Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Malta 1: A surprising little nation

Perhaps the sleeper of the archaeologic touring cruise in March was Malta, where we paused between Crete and Sicily. No one expected much and the ship's exceptional library possessed no special volumes on the place. Everyone was bowled over, and we did not even have time for the beaches or the Neolithic temples, or more than one meal.

I should not have been overbowled. I knew about the Great Siege (1565), the ur-event of Maltese history. I knew about the Order of St. John of the Hospital that, driven from its earlier home in Rhodes by the Turks in 1523, was given a new one by Emperor Charles V in 1530.

And how did he get Malta, you ask? or, you should. Malta had been attached to the Norman kingdom of Sicily in 1091, when Count Roger I de Hauteville seized it from the Arabs who had been there some two hundred years and who left their language, the basis of modern Maltese, when they departed. Sicily was acquired in 1282 by the kings of Aragon, whose multinational state included Barcelona, Mallorca, Provence, the duchy of Athens and, eventually, Naples. The last king of Aragon, Ferdinand the Catholic, married Isabella of Castille, whose possessions included a spurious claim to the Americas. Charles was their grandson and, after Ferdinand's death in 1516, their heir. On his father's side, he was also heir to the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg properties in Central Europe, and the Valois-Burgundy territories, today the BeNeLux.

Malta did not figure too significantly in all this. While the island has been very prosperous at times when the Mediterranean Sea has known peace - the height of the Roman Empire, for instance or, later, of the British Empire - when war is bruited and pirates are a-lurk, Malta's superb position at the meeting of the eastern and western Med has made it an object of lust as much as an entrepĂ°t, and its coastline full of harbors and excellent beaches, selling points today, has been a welcome mat for corsairs for three thousand years. There are few ancient villages on the coast - the inhabitants always preferred to dwell out of range of pirate lookouts. The ancient capitals, Mdina on Malta, Rabat on Gozo, are built on defensible rocks at the center of their islands. The rich but homeless Knights (an aristocratic and celibate military order of Crusading origin who possessed - still possess - vast properties all over the Catholic world) did not especially want Malta, so far from the seats of power and so inviting to attack. They were hoping to get Syracuse in Sicily or Modon in the Peloponnese. Corfu maybe. It didn't help that Charles threw in Tripoli (now in Libya), and expected them to defend that too.

But Charles was a busy man - he was trying to suppress the Protestant uprisings in Germany, to fight wars against France and Turkey, and to conquer the Americas all at once, and his army had just sacked Rome for several weeks of hideous violence in 1527, which made it difficult for him to get along with the pope. Malta was the best he was willing to offer the Knights; he had no time to reconquer Rhodes for them. In return, they only had to pay him one ceremonial Falcon a year (Malta, with no woods to hunt in, was famous for bird-hunting). Everybody knows that because we've all heard Sidney Greenstreet explain it to Humphrey Bogart while plying him with drugged liquor during the second reel.

The Knights settled down in Malta but they soon realized it was barely defensible. The local nobility (Aragonese or Sicilian in origin) withdrew to Mdina in a huff. The Knights built a couple of forts near Birgu, as its name implies an international merchant town that happened to be set on one of the greatest harbors on earth. But the Birgu had been built before the invention of artillery. Now the great fear was that the Ottoman Turks or their Algerian corsair allies would seize the great high ridge across the harbor and put cannon up there. A small fort was built at the end of the ridge, another near Birgu. In the nick of time.

In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent, who had opened his reign forty years before by taking Rhodes from the Knights, sent a huge flotilla (perhaps 15,000 soldiers, meeting up with thousands more from Algiers and Tunis) to Malta. The Siege lasted three months, all summer. The Knights and the Maltese held out, but the Turks were about to overwhelm them at last when the Viceroy of Sicily finally arrived (it had taken him that long to raise an army - he couldn't just leave Sicily undefended - Sicily is a very large island) to hit the Turks in the rear. The autumn weather was turning and the invaders gave up. Suleiman died. Jean de la Vallette, the grand master of the Knights, was the idol of Europe, and the city he immediately began to build on the high ridge across the harbor was named Valletta in his honor. (The Knights sent several galleys to the Spanish-Venetian-papal fleet that destroyed the Turkish navy at Lepanto six years later.)

Generals always plan for their last war, and for the next 233 years, the Knights built one citadel after another around the Grand Harbor (and its smaller neighbor to the west), forts and curtain walls and gun emplacements according to the latest in technology. No enemy navy ever came to assault them again, but that might be because one look at the place would discourage most of them. In 1798, when the Knights were nervous about the French Revolution and its upending of the traditional order, its enmity to the Catholic religion, its seizure of the Knights' huge properties in France (most of the Knights were French by birth), Napoleon Bonaparte paused at Malta "to take on water and supplies" for the fleet with which he intended to conquer Egypt. The Knights nervously allowed the French to come ashore, and the French seized the islands. The Knights set up shop in Rome thereafter; they are still there, the smallest sovereign nation in Europe, even smaller than the Vatican across town.

In 1800, the British (who had destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir), chose Malta for a base to control the Mediterranean route to Egypt and India. This led, inexorably, to the SECOND iconic event in Maltese history, the German aerial siege of 1941-42. Reckoning (correctly) that Valletta and the Grand Harbor could not possibly be taken by land or sea assault - there are few more fortified places on earth - the Nazis came by air, a possibility the Knights had never considered. The islands were thoroughly pummeled (11,000 houses destroyed) and everyone was on half-rations, but they never surrendered. George VI awarded the entire archipelago the George Cross.

By 1965, however, having lost India, Palestine and Egypt - even Cyprus was about to go - the British were ready to abandon, uh, ship. The Maltese, for their part, though all fluent in English by now, had come to resent the ages of foreign dominion. They wanted a nation of their own (within the Commonwealth of course, and at first retaining the Queen), to be run their way, and they wanted parity for their own language. In fact, like many peasant tongues, Maltese did not have an official written version until 1934. Its ninth-century Tunisian-Sicilian Arabic (I'm told Maltese and Tunisians still understand each other with little trouble) had been mingled and overlaid by centuries of Italian, Catalan, French and English - there had been lots of Italian immigration, as kings uprooted whole towns of troublemakers or refugees and shipped them to depopulated Malta. Maltese might be called a Romance vocabulary on an Arabic grammatical base, rather the way English is a Romance vocabulary on an Anglo-Saxon grammatical base. The Maltese themselves get all huffy about the Arabic part, as they are very Roman Catholic (divorce has only just become legal there), and prefer to say that their language is of Phoenician/Carthaginian roots. (Like Arabic and Hebrew, a Semitic tongue.) That the Carthaginians were there is beyond dispute; whether they left anything behind may be questioned. (The Romans left some elegant ruined villas.) St. Paul, shipwrecked on the island in the first century CE, said the inhabitants were barbarians, that is, that they understood him neither in Greek nor in Latin. Paul's Greek was excellent; his Latin we must take on faith. But what did the islanders speak? We may never know.

There were, as I knew, three great artistic reasons to visit Malta, all of them in the co-cathedral in Valletta. (It is called the co-cathedral because the island's original cathedral was in Mdina, where the bishop still dwells.) Two of these treasures are paintings of Saint Jerome and of the death of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, bad boy of the Late Renaissance, who fled here in 1608 after a murder in Rome and a dust-up in Sicily made the mainlands too hot for him. As payment for his work, he was (though not of noble birth) inducted into the Order as a Knight, but his savage temper and bad habits got the better of him here, too, and he was hurried out of town. He died a few months later on the shore, struggling back to Rome in hopes of a papal pardon.

The other great artistic treasure in the co-cathedral has been called "the most beautiful floor in the world." (To read about it in more detail: The floor consists of the intaglio marble tombstones of the Knights of St. John, each one inlaid with pictures, inscriptions, coats of arms in colored marbles. Marble is not natural to Malta; all these rare and gorgeous hues of stone had to be imported - but the Knights were very rich. The cathedral is full of carpets (so tourists don't wear away the stones) and chairs (for services), but much of the floor is always visible. A book containing pictures all of them has recently been published. It retails for 187 euros, and it's heavy. I restrained my lust.

Outside Valletta - in the hinterlands of the island and, indeed, often on Gozo - are Malta's other famed historic attractions, the megalithic temples and ritual cemeteries that often predate the megalithic structures of the rest of Europe (Britain, Spain, France, Sardinia, Greece) and even the pyramids. They have been excavated and most of the treasures (many of startling quality) found therein are in the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta. These temples are so unlike the megalithic structures found elsewhere that no definite relationship between prehistoric Malta and the rest of the world has been determined. Not until the Copper Age (when invaders, perhaps peaceful ones, arrived from Sicily) or the Bronze Age (when Phoenicians and, possibly, Greeks and Etruscans showed up) is there any certain influence in either direction.

Therefore historians are puzzled as to how the manpower, the skill, the wealth to build these extraordinary structures was amassed. True the islands had more trees and more arable in those days, and the sea may have been considerably lower (which would have made Malta, Gozo and Comino one rather large island, able to grow far more food), and some historians think it may have been a cult center and place of pilgrimage for much of the region. Others theorize a textile industry to create export income. (No textiles that old survive on Malta or anywhere on earth.) Maltese ceramics have not turned up in distant lands and the island has no mineral resources - obsidian and tin, like food ever since Norman times, had to be imported from Sicily.

All we can say is: The local engineers were mighty good, and some of their productions have inspired modern artists. The famous tiny statue of a reclining goddess looks mighty like a Picasso to me, and I saw the coiling, spurred vine motif from Tarxien, just outside Valletta, reproduced in vivid polychrome on an art-nouveau street kiosk in Palermo. Moreover, in a tiny museum devoted to the theater arts in Syracuse, there are a number of set models from 1920s and 1930s stagings of Greek tragedies in that (originally Greek) city whose primitive, even mythic power of masses and shadows strikingly resembled the massive temples of Malta. That can't be an accident, and I wish more designers of classical opera would take their inspiration here.

We were all of us astounded by, and delighted with, Malta. One woman enthused, "Now I understand why Churchill and Roosevelt met Stalin here!" She had it confused with Yalta - my Russian friends died when I repeated this story.

As soon as I got home, I searched online for a cheap mark-down copy of the book of the co-cathedral floor (no dice), and in the NYPL for a history of Malta, finding Brian Blouet's dated (1967) Short History of Malta (published my Praeger, my pal Manya's Dad), which I am now devouring. One interesting reflection is to compare the expensive Maltese obsession with defense works (and the frequent devastations and population clearings that mark the island's history) with the similar history of the Scottish isles, the contrasting history of Iceland (another environmental disaster story, somewhat fewer pirates), the islands of New York Harbor (not quite so obsessed with defense), and the islands of the San Juan and Georgia Straits in the Pacific Northwest, whose development proceeded largely unphased about defense. The Caribbean, too, but I've barely been there. Do Havana's defenses and Cartagena's resemble Malta's? I do not yet know.

More to come.