Two Maltese brothers living in Australia have come together to restore one of the oldest paintings housed in the Chamber of Advocates in Valletta – after discovering that it depicted their own distant ancestor.

The portrait of Vincenzo Bonavita, who lived between 1752 and 1829 and served as a judge under the Order of St John, the French and the British, was painted in his lifetime and is now undergoing restoration thanks to the donation by two of his descendants.

Roger Vella Bonavita said he and his brother Martin, who both moved to Perth in Western Australia in the early 1980s, only learnt of the existence of this painting earlier this year.

“Judge Bonavita is our great-great-great-great-grandfather from our paternal grandmother’s side, and the most illustrious member of our family,” he said.

“We would not like our family name to be forgotten, so when we learned that the Chamber of Advocates wished to restore his portrait, as it was not in a good condition, we offered to meet the cost. Our offer was immediately accepted and the portrait was quickly consigned to the restorers.”

The painting is now undergoing the necessary treatment by professional restorers and conservators PrevArti and work is envisaged to be completed by January of next year.

Restorer Pierre Bugeja from PrevArti said the painting was in a bad state of conservation due to the fact that it had never been varnished and had been exposed to water infiltration in the past.

“The canvas has a number of deformations throughout due to the broken strainer frame and the past exposure to water, while the paint layer is very unstable and various losses are already visible throughout,” he said.

“The decorative frame is in a bad state of conservation too, both from a structural and an aesthetical point of view. However, conservation and restoration are now proceeding very well.

“All necessary repairs to the original canvas have been made and the picture has been re-stretched on its stretcher frame. The paint layer has also been cleaned and the paint losses infilled with gesso and ready for the next phase which involves the retouching process followed by the restoration of its decorative frame.”

Vincenzo Bonavita’s last direct descendant was Captain John Bonavita RMA (1880-1975) who died childless, and can stake his own small claim to a place in Maltese history.

On June 7, 1919, he was dispatched from Castille (then the army HQ in Valletta) with a party of Maltese troops to Kingsway (now Republic Street), where rioters were sacking the Palazzo Francia opposite the Royal Opera House.

He refused to order his troops to fire on the people and returned to Castille when the rioters dispersed. His British superior officers accused of him of failing to carry out orders but then Lieutenant Bonavita (who was promoted to Captain on retirement a few years later) justified his inaction on the grounds that his orders were to ensure the safety of lives and no one was being hurt at that time.

Roger Vella Bonavita recalls: “I remember asking him why he had not opened fire, to which he replied that he could not in conscience order Maltese troops to shoot Maltese civilians.”


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