In 2012, a square was inaugurated in Valletta, named Pjazza Jean de Valette, featuring a statue of the 49th, and probably most well-known, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John. It was arguably about time that there was a proper monument to commemorate one of the greatest heroes of Malta’s history, and the founder of our capital city. The 2.5m bronze statue by the local sculptor Joseph Chetchuti depicts de Valette wearing armour and carrying a sword - the warrior and hero of the Great Siege of 1565 - while in his other hand he holds the rolled-up blueprints of Valletta, the city which bears his name. Indeed, this is how most people picture Jean de Vallette today; a strong, courageous and noble figure, deeply religious, as most knights were. But while he certainly was all of that, there were other aspects about him which are less well-known.
Jean de Valette was born in the south of France in 1494 into an influential family; many of his ancestors had accompanied the Kings of France on various crusades. Being the second son in his family, de Valette joined the Order of St. John as a knight of the Langue of Provence at the age of 20, and it is said that he never returned to France or his family estates from that day on. Very little is known about his early years in the Order, except that he was present at the Siege of Rhodes in 1522, and that he arrived in Malta with the rest of the Knights in 1530. This is when his name starts to appear more in the historical records, although some of the things we find there paint a slightly different picture of the man than the one we are normally presented with.
1. Spent time in prison
It seems that Jean de Valette had a bit of a short temper, which occasionally got him in trouble. On one occasion, shortly after the Knights had come to Malta, the 44-year old Frenchman was charged with resorting to violence against a non-member of the Order; after some kind of argument with a layman, he beat him up quite badly, or so it seems from the severity of the punishment that was meted out. Initially, de Valette was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment in Gozo, spending his time in an underground 'guva', a dry well from which there was no possibility of escape, with food and water being lowered down to the prisoner.
Following his release, he was posted to serve as military governor of Tripoli, Libya, for two years. Tripoli had been granted to the Knights at the same time as Malta, but the city was extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Barbary corsairs, and being sent there was surely no reward. Despite this, de Valette was credited with restoring order to the place, displaying his power of organisation, and re-establishing discipline among the Christian troops. However, following his return to Malta, another criminal charge was levelled against him; that of having brought back with him a black person as a slave when he was not liable to servitude. Once again, de Valette was tried and condemned.
2. Was once enslaved
Despite his earlier misdeeds, de Valette soon started making a name for himself, eventually being given command of one of the Order’s galleys, the San Giovanni. In 1541, however, during a naval battle off the Barbary coast, his galley was captured, and the wounded de Valette was taken prisoner. He was to spend the next year chained to a bench, rowing on the galleys. Even here he seems to have made the most of his time, learning to speak fluent Arabic and Turkish, to add to his knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Greek. Luckily for him, he was eventually freed as part of an exchange of prisoners, but this experience marked him for life, and his ill-treatment increased his contempt towards the ‘infidels’.
3. Had a tyrannical streak
In 1554, de Valette was appointed Captain-General of the Order's galleys, a great personal honour, and an important position in which he continued to impress. So much so, that following the death of Grand Master Claude de la Sengle, the Knights unanimously chose de Valette as his successor, on 21st August 1557.
It should, however, be noted that despite his popularity within the Order, the same cannot always be said when it came to the Maltese. Many saw him as arrogant, and extremely harsh with anyone who dared criticise him. One such episode concerned the Maltese doctor Mattew Callus, a member of the Mdina Universita, who dispatched a letter to the King of Spain to inform him of de Valette’s controversial decision to reduce the power and funding of the Universita. Unfortunately for him, the letter never reached the King, being instead intercepted by de Valette’s spies, leading to Callus’ execution for the crime of treason.
4. Refused the chance to be made a cardinal
Following the Order's impressive victory in the Great Siege of 1565, Jean de Valette himself became extremely popular, earning the gratitude of many European monarchs, who showered him with gifts, including the offer of a cardinal’s hat from the Pope, which was promptly refused. Although this has often been put down to de Valette’s sense of modesty and humility, in truth it was driven more by the desire to maintain the Order’s independence from the papacy.
Of course, Jean de Valette did accept other gifts, the most well-known being the ornamental sword and dagger received from Philip II of Spain. Although given personally to de Valette, he bequeathed them to the Order upon his death, and they remained in Malta until being looted by French troops in 1798. After reputedly spending time in Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal possession, they eventually ended up at the Louvres museum in Paris.
5. Fathered illegitimate children
Although the Knights of St. John were required to take a vow of celibacy, it is well-known that many of them fathered illegitimate children. Jean De Valette was no exception. It has been claimed that he had a mistress called Catherine, nicknamed Grecque (Greek), with whom he fathered a son called Barthélemy. Catherine would almost certainly have been one of the many Rhodiots who settled in Malta together with the Knights in 1530, or perhaps the daughter of one. As for Barthélemy, despite the circumstances surrounding his birth, documentary evidence proves that in 1568 he was legitimised through a decree of King Charles IX of France.
Claims have also been put forth that de Valette had at least another daughter, Isabella Guasconi, after a presumed affair with the wife of a Rhodiot nobleman of Florentine descent. Formally, the record refers to Isabella as the nobleman’s daughter, but that appears to be a thin pretence convenient to keep up appearances. The records show that de Valette had held Isabella in baptism; the statutes of the Order forbade knights from acknowledging illegitimate offspring, and they circumvented this ban by standing as godfathers. De Valette had also stood at Isabella’s side on her wedding day as if giving her away. In fact, it seems that he had taken upon himself the marriage arrangements, “for his own private reasons”.
6. Died with a broken heart
Sadly, once the euphoria of the victory over the Ottomans had subsided, de Valette’s health seems to have suddenly deteriorated, perhaps partly driven by fears that he would not be able to cover the cost of building Valletta. He became paranoid that some of the knights were plotting against him, and started to behave irrationally. What dealt him the last cruel blow was the murder of his daughter Isabella. Her Florentine husband, a certain Stefano Buonaccorsi, had become obsessed with his wife's real or perceived infidelity, and on 31st July 1568, in a fit of jealousy, he stabbed her to death, before fleeing Malta with all her valuables.
Not surprisingly perhaps, this latest incident totally unhinged de Valette. He convened the Council of the Order, despite the fact that neither the criminal nor the victim were members of the organisation, and mobilised all the Order’s resources in a manhunt to bring Buonaccorsi to justice. The fugitive was nowhere to be found, however, and de Valette was denied justice.
In an effort to momentarily take his mind off the matter, Jean de Valette immersed himself in his favourite sport: hunting with falcons. The following morning, he suffered a stroke and was laid low in bed with an intractable fever for several days. It is said that there occurred a number of sinister omens giving warning of his imminent death; a deafening noise was heard in the sky, a school of dolphins ran aground in Marsaxlokk, and then all of de Valette’s pets died together. Jean de Valette passed away on 21st August, exactly on the anniversary of his election as Grand Master, and less than a month after his daughter’s murder. He was laid to rest at the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Valletta, although he was later reinterred in the Grand Masters' Crypt in St. John’s Co-Cathedral, where his tomb bears the following inscription:
"Here lies La Valette. Worthy of eternal honour, He who was once the scourge of Africa and Asia, And the shield of Europe, Whence he expelled the barbarians by his Holy Arms, Is the first to be buried in this beloved city, Whose founder he was."
How many of these facts were you aware of?
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