“What’s in a sword?” – ‘1565 – The Great Siege of Malta’ Exhibition

In 2013, Malta experienced a social-media uproar to bring back the Jean Parisot de Valette sword and dagger from the Louvre collection in Paris. This is a recurring issue that the Maltese people have been discussing both informally and also on a cultural academic level.

On April 28, 2013, few weeks after the Malta Labour Party won the Maltese general election on March 9, 2013, Malta’s own Dr Joseph Muscat was reported in a photo by Jeremy Wonnacott for the Department of Information (DOI) in the process of discussing with François Hollande, in Paris, a document that reveals a photo showing the gilded and diamond-studded hilt of de Valette’s sword.

This reportage was a sensational hit. Malta’s patriotic instinct was triggered once again and everyone started claiming that this is a case of ‘restitution art’ (the act of giving back something that was lost or stolen to its owner). I clearly remember that the Facebook group Bring Back the Sword of La Valette to Malta, originally set up by Jesmond Bugeja in March 2011, and was later administered by the 20-year-old student Jamie Vella, (as reported by maltatoday.com.mt in 2012) grew rapidly in support and honour to this cause. (Apparently, it seems that this group lost its pride and hope along the way as it is no longer active on the said social platform.)

Recently, this issue was again haunting this nation when the national exhibition setup by Heritage Malta: ‘1565 – The Great Siege of Malta’, featured no De Valette ‘Parisian‘ sword nor dagger. This time it is even worse! Between us, fellow citizens of Malta, we did not even manage to strike a deal in exhibiting under one roof what is traditionally held to be the de Valette’s sword and hat which were offered as a votive offering at the altar of the chapel of Our Lady of Damascus, in Vittoriosa, by the Grandmaster himself and which is nowadays part of St Joseph’s Oratory, which houses a number of exhibits curated by the Vittoriosa Historical and Cultural Society.

But … honestly, what’s in a sword?

This is what I remarked last Sunday as soon as I was heading out after spending an afternoon at the Grand Magisterial Palace in Valletta to view Heritage Malta’s exhibition ‘1565 – The Great Siege of Malta’.

The Exhibition puts on show a vast range of exhibits, having both local and foreign provenance. Although some of the local artefacts can usually be viewed at local museums and other entities, a number of them have never been displayed to the public. Interestingly, for this occasion, Heritage Malta has also purchased some objects from abroad to enrich this national collection. Moreover, amongst the items which were borrowed from other countries in order to be included in this exhibition, one finds several components of decorated armour pieces, which will be re-united for the first time with their counterpart local elements, after more than 200 years.

For the first time ever in Maltese history, Heritage Malta took the challenge to setup an exhibition which brought together a number of artefacts which they were hardly ever seen and appreciated by the Maltese since they are found both in private and foreign collections. Also, the exhibition brings under one roof various exhibits which are generally exhibited in different museum establishments around Malta.

The Grand Magisterial Palace in Valletta is the ideal setting for such an event. Historically, this building is a standing memorial of the Order’s triumph over the Ottoman world in 1565. Ten years after the triumph, between 1575 to 1581, the Order commissioned Matteo Pérez de Aleccio (1547–1616), an Italian Mannerist painter, to decorate the Hall of St Michael and St George, also known as the Throne Room,with 13 frescoes showing the events of the great siege of Malta by the Turks in 1565. This cycle of frescoes feature in the exhibition together with a digital visual interpretation of the events that simultaneously unravels the series of happenings.

The exhibition also opens to the pubic the Paladini Chapel Room for the first time after the shift of the Maltese parliament to the new seat in the Piano City Gate project. In 1587 Filippo Paladini was ordered by Grand Master Fra’ Hugues Loubenx de Verdala to decorate this chapel. At the time, the artist was serving a sentence rowing on the galleys of the Order, and so this commission saved him from further mortification. Paladini produced four big murals which represent the life story of St John the Baptist; the patron Saint of the Order. Once finished, his frescoes were regarded to form part of the finest Renaissance paintings in Malta. Unfortunately, this artistic heritage present in this chapel was neglected since it was converted into an office room where parliamentary groups held heir meetings; discussing anything but art!

Another highlight in the exhibition is the Bust of Jean de la Valette, 47th Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem attributed to Leone Leoni brought over from the Museum of the Order of St John which acquired the work from an auction in Paris in 2011. Leone Leoni was one of the leading Renaissance artists who specialised in portrait busts and medals. He worked extensively for members of the Habsburg family, who were active supporters of the Knights. The fact that the bust is first recorded in a sale of objects from the great collector and scholar Eugene Piot strongly suggests that it was part of the booty taken from Malta by Napoleon in 1798.

Other outstanding works on show convey more than just gratitude or recognition. Acting as the protagonists of the actual 1565 happenings, are the various pieces of amour which were damaged and splintered during the siege. Included are the Suit of Armour Components belonging to Grand Master de Valette which excel in portraying some very fine Milanese workmanship and decoration. Exhibition pieces belonging to the Heritage Malta collection were thoroughly restored for the event.

fileApart from the metal artefacts, the exhibition showcases a vast collection of historical manuscripts, maps and other documentation dating back to the mid 15th century. These elements in the exhibition provide the viewer with the social, political and religious context of the events.

The Palace Armoury at the Magisterial Palace before it was converted to the seat of parliament. Photograph by H. Agius, c. 1881.The ticket purchased to view the exhibition entitles the visitor access to The Palace Armoury Museum. One final comment goes to this collection. Unfortunately, the unique collection of armour housed in this museum is presented in a very mediocre way, not to mention the carelessness and the lack of preservation manifested in several items. It is indeed time to act, save and present this collection as it merits to be and relocate it back to its origins within the same Palace.

In conclusion, I hope that all those who passionately shared patriotic impulses about de Valette’s sword make it to the exhibition!

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