On November 22, 1769, Grand Master Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca issued a decree by which the college founded by the Jesuits in 1593 was declared to be a university.
Thus, Pinto enacted that “from this moment we erect in this college a public university of general studies. We grant to the same university, to its directors, lecturers, masters and scholars all the privileges, prerogatives, pre-eminence, graces and honours as are granted to all public universities and it is our will that they should be enjoyed and used as if they were specially expressed herein”.
The Jesuits first came to Malta in 1592 and, on November 12 of the same year, the deed for the erection of their college was signed in the Magisterial Palace. The school was to teach Grammar and the Humanities (scholas aperire humanitatis et grammaticae) and, to meet its expenses, it was to be endowed with four sinecures, four ecclesiastical benefices, sites for the building of a church and college in Valletta, 200 scudi annually from the bishopric’s and the Cathedral’s income, and five per cent media decima tax on all the ecclesiastical benefices of the Maltese islands. Notwithstanding disagreement with the Cathedral Chapter, who expected the College to be instituted at Mdina, the Jesuits started classes in an old house at Valletta in 1593 and then transferred them to their new school on its completion in 1595.
The subjects taught were those of a grammar school but the college was also a substitute for a seminary, which Malta still lacked until the 18th century. Therefore, its purpose was primarily ecclesiastical. In 1727, the college obtained from the general of the Jesuit Order the faculty to confer degrees on its successful students. Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena gave his assent on June 7, 1727, and the Jesuits’ studium came into being. However, both the college and studium came to an abrupt end in 1768.
The very ambitious Grand Master de Fonseca brought financial problems on the Order of St John and the prospect of acquiring the Jesuits’ property was probably the spur that induced him to expel this religious Order from the Maltese islands. His motives were purely economic and his aim was to use the Jesuit revenues to his own and the Knights’ advantage.
In the second half of the 18th century, an anti-Jesuit wave of hatred resulted with this Order being expelled from various European countries, including the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in December 1767. However, before the Jesuits were expelled from Sicily, Pinto was already contemplating how he could appropriate their Maltese possessions for himself. In fact, in May 1767, he had already declared that he would have to follow suit if the Jesuits were to be expelled from Sicily because the Sicilian Jesuit province included Malta.
In May 1767, Pinto had already declared that he would have to follow suit if the Jesuits were to be expelled from Sicily because the Sicilian Jesuit province included Malta
Conveniently forgetting that in 1753-54 he had quarrelled bitterly with Sicily over his Order’s claim to full sovereignty, Pinto now played the honest broker and, on the pretext that he could not risk another quarrel with “the Kingdoms”, he signed the expulsion order on April 22, 1768. All the members of the Jesuit Order were forbidden from ever returning to Malta and they were extradited to Civitavecchia in the Papal States (Italy).
Rome reacted strongly and, although Pinto was allowed to provisionally hold on to the Jesuits’ property, the Grand Master was ordered to forward an exact list of the property in question and to prepare a plan on how best to utilise this property for the glory of God and to the best advantage of the local population, always keeping in mind that the original purpose of the Jesuit presence was to foster education and teaching in the island.
Pope Clement XIII, who died in 1769, was considered rather hostile to the Order of St John, but his successor, Clement XIV, continued to follow his predecessor’s policy. At last, on August 29, 1769, the Holy See received the long-awaited Confidentiale – together with an explanatory Foglio Responsivo for the Order’s ambassador at Rome – which amounted to a supplication to erect a University of Studies. Together with Grammar and Humanities, formerly already taught at the Jesuit College, it was being proposed to include other subjects such as: Good Morals and Practical Arithmetic; Humane Letters; Scholastic Theology; Dogma and Morals; Mathematics; Public and Civil Law, Church History and Canon Law.
Since the revenue from the Jesuits’ property was not sufficient to run the College, the University and the Jesuits’ former retreat house at Floriana (presently housing the Archiepiscopal Curia), the deficit would be covered by the Grand Master and the Order of St John. The College and the University would be solely dependent on the Grand Master
The Pope acceded to Pinto’s requests and despatched two papal briefs on October 20, 1769. The first one, a public brief entitled Sedula Romam Pontificis, authorised Pinto to erect a “public university of general studies”. The second brief, secret and reserved for the Grand Master – entitled Solicitii nos quidem – granted Pinto the faculty to dispose of the Jesuits’ property for the foundation and erection of the University.
Delighted with the papal briefs, Pinto proceeded with the already-mentioned decree of November 22, 1769, a date that is justly considered and commemorated to be the birthday of the local alma mater.
On December 19, 1676, Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner had founded and endowed the Lectureship of Anatomy and Surgery within the Order’s Holy Infirmary at Valletta. Since the 1769 papal brief made no reference to a Faculty of Medicine, a clarification was sought and no objection was forthcoming. Consequently, the Faculty of Medicine was set up on May 22, 1771, and on September 1, 1771, incorporated within it Cotoner’s lectureship.
By means of the papal brief Maxima Utilitas, Pope Clement XIV acceded to Pinto’s request for the Chancellor (or Protector) of the University to be a Knight Grand Cross instead of a priest. Quite naturally, this enhanced the Grand Master’s authority. The first Chancellor was Fra Francesco Guedes, Bailiff dell’Aquila and Vice-Chancellor of the Order of St John.
The rectorship was offered to Rev. Roberto Ranieri Costaguti, an Italian member of the Order of ‘Servants of Mary’ (known as Servites). In 1766-67 and 1768-69, Costaguti had preached the Advent and Lenten sermons at St John’s Conventual Church and was appointed rector on the strength of his past experience as Regent of Studies at the colleges that the Servites had at Faenza and Florence. The first vice-rector was another monk, Rev. Ferdinando Mingarelli.
The first major work for Costaguti and Mingarelli was to formulate the new University’s Costitutiones that were promulgated on May 26, 1771, and which paved the way for the opening of the first academic year on November 3, almost two years to the day of the University’s foundation. By June 1771, most professors – mainly expatriates – had been installed in their respective chairs.
Academic studies were initiated through a compulsory course of Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics, which led to the degree of Master of Arts. Only then could a student proceed to read Theology, Law or Medicine. These courses lasted five years and successful candidates were awarded the Baccalaureate after two years and the Licentiate after four years. At the end of the fifth year, after writing and presenting a thesis and publicly debating two arguments assigned only 24 hours before, the successful candidate would be conferred his Doctorate.
The three faculties included the following subjects: Theology – Holy Scripture, Dogma, Moral Theology, Church History and Canon Law; Law – Civil Law, Canon Law and Philosophy of Law; Medicine – Surgery, Anatomy, Medicine, Botany and Chemistry.
Dr Joseph F. Grima is a retired casual lecturer of History and Assistant Director of Education whose publications include histories of Malta under the Order and the French and The Fleet of the Knights of Malta: Its Organisation during the Eighteenth Century.