A watercolour painting of the Melitensia Art Gallery by Anna Grima. Photo: Peter Bartolo ParnisA watercolour painting of the Melitensia Art Gallery by Anna Grima. Photo: Peter Bartolo Parnis

Peter Apap Bologna’s three volumes of Memories are now complete. The first took him from his birth in 1941 to 1973. It established him immediately as a social and political diarist of an era of Maltese history long gone, but whose nostalgic memories linger on.

It took us at a fast gallop through the first 32 years of Peter’s life, starting as a privileged and well-connected child in 1950s Malta with a happy education at St Aloysius College, where his early interest in books was fostered.

It comes vividly to life when he goes to London in his 20s to become a chartered accountant, qualifying there in 1963. The next 10 years are a well-described, colourful and stylish account of life in London and Malta in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as family tribulations and successes. The book contains some wonderful black and white photographs which perhaps more than anything serve to capture beautifully a now-distant Malta during war-time and after Independence.

The second volume covered the years 1973 to 1988, taking Peter from gilded youth to middle age, when he returns to live in Malta after a successful career spent in business and international merchant banking in London and New York.

The third volume of this autobiography has just been published and takes us from 1988 to the present day. Peter celebrated his 76th birthday just a few weeks before the publication of this book.

Like his earlier books, this is written in a series of short essays on a range of topics, supported by extracts from his own contemporary letters and diaries. He writes with hope and without rancour in well-honed prose about the cards life has dealt him, though he does not hesitate to deliver a well-aimed barb if he feels an injustice has been committed, such as deploring the uglification of Malta’s architectural heritage.

Peter started to prepare for his return to Malta in 1988, after 15 years abroad. He wanted a change from the fast-moving and intense life of an international merchant banker. The overriding factor that triggered his return to Malta was the change of government in Malta after 16 years of regressive socialist rule that had precipitated his departure in the first place.

Optimism is the golden thread running through this story

In the opening chapter of this volume, he describes well the surge of optimism that had swept Eddie Fenech Adami and his Nationalist Party into power on May 12, 1987. That victory changed the face of Malta and can be seen, 31 years later, to have been – together with Malta’s accession to the European Union in 2004 to which it led – the pivotal event in the country’s post-Independence history.

Perhaps the most striking and endearing aspect of this volume of memoirs is the spirit of optimism that Peter exudes. His book starts with a quotation by Winston Churchill: “I am an optimist. It does not seem much use being anything else.” It has been Peter’s good fortune to be born with a positive outlook on life. He can always see a glass half full, not half empty.

It is not a natural Maltese quality and all the more appealing for that. Optimism is the golden thread running through this story. For, while there are many happy moments in this book, Peter also tells, honestly and without bitterness, of several sadnesses and setbacks since his return to Malta.

He talks frankly of the break-up of his first marriage, the death of his beloved mother, Amy, at the age of 96 and, most movingly, of the death after a long battle with cancer at the age of 51 of his wonderful sister, Anna Vassallo Cesareo. His share of business problems, too, are not shirked or down-played. But despite misfortunes, Peter recovers to face life’s challenges without vindictiveness or any trace of self-pity.

The centre-piece of this book – and his lasting legacy to Maltese perceptions of art – is his founding of the Melitensia Art Gallery, in Lija in the autumn of 1988. Before it closed 11 years later, it was the focus for the best and most exciting exhibitions of Maltese and foreign paintings of Malta.

It set standards of presentation in a public gallery in Malta of paintings, old maps and prints of Malta, as well as book collections, which have never been bettered. The exhibitions were stylishly presented and supported by all the great and good, discerning (and prosperous) collectors of Malta.

The book is packed with photographs of many of the exhibitions and the beautiful paintings that were on display. The names of George Large, Anna Grima, Isabelle Borg, Douglas Wilmer, Matt Bruce, Julian Trevelyan, Mary Fedden, Peter Quinn and many other distinguished Maltese and international artists trip off the pages and jostle for attention.

No account of the Melitensia Art Gallery and its impact on Maltese critical discernment of art can pass without mentioning Peter’s wife, Alaine, who arrived in his life in July 1989 and whom he married the following year.

Her great love and support has contributed hugely to Peter’s life, as well as leading directly to their involvement with the first Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti exhibitions under the redoubtable Maurice de Giorgio: the first, consisting of 150 Girolamo Gianni paintings, which she and Peter helped bring together, and the second – perhaps one of FPM’s most impressive – of antique Maltese silver, on which Alaine is an international authority and which she curated.

This volume brings this fascinating trilogy of Memories to a close.

Peter’s recollections are well written and lavishly illustrated. It is worth buying the books for the photographic record alone. His sharp eye and excellent memory mean his remembrances are vividly described.

They bring to a fitting end a lively account of the last 75 years of a certain kind of Maltese life – more socially stratified and in rapid transition between colonial Malta, independence and the country we know today.

It follows closely in the footsteps of Herbert Ganado’s seminal Rajt Malta Tinbidel, which took the reader on a journey through the story of Malta during the first part of the last century. It is indeed a most fitting companion to it.       

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