My initial research on Caterina Scappi had yielded quite substantial results, but had left the earlier part of her life shrouded in mystery (see ‘Caterina Scappi and her revolutionary hospital for women who were incurable’, The Sunday Times of Malta, August 23 and 30, 2015).
This extraordinary woman who dedicated the latter part of her life and the best part of her wealth to alleviate the sufferings of ailing, abandoned or destitute prostitutes, seems to have emerged from nowhere. She founded and endowed with her belongings the very first infirmary for women in Malta – ‘the hospital for incurable women’ – in other words, prostitutes with untreatable venereal disease, when these unfortunate rejects of society had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. The very first feminist in the history of a male-dominant Malta.
For her absolutely pioneer social commitment, for this revolutionary philanthropy, Scappi deserves the monument she never got. Only an obscure and overlooked tombstone in the Carmelite church in Valletta today bears witness to her existence, her feminist vision and her generous, farsighted altruism. She died on June 20, 1643, but her marble intarsia memorial was set up much later, in 1791. And since then, oblivion.
The archival references to her life were mostly sketchy. We know that she had a strong connection with Siena, to the point that instead of using her surname Scappi, she was generally identified only as Caterina la Senese, or la Senesa, even in formal documents. She certainly connected somehow with Siena – the knights she consorted with and trusted were all from Siena, and she borrowed her coat of arms from the most renowned hospital in Siena. In innumerable notarial contracts, in the three wills she drew up in Malta, she never once mentions her parents, as if she was deliberately trying to delete them from memory.
Other objective facts transpire from the documents: in her later years she appears undoubtedly wealthy though in the most unostentatious of ways; she remained active in business, and part of her affluence may have been due to her commercial dealings. But above everything, she cultivated a consuming compassion for the sufferings of fallen women, to whom she seems to have dedicated most of her energies and resources in the latter part of her life.
The first archival reference to Scappi known so far dated to 1597, when she was already in Malta and of sufficient age to enter into legally binding commitments. But before that, time had dropped its heavy pall of amnesia. We knew nothing about her parents, her upbringing, her education, her private life, her friendships and her loves. Not even an unfocussed blur. From various vague indications, I had speculated she had herself emerged from the prostitution circles. But that was it – mere speculation.
In fact, that early 1597 document, first noticed by Christine Muscat, had already set alarm bells ringing. It was all about a sum of money Caterina had destined to gift the convent of the Repentite – a religious institute for prostitutes who wanted to change their lives. In it, Caterina clearly stated that should she, in the future, want to enter that convent, the sum she was donating was to be computed as her dowry. Rather disturbing.
But then Victor Bonnici serendipitously came across an earlier document, which he shared with me. Mr Bonnici is a Latinist who frequents archives and believes that his learning should be at the disposal of the widest community. What he found was a 1583-4 criminal court record in which a younger Caterina Scappi features in a milieu of burglars, whores and perjurers. A fascinating and revealing story.
The years 1583-4 had been relatively calm and unadventurous for Malta and for the Order of St John. Grand Master Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle had just been elected, after the turbulent end of the former Grand Master Jean l’Evesque Cassière, dethroned by a palace conspiracy.
The only salient event that riveted the attention of the Order and of the population was the capture of two proud galleys of the Order near Candia, Crete, in late summer 1583, by what were thought to be Ottoman ships, but which later turned out to be Venetian. This created a serious diplomatic rumpus which spilled over to 1584. The Grand Master ordered the arrest of the general of the Order’s fleet, Fra Girolamo Avogadro, and had him criminally tried and condemned to forfeit his honours, and to spend one year in jail, for having mishandled his command and disobeyed orders. The public riveted its attention on this diplomatic fracas and on this high-profile trial, rather than on petty robberies committed by the lowest of felons.
On the night of November 29, 1583, some delinquents had forced their way into a shop in the square of Valletta. As was customary with official court documents of the times, the scribe recorded the proceedings in Latin, but the direct speech of the witnesses in Italian – a confusing melange. The shop is described as the apotheca confettarii, the confectionary shop run by Gioseppe Lancza.
I believe this to be the very first reference to a confectioner in Malta. The burglars entered by smashing a window, and stole one gold doubloon valued at 32 tari, one gold zecchino and one gold scudo of 14 tari, and many silver and copper coins, besides a large pan di zucchero weighing 10 rotoli, one large casciola or caxola (kaxxa, box?) full of confectionery, weighing five or six rotoli, and a large sweet marzipan full of confetti (sugar almonds) valued at 12 tari.
In another deposition it was stated that the five or six rotoli of sweets were taken from hanging vases called bornei. A pan di zucchero, literally a loaf of sugar, was the standard conical beehive-shape of compressed cane sugar after manufacture (in Italy?).
Suspicion fell on some layabouts – Pietro Zoppard, son of Baptista, Nicola Bonnich, Martino Pulis, Bartholomeo Frendo and other complices. The police apprehended them, and the well-known lawyer Giovanni Calli, IUD, prosecutor general (promotorem fiscalem) led the criminal compilation of evidence.
Calli, IUD (Doctor of both laws, canon and civil), progressed through a chequered but soaring career as jurist within the government of the Order. He dealt with thorny prosecutions and investigations, crowning his curriculum in 1597 as judge.
In his role as prosecutor and criminal investigator he was hampered by his poor knowledge of Maltese, and was once the victim of an attempted murder by a violent and angry knight he was investigating, Fra Alberto Arrigo. Contemporaries held his juridical knowledge in high esteem and his collected legal opinions in three manuscript volumes continued being consulted by lawyers and the judiciary 150 years after his death.
Pietro Azzopardi, desperately needed an alibi – he was facing the gallows if convicted. And that is where he thought the prostitute Francesca, a slave of Scappi, would come in handy
The principal suspect, Pietro Azzopardi, desperately needed an alibi – he was facing the gallows if convicted, no less. And that is where he thought the prostitute Francesca, a slave of Scappi, would come in handy. Wouldn’t she testify that he had spent that night in her bed in Scappi’s home?
During his interrogation, Calli asked Azzopardi to account for his movements on that particular night. The suspect answered that he and his friends had all left the tavern together, and that Nicola, Martino and Bartolomeo had accompanied him to the home of a puttana – a whore. Asked what time this happened and for the name of the prostitute, Pietro answered that it was just after the bell known as la ruffiana had tolled, and that he had gone to the whore who had been the slave of the late Joannello Grioli, and who today was with Catherina Scappi la Senesa. The court record has some details about the tavern where the suspects had dined. It belonged to Paolo Calafato, who had served them a plate of fish for supper. The tavern had a secluded place for customers (un retiretto), and they had dinner there.
Calli then asked Pietro how long he had stayed with the prostitute together with his friends and when he had left. The suspect replied: I stayed there all night until the rolling of the drum (fino al tamburo, daybreak or, sometimes, an hour before sunrise) from the tolling of la ruffiana, as I have recounted before.
This court document, like other coeval ones, turns into a treasure house of linguistic curiosities. Take l’hora della ruffiana, literally the hour of the procuress, female pimp. These are three perfectly Italian words, but not in Italian usage. I have only found this phrase in Malta, the first time in 1558, sometimes as suonata la ruffiana, but never in Italy.
In Malta, this vulgar-sounding phrase often turns up even in official enactments and regulations, and from the context it almost certainly means the bell that struck at sunset. The Order’s early legislation ordered all prostitutes to be back home when darkness fell, and so the signal stood symbolically for the procuress who at that hour rounded and locked up her troupe of whores. In other countries it would be l’Angelus or curfew.
Asked by the prosecutor whether on that night Pietro had walked through the street that leads to the Infermeria and from there to the square of Valletta, the suspect answered: when I thought of going to the home of the said Francesca, my companions Nicola, Martino and Bartolomeo came with me to that house and we walked together through the street of the Infermeria and through the square and after we took the road to the Palace and passed under the windows of the Maestro delle Case, and after that we stayed all night up to the morning when the drum beat the signal, without my having distanced myself from my companions, until they left on their own business.
But if the scoundrel was counting on the support of Francesca la puttana, she soon disabused him. In her long and damning testimony, she nailed Pietro to his responsibilities and to his lies. Giving evidence on December 5, 1583, Francisca, the serva alba (white slave) of the magnifice Caterina Senense, said that on the night of the robbery, a few hours after the ringing of la ruffiana, being inside the house of her owner in Valletta, she heard someone whistling in the street, and looking out of the window she saw that it was Pietro, son of Baptista Azzopardi, with two or three others she did not recognise. Pietro told her he wanted to spend the night with her in the home of her Signora. “I said I did not want, as he was a fraschetta (an incontinent scoundrel) because he had once had sex with me (avendome una volta toccata carnalmente), with the added promise of a sausage in payment, then went around boasting he had got away without settling his dues. So he left with his companions and I locked the window and went to sleep.”
But Francesca had more to tell. On Friday or Saturday, she was not sure, having gone to the lockup of the criminal court to visit Bru.ta la Chiazzesa (Brunetta from Chiazze? illegible) detained there, “Alessandro Vella, who was also imprisoned in the Castellania, told me that a friend of mine was held in that lockup and that I could save him from the gallows if only I said that last Saturday he had slept with me. I answered I could not say this as it was untrue and that I did not want to remove the noose from his neck to place it round mine. Having given him this answer resolutely, three or four Maltese men who were also present and who I do not know told me that it was a small favour to ask, to save a man from the gallows (levarlo dalla furca). Having refused again, I left and went around on my business.”
Recalled to give further evidence on December 17 (Saint Ivo, the feast of lawyers), Francesca clarified some points. Firstly she “ratified and does ratify, commended and does commend, approves and does approve, and moreover confirmed and does confirm, word for word, from the first line to the last one, what was in her previous testimony”. Then she added that “on the night when Pietro Azoppardi together with the others had come to the house of my owner, Nicola lo bucchieri (a nickname? le boucher? il-biċċier?) (later) threw a stone at my window and said “tell Pietro to come out – he is in there with you”. I answered not to mention Pietro as he has got nothing to do with me and that anyway he was not inside.
When I gave them this answer, Pietro, son of Baptista, who was with them dressed in disguise, told me: why don’t you want to open for me? Why don’t you want me? I told him to go away with God on his own business and that I did not want to lose the friendship of good soldiers for the sake of a fraschetta. Shortly later a bombardier of the company that had recently arrived from Rome came to me when Pietro and the others had left, and said he had come across them and told me that I did not know how to get rid of people as those young men did when speaking to whores (chirazze).
Francesca added that Scappi usually held the house keys and at night locked the front door herself and slept with the keys under her pillow. The night Pietro came, the door keys were held by her.
Again, the evidence of Francesca offers some linguistic peculiarities which show that Italian current on the mainland sometimes ended modified in Malta. Take the word chirazza. Though of Italian origin, it was exclusively in Malta that it came to mean professional prostitute. While puttana, meretrice, and others had currency throughout Italy, chirazza seems to have been the easy term in Malta to describe women who traded sex. And only in Malta.
So also the word fraschetta in Italian means a woman of easy sexual morals, a flirt, a promiscuous girl. In Malta, however, fraschetta meant a man with the same qualities. Maltese still uses that Italian word fraxketta, but like 16th century Malta, has changed its gender.
Finally, it was the turn of Scappi la Senese to give evidence. This she did on January 3, 1584. The record referred to her as Nobilis Caterina Sanesa, a title which raises various questions and which I have never found in any other document. It only deepens the mystery of her origins, as the Scappi were not registered with the nobility of Siena.
She confirmed that she always kept the house keys herself, and only she locked and unlocked the front door. She kept the keys under her pillow when she slept. When in the company of some man at home, “qualche amico”, she left the key with Francesca. “On Saturday nights I usually do not want any male friends at home”, so the front door key would certainly not have been with Francesca, but with her, under her capizzo (pillow).
The case for the prosecution got more complicated when other witnesses gave evidence. Doubts were cast on the guilt of the suspects when Magnifico Bartolomeo Bonaventura de Bonetiis on March 14, 1584, swore that a black slave belonging to Doctor Tramontana had recently sold to his mother and sister Marietta for 28 or 30 tari the large pan di zucchero that had been stolen from Lanza’s shop. The ladies had used part of it for the carnival festivities in diverse candies, and shared it with the sick who were in the house.
The black slave was the husband of a female slave belonging to de Bonetiis’s sister and often visited their house. He had since escaped and disappeared. De Bonetiis assured Calli that no one had influenced his evidence and that he was solely moved by compassion for the four suspects unjustly imprisoned. He did not know any of them or their relatives. Petruzzo Rizzo confirmed that de Bonetiis had shown him and Giuseppe Cannava, a brother in law of Lanza, a piece of the sugar loaf. The records do not disclose how Pietro’s desperate search for a fake alibi ended. Nor how the revelation that the black slave was in possession of the stolen sweets affected the final judgment. From what little survives, it is probably safe to assume that Pierto Zoppard was eventually found guilty and condemned, though the Grand Master would have found it economically expedient to commute his sentence to a lifetime’s rowing in the galleys. Unpaid labour was undoubtedly more lucrative than State vendetta.
This article is based almost exclusively on an archival document discovered by Victor Bonnici who shared it with me. I cannot thank him enough.
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