Forgiving the Inquisition, Birgu

We visited the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) — I was curious, was just about to finish Q by Luther Blisset, a splendid telling of the Protestant battle for faith and a revolution of the poor and oppressed which helped give rise to the inquisition in a wave of incredibly violent repression. As Q makes clear, for some this involved faith, but this was as much about maintaining the old order and the jockeying for power between the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and the German princes and their small states. Henry VIII is also up in this mix. It had to do with money as well of course, much of which was confiscated from Jewish and Marrano money lenders along with others who refused to ‘repent’.  None of this complex history is reflected here, but formed the background in my head. There is no acknowledgment of a pervasive atmosphere of fear created by the constant demand to denounce self and neighbour, the burning of books, the treatment of any curiosity as heresy, the absolute power over life and death held by all too human Inquisitors.

You cannot feel the darkness here.

The description on the website, which I confess made me choke just a little.

The Inquisitor’s Palace, situated in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving palaces of its kind which, in the early modern period could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces simply succumbed to the ravages of time or were victims of the anti-reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution. Fortunately, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island, who therefore ensured its survival.

Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion.

From the museum itself, the nicest description of the inquisition you will ever read:

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The building itself is made up of huge rooms, incredible wooden ceilings and bands of frescoes beneath them.

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The staircase was central, and your rank defined where the Inquisitor met you on it. The absurdities of hierarchy.

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Like this marble entry that seem better suited to the outside of the building not the inside.

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There are fascinating things here, exhibits from the archives kept as evidence in the trials, amazing things really. Like a magical hat with spell in Arab script used by Didacus Mifsud against heavy headaches, confiscated by inquisitor Fabrizio Verallo (1600-1605)

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Magical spell … included as evidence by Inquisitor Lazzaro Pallavicina (1718-1719)

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This devotional image, originally hanging in the prisons of the Order of St John, was the target of convict Grazio Laura who started throwing stones at it after loss in gambling. Reported by his inmates, the offender tried to defend himself stating that he erroneously hit the image while throwing stones at mice. He later admitted and was whipped in public.

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There was a great book burning here in 1609, among them Rabelais’ Les Oeuvres.

The description of torture:

Rarely inflicted by Inquisitors, torture was not a sanction in itself, but a means to extract truth during trial. It was generally used when the accused persisted in declaring himself innocent when the Inquisitor was absolutely sure about his guilt. It was applied following strict rules and after considerate guidance.

They have a paper signed by Caravaggio here, witness in a case of bigamy 1607-1608

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Abjuration (a public solemn confession of repentance, necessary prior to any verdict by French Theologian Michel Moren in from of Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino (1587-1590, 1591-1592)

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Ominous signs:

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On Corporal Punishment:

Corporal punishments were generally vindictive, containing an element of shame to make up for the harms committed. This included kneeling or whopping in public, rowing on galleys, nursing in hospital, work on fortifications and imprisonment. Such sanctions were inflicted in less than 10% of cases.

On Confiscation:

Not to be misinterpreted as working towards financial rather than spiritual gain, inflicting fines and confiscation of property and belongings were generally forbidden by the Supreme Congregation in Rome. Inquisitors however did confiscate devotional material on account of their improper use.

Devotional paper with Corona of Spirit confiscated by Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino for inappropriate use.

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There are some brilliant, incredibly complex Arabic charts. In explanation:

In a complicated case of witchcraft Maltese architect and military engineer Vittorio Cassar appeared before the Tribunal…He produced a lot of evidence in Arabic text…Cassar was warned and absolved.

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But I wonder what they really were. Especially as the Arabs were still more advanced in their knowledge, mathematics, architecture and engineering than the Knights of Malta at this time…

The incredible recounting of a case against 40 witches:

Prisons were probably stretched to the limit when Inquisitor Visconti had to arrest forty witches accused of love witchcraft in 1625. Their trial lasted three years and provides precious insights into Maltese spells. They abjured and were sanctioned with public flogging, perpetual exile and attend [sic] for confession and holy communion four times a year for four years.

‘had to arrest’. A mad sentence.

Two Quakers were held here, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, arrested in 1658 for spreading Protestantism, they were discharged without sentence — four years after arrest. I wonder how these women arrived here, what their goals were. Why this illustration should accompany their story.

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The inquisition created a school of Arabic to teach missionaries, to allow them to preach the faith among slaves in Malta and other Muslim lands. Slavery is referred to so off-handedly here, as though it wasn’t really serious.

The Inquisition remained in operation in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Hurrah. But they were already on their way out. They have a brilliant letter in cypher to Inquisitor Antonio Felice Chigi Zondadari (1777-1785) about earlier attempts to get rid of the Inquisition in Naples.

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We move to descend to the prison cells. Shh.

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The roles of the prison warden are given here beside his spartan quarters, incredibly contradictory I find, written to be abused to the warden’s own benefit but very much of their time.

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Just outside, through the bars, you can see a sun dial carved in 1730 by prison warder Leonardo Palombo. I wonder how he arrived here in this position, what he wanted for himself rather than this:

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The ominous timeline of a trial:

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The judgment chamber:

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A description of the purpose of the many edicts:

Every now and then the Inquisitor would feel the need to issue an edict thereby reminding people of their obligations as good Catholics to report any kind of misdeeds against the Catholic faith and the punishment incurred by those who did not do so.

They had 12 days, if they failed to report they were automatically excommunicated, and only the inquisition could lift the excommunication.

Activities that had to be reported:

  • Abuse of sacraments for superstitious remedies
  • Owning or perusing of prohibited books
  • Infringement of abstinence
  • Bigamy
  • Apostasy to Islam
  • Magical activities
  • Solicitation during confession (!)
  • Heretical opinion
  • False witness
  • Hear confession or say Mass without permission
  • Blasphemy
  • Lack of cooperation with the inquisition to eradicate heresy

On the Torture Chamber

This room was used alternatively as a prison cell, the prison warden’s room, and a torture chamber according to the needs of the palace at the time. These ‘secret’ stairs were used to elad prisoners, or those who wanted to denounce someone to the Inquisitor, straight into the Tribunal Room without using the main staircase, thus not exposing himself to others. … Utmost secrecy was of paramount importance for the legal procedure of the Inquisition.

On torture itself:

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And on to the cells. Small squares like those of Gozo’s Citadel. A view from the prison yard to freedom up above.

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The happiest thing about this place? A prisoner managed to dig himself free EIGHT TIMES. But there is nothing else happy about this place.

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