiction and entitled to the right of asylum. After his abduction by the Order of St John’s officers, Balaguer issued a ban against his torture (useful to obtain a useless confession). Lascaris protested and insisted on a revocation of the ban. Balaguer replied by increasing the dose: anyone who disobeyed his orders would instantly incur the heaviest religious penalties. The Grand Master appealed to Chigi, who was later elected Pope Alexander VII.

Not to be outdone, Balaguer, on his side, sent his complaint directly to the Roman Congregation of Ecclesiastical Immunity, charging the Order with breaches of religious authority and contempt for the privileges of the Church. The Roman congregation supported the Bishop and ordered Chigi to side with Balaguer against the inroads of the Grand Master and to resist all attempts to diminish the Bishop’s jurisdiction. Chigi tried to act as pacifier, and on July 30 he proposed to reconcile the positions of the Order and the Church by establishing that no innovations on conflicting jurisdictions were to be introduced by either side.

Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris, in whose reign the murder occurred.Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris, in whose reign the murder occurred.

Chigi’s efforts at mediation were undermined in the Grand Master’s eyes by the perception that he was no friend of the Order, and altogether too chummy with the secretary of the Roman congregation that was loudly siding with the Bishop. The troublemakers among the knights did everything to keep Chigi and the Grand Master apart. The best way to guarantee this was to reduce the honours conferred on the Inquisitor when he dined with the Grand Master. This ploy worked. Faced with this obvious outrage against protocol, Chigi felt compelled to boycott the Grand Master’s company for many months.

The Inquisitor did write to both the Grand Master and the Bishop on August 19, appealing to them to reach a peaceful compromise in the Ciardi murder, and not to add new troubles to the many already existing. But the prospects of an agreement were fading fast. Feeling overwhelmed, the Grand Master roped in Cardinal Giovanni Doria, Archbishop of Palermo and the Metropolitan of Malta, and therefore, in hierarchy, the superior of Balaguer.

With some adroit lateral thinking, Doria recalled the Ciardi trial to his own court in Palermo and ordered Balaguer to send the complete criminal file instantly to his court in Sicily. In Doria’s view, his solution of trying the murderer in Sicily rather than Malta would prevent the Bishop and the Grand Master claiming victory over the other.

Balaguer, strong in his support from Rome and in a defiant mood, decided to flout his superior in Palermo and to retain Ciardi for his own consumption. Chigi feared that this would provoke a violent riot by the knights against the Bishop and persuaded him to leave Valletta instantly and hide in the countryside. In fact, in a previous letter to Rome, Chigi had already mentioned his concern with the physical threats to the bishop by the more hot-headed members of the Order.

Cardinal Doria, supporting Lascaris, increased the pressure and wrote to Balaguer warning him he could expect the forfeiture of all his revenues from Sicily and Gozo. Faced with the prospect of physical violence and the sequestration of his property and income, Balaguer, no doubt most ungraciously, yielded. The Church’s criminal file against Ciardi was sent to Palermo and the alleged murderer transferred to the Inquisitor’s prison in Vittoriosa. By now, Ciardi had been hosted in preventive custody in all the three prisons of Malta: the civil, the Bishop’s and the Inquisitor’s.

But the Grand Master’s direct appeal to Cardinal Doria in Palermo had rubbed Rome the wrong way, and badly too. Malta was not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Palermo. The Palermo tribunal asserted it exercised final powers, and did not even recognise an appeal to the Pope. This was subjecting the Order of Malta to the Sicilian monarchy, rather than to Rome.

Cardinal Francesco Barberini, powerful vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church to his uncle Pope Urban VIII, blew a fuse. The false news that the Order had appealed to the Sicilian monarch (it had actually appealed to the Archbishop of Palermo) to bypass Rome, prompted Barberini to renounce his patronage of the Order and to state formally that the Knights of Malta no longer enjoyed his protection.

One of Lascaris’s concerns, when Ciardi was in the Bishop’s prison, was that the detained person would be ‘escaped’, an old ruse to break jurisdictional stalemates. For this reason the Grand Master proposed any of three practical alternatives: to hold the alleged murderer in the Castellania prisons, or in those of the Inquisitor, or to add his own guards while Ciardi remained in the Bishop’s cells.

One compromise reached was that Ciardi, while the great debate was ongoing, would stay in the Inquisition prison in Vittoriosa, guarded jointly by the warders of the Church and those of the Grand Master. Eventually Chigi received instructions from Rome to hand the alleged murderer to the Grand Master, to be punished citra penam sanguinis et mutilationem membrorum – which I take to mean, short of the death penalty and the mutilation of his limbs. One of the faults of Lascaris, according to Chigi, was that he relied for advice on some Maltese who he has previously despised.

It took a large number of violent scandals and the persistence and defiance of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca for him and Bishop Bartolomeo Rull to agree in 1761 to limit the right of asylum of delinquents inside places of worship as from May 31

The last dispatch regarding Ciardi’s trial is dated February 24, 1639 – 27 months after the brutal homicide, all spent in bickering, threatening and elbowing for position. Chigi informed Cardinal Barberini that, in view of the atrocity of the crime, he had agreed to transfer Ciardi to be tried by the Grand Master’s court, but on condition that he be spared the death penalty or permanent mutilation. If, in the meantime, evidence of more grievous misconduct should emerge against Ciardi (more grievous than the premeditated assassination in cold blood of your benefactor in his sleep?) then Lascaris had to take fresh instructions from the Pope in Rome.

To find a way out of the impasse, on September 5, Rome ordered Chigi in Malta to hand over Ciardi – not to the ordinary courts of the Castellania, but to the Order’s own internal criminal courts, if he was satisfied that the murderer did not enjoy the right of ecclesiastical asylum; the Inquisitor could also resort to the exception that ‘atrocious crimes’ did not automatically enjoy ecclesiastical immunity. Face-saving and lame, but a closure, however fraught.

Map of Vittoriosa in 1629.Map of Vittoriosa in 1629.

Chigi made it clear that this was to be an ex gratia concession by the Church to the State. Lascaris believed this to be acceptable, but it angered the mali consultori of the Grand Master who wanted Ciardi by right, not ex gratia.

The presumed accomplice of Ciardi, his friend Gian Biagio Trimarchi, had also been living in Malta when suspicion fell on him of his involvement in the Scarlatta murder. It was discovered that previously he had been twice condemned to row in the galleys and had been banished from Sicily as a felon. The Order’s commissioners against vagabonds had ordered him to depart from Malta, but he was held here by an impediment for civil debt.

At some time Trimarchi had repaired to Gozo where he distinguished himself as a troublemaker and for his dissolute life. The Grand Master made clear his intention of clearing him from Gozo, but Balaguer intervened again, claiming Trimarchi fell under his jurisdiction as he was a cleric, with a patent to prove it. Lascaris denied the validity of the certificate as there were indications it was a forgery. The Grand Master added that Trimarchi had never been seen in clerical habit; on the contrary, he swaggered around wearing a sword and a dagger to his side and was at the centre of every popular disorder “mischiarsi in mille enormità”. Surely the bishop should not claim these scoundrels enjoyed ecclesiastical protection?

Pope Urbanus VIII, who was dragged in the many controversies following the 1636 murder in Vittoriosa.Pope Urbanus VIII, who was dragged in the many controversies following the 1636 murder in Vittoriosa.

Trimarchi petitioned the Grand Master to release him as he intended to depart from Malta “and we thanked the Lord for this”. On the point of leaving Malta, the police received grave indications that he had been an accomplice in the treacherous murder of Scarlatta. He was instantly rearrested and the Grand Master ordered him detained in St Elmo, from where he escaped and, to no one’s surprise, took refuge in a Church. Lascaris asked the Inquisitor to intervene to help him get Trimarchi to face the ordinary criminal courts, but Chigi washed his hands, stating that his instructions only extended to Ciardi. I found nothing else about the third suspect in the Scarlatta murder, the Maltese Salvator Dumez.

This echoes the searing criticism of the clerical hangers-on of the bishop made by Inquisitor Gori Pannellini in 1646: “In the diocese of Malta, the clerics are never at the service of the Church, and dress according to current fashions, some in the French style, others in the Lombard, wearing colours, carrying weapons of any kind, sporting feminine hairstyles with garlands on their hair; they employ themselves as soldiers on the galleys and vessels of the State, some work as carpenters, masons, tavern keepers, undertakers, and grocers; they become clerics only to avoid guard duties and the horse levy, not to pay customs and in case they commit a criminal offence”.

It took a large number of violent scandals and the persistence and defiance of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca for him and Bishop Bartolomeo Rull to agree in 1761 to limit the right of asylum of delinquents inside places of worship as from May 31.

Gianpatist Borg, a Gozitan murderer, had lived safe in a church, openly mocking retribution and justice, for 30 years. A largish number of churches and chapels lost their immunity from the civil authorities, and henceforth criminals had no reason to take refuge in them. Many of the edifices affected by this reform today still show the tell-tale inscription near their front door Non gode l’immunità ecclesiastica (Does not enjoy ecclesiastical immunity). Only churches where the Eucharist was held retained the right of asylum.

First page of the manuscript at the Notarial Archives recently discovered by Paul Camilleri and Dr Joan Abela, relating to the Vittoriosa murder.First page of the manuscript at the Notarial Archives recently discovered by Paul Camilleri and Dr Joan Abela, relating to the Vittoriosa murder.

The British, under Governor Fredrick Ponsonby, in 1828 abolished the right altogether. Their proclamation of April 10 in substance decreed that no local privilege or immunity would henceforth be available to prevent the due execution of the law in criminal matters. If any person suspected of having committed any crime or offence sought refuge in any place considered, up to the date of the proclamation, as affording sanctuary, it was lawful for any officer of the executive police to demand the handing over of such person at the outer door of the place of refuge, and, in case of non-compliance, to enter the place and to remove him “with the least possible scandal or disturbance”.

This was, no doubt grudgingly, agreed to by Bishop Ferdinando Mattei. Had it been Bishop Balaguer, he would have fired off a salvo of wilting excommunications, and stiffened permanently in a fit of apoplexy. Though there were feeble protests and rumblings of Protestant interference with the ancient prerogatives of the Church, in a short time most came round to the idea that this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

In parallel with the Ciardi and Trimarchi imbroglios, Inquisitor Chigi had also to deal with a third case which involved conflicts of jurisdiction between the Grand Master and the Bishop. Agostino Borg, a seemingly respectable Maltese businessman, had persuaded his compatriots to entrust him with the purchase of grain from Sicily, at a time when Malta teetered on the verge of famine. Borg proceeded to Licata to buy the desperately-needed provisions. This he did, acting in an official capacity, but it later transpired that he had cooked the books and had fraudulently pocketed 20,000 scudi, stolen from the public purse – a huge amount – Mattia Preti charged 50 scudi for an altarpiece.

Quite predictably, the Grand Master did not seem at all amused and ordered the arrest of Borg to stand trial for corruption and misappropriation “for having committed robbery and caused public harm to the tune of about 20,000 scudi, besides having risked destroying the population through famine”. No, retorted Bishop Balaguer – Borg had registered as a celibate cleric who fell under his jurisdiction, and only the tribunal of the Church could detain him or try him.

Lascaris, no doubt making an epic effort not to resort to profanities, countered that after Borg had got married he had never worn the clerical habit again, nor shaved the tonsure on his head. In fact, he had stopped frequenting church altogether. No matter. Balaguer insisted on his right not to hand over Borg to the ordinary courts, threatening excommunication to all those who attempted to interfere. It is not known how the conflict ended, but I tend not to believe the rumour that Borg later stood for election as a government minister.


My thanks to Paul Camilleri of the Notarial Archives, Valletta, who there identified the Ciardi documents, to Dr Joan Abela for facilitating my research, and to Maroma Camilleri of the National Library. The works of Mgr Vincent Borg have also been invaluable.

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