Karmenu Bonavia and his Writings, Volume 2 

Edited by Silvester Bonavia

Published by Sanctuary Museum, Ħaż-Żabbar, 2021

Karmenu Bonavia always struck me as one of the most unassuming people to come across in a long lifetime. And he had plenty to be pretentious about. Humble almost to the point of pride, genuinely self-effacing, dedicated entirely to the pursuits of the spirit and to enriching the history of his hometown, Karmenu left behind him an impressive corpus of work, mostly in Maltese, but with generous outpourings in English too. I don’t believe he wrote with literary fame in mind. He authored copiously and correctly – his prose hardly ever sounds laboured. He was, by profession, a history teacher – ending his career as headmaster. A man of the strongest convictions, I still never remember him as domineering or confrontational.

The Alessio Erardi main altarpiece.The Alessio Erardi main altarpiece.

The more important of his English papers have now been collected, edited and published in book form by his brother, the Capuchin friar Patri Silvestru, the second in a series of books which salvage from oblivion some of Karmenu’s writings printed in ephemeral magazines and newspapers. Two years ago, I qualified for the delight of re­viewing the first book in this series, which comprised his his­torical writings in Maltese. I have now been given the opportunity of doubling that satisfaction.

Bonavia was born in 1929, when Lord Strickland was prime minister of Malta. He died four years ago. Though an unrelenting author, his only other book in English I am aware of was the textbook Gateway to our Nation’s History, which enjoyed some reprints. Now Fr Silvester’s anthology makes up for that failing and proves that, with enough passion, a scholar can be encyclopaedic even about subjects inherently narrow. This book explores two main themes: Żabbar and its history, St George Preca and his Society of Christian Doctrine, the MUSEUM, all emotive motors close to the author’s heart.

One of the bells at the Żabbar sanctuary.One of the bells at the Żabbar sanctuary.

These writings dovetail neatly into his Maltese ones published in the first book. Many of them first saw the light in the Times of Malta or in its Sunday version. Lawrence Grech, editor of many years responsible for imprinting a cultural dimension on the Sunday paper, wrote a moving introduction to these concise works by a good and learned man.

For many years, Bonavia fulfilled the duties of curator of the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum, and most deservedly too. I wonder if anyone ever contributed so much, quality- and quantity-wise, to discover and publicise the history of that ancient conurbation, also called after the last and ill-fated Grand Master of Malta, Città Hompesch. Not surprisingly, this book has plenty about the connection of this grand master with Żabbar and how it came to take his name.

Bonavia can rightly claim the credit if today we know much more about Żabbar than about many comparable cities in Malta. Central to the fabric of the city, and to its community life, is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces, built and rebuilt over different epochs, but miraculously retaining its unitary baroque message throughout its various additions and mutations.

This book explores two main themes: Ħaż-Żabbar and its history, St George Preca and his Society of Christian Doctrine, the MUSEUM, all emotive motors close to the author’s heart

The statue of Our Lady of Graces amid the congregation.The statue of Our Lady of Graces amid the congregation.

Each architect who worked on it subsumed his own creativity into that of the one before him. The end result we admire today is one of the most felicitous examples of sacred baroque architecture in the islands, bar none. At the risk of sounding provocative, in my personal view, structurally it is the most stunning of all. Others may, no, do exceed it, in adornment but I am not aware of another baroque sacred edifice that competes with it in aesthetic profiling.

Fabio Chigi, inquisitor of Malta and later Pope Alexander VII, the manic builder of Rome, was a great devotee of the Żabbar shrine of Our Lady of Graces. Bonavia states that when in Malta, Chigi celebrated mass there almost daily and he paid back the spiritual serenity that devotion communicated to his soul by gifting a magnificent chasuble – now sadly lost – to the sanctuary on his election as pope. The victors of the great naval battle of the Dardanelles, 1656, donated some flags, captured from the Ottoman enemy, to the Żabbar church on their victorious return to Rome.

A rare 1928 postcard showing the placing of the cross on the new cupola on March 18, 1928.A rare 1928 postcard showing the placing of the cross on the new cupola on March 18, 1928.

Hardly the only famous naval battle with a connection with Żabbar. The earlier, and decisive Battle of Lepanto, 1571, saw Alof de Wignacourt, not yet grand master, suffer grievous injuries. All the survivors attributed the victory to the intercession of Our Lady of Graces. They dutifully offered an ex voto painting of the battle, now on show at the Żabbar sanctuary museum. Another Lepanto ex voto, donated by a private family, now also graces that museum. Ex voti by knights of Malta relating to the momentous lifting of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 caught Bonavia’s attention.

One of the art historical discoveries Bonavia was proudest of refers to the authorship of the main altarpiece of the sanctuary, a high-quality painting of unknown artistic provenance. Bonavia established through hard documentary evidence that the town had commissioned it to Alessio Erardi. Another art historical lacuna importantly filled.

First day cover commemorating the papal visit of May 2001.First day cover commemorating the papal visit of May 2001.

One of the author’s most signifi­cant contributions lies in his fleshing out the ghost biography of Żabbar church’s talented architect – Giovanni Bonavia. Before Karmenu scouted that elusive trail, virtually nothing was known about him, apart from his name. His 1986 series of articles in The Sunday Times of Malta have now rescued this gifted perit from the unfairest of oblivions.

The same is to be said for his research about other important architects with a Żabbar connection, like Antonio Cachia and Nicola Zammit.

The first baptisimal font.The first baptisimal font.

Personally, I nourish a special weakness for the history of bells. Bonavia saw to it to satiate my curiosity. He has lively accounts on how one of the largest bells of the sanctuary was damaged and, against the scepticism of the experts, was daringly repaired by local artisans in 1923. There is much more about how bell-culture grew in Żabbar over the years.

The uprising of the countryside against the French saw Żabbar at the forefront; Bonavia dedicated many research hours to that turbulent epoch and has a determining contribution to make to historiography, including the heroic part women played on the front line of fire. Typically, not one is mentioned by name in the sources in a town dedicated to a mother, and a mother of God to boot – only the men. The misogy­ny of early history.

Fr Silvester reserves the second part of the book to the only Maltese who ever reached the summit of sainthood in those hundreds of years which the rest of the population claim­ed, on dubious evidence, to have been the most devout Christians throughout Christendom.

St George Preca was a personal acquaintance of Karmenu Bonavia, an active member of the MUSEUM. Much was striking about St George Preca, but his manic phobia at being photographed stuck Bonavia most. The irony of all this image-resistance is that the saint’s face, images of the Christmas eve procession willed by Dun Ġorġ, and other Preca-related connections, now claim a conspicuous presence in Maltese philately, another subject about which Bonavia was a passionate expert.

Without placing hypothecs on the future, I hope Our Lady of Graces will deign to grant me the special grace of being asked to review the third volume of this series, when issued.

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