Roger Ellul-Micallef, Roberto Ranieri Costaguti – From pulpit to chair to Bishop’s See 
Malta University Press, 2018,  424 pp.

A biography is not a novel but it’s always a bonus if it reads like one. Roger Ellul Micallef’s new book combines the scientific rigour of high-quality historical research with the author’s ability to spin a yarn marked by political intrigue, personality clashes and deep-seated animosities, where the protagonists shape the course of events and are, at the same time, driven by them. Right from the start, the scene is set for the gradual unfolding of a fascinating plot and the bare bones of a well-known story are fleshed out with the kind of detail that breathes life into them.

We are all familiar with the brute facts surrounding the birth of the University of Malta following the expulsion of the Jesuits by Grand Master Manuel Pinto in 1768 and the closing down of the Collegium Melitense, which they had been running for 186 years. But beyond the brute facts there’s a captivating story to be told and chapter 2 tells that story in different stages, by looking first at the Jesuits’ contribution to higher education in 17th and 18th century Malta and then at the reasons which led to their expulsion from Spain, Portugal, France, Parma and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, before they were suppressed as an Order by Pope Clement XIV five years later (in 1773).

Where Malta was concerned, Ellul Micallef defends the widely-held view that “Pinto’s motives in throwing out the Jesuits appear to have been purely financial. His self-aggrandisement had brought his government to the very edge of bankruptcy” and he wanted to confiscate the Jesuits’ property, assets and possessions to refill the Order’s depleted coffers.

The central act of this piece of real-life drama highlights the very high-handed manner in which Pinto expelled the Jesuits from Malta, “surrounding their college with his armed guards early in the morning of April 22, 1768 and placing the Jesuits under house arrest prior to their departure”.

Chapters 3 to 5 deal with Roberto Costaguti’s appointment as first rector of the University soon after it was set up in 1769, his contribution to the drawing up of its constitution and statutes, his four years at the helm of the new institution and the changes that occurred during the first 10 years of its existence.

A biography is not a novel but it’s always a bonus if it reads like one

Costaguti left Malta in 1773, nine months after Pinto’s death, and was made Bishop of Sansepolcro five years later. He was one of the bishops who spoke at the Episcopal Assembly in Florence, called at the request of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, in 1787 – an event covered in great detail in the central chapters of the book.

Ellul Micallef observes at one point that Costaguti was the only bishop at the Assembly who did not take a theologian with him as a consultant. One is made to wonder, in the light of some of Costaguti’s contributions, whether this was, after all, such a good idea.

Costaguti was also a frontline witness to the social upheaval and political turmoil brought about by the Napoleonic invasions of Italy. In the penultimate chapter of the book, the author states that “even though there were a number of instances when Costaguti thought it wiser and safer to cooperate with the French occupying forces, there can be little doubt where his political feelings lay during the Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars”. Precisely for this reason, the author finds it hard to explain Costaguti’s change of heart, five years before he died, when he encouraged the young rebels at Sansepolcro, who had been carrying out guerrilla attacks against the French, to join Napoleon’s armies.

Overall, Ellul Micallef portrays the main character of his narrative in a good light and his general verdict on Costaguti’s achievements as university rector, preacher and bishop is definitely positive. His assessment contrasts sharply with that of Costaguti’s critics, whose words are faithfully reported in the penultimate chapter. In one such report, Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, attending his mother’s funeral, is said to have listened “with great suffering” to Costaguti’s long and most boring oration, after which the duke immediately left the church and ran off to Pisa.

The 19th century historian Cesare Cantù described Costaguti as a preacher “whose language was flowery and ornate rather than profound”. Pope Clement XIV considered Costaguti as lacking sound doctrine and to have been more of a courtier than a priest. On the same page, Ellul Micallef carries Giovanni Bonello’s damning description of Costaguti as “a vainglorious peacock whom everyone laughed at behind his back” and whose “scandalous life outraged his contemporaries”, adding that Costaguti possessed “a relentlessly split personality” and that he obtained his appointment as rector “through his fulsome flattery of Pinto”.

Ellul Micallef begs to differ. He offers reasons for his disagreement and concludes his book by claiming that “Costaguti, in his down-to-earth approach, exhibited a level-headed realism which helped him survive the turbulent and dangerous times he lived in”.

Costaguti died in November 1818. Two hundred years later he can still be the subject of conflicting reports. Ellul Micallef’s book, lucidly written and copiously annotated, puts us in a better position to judge for ourselves.