The Inquisition in Malta


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The Roman Inquisition

The Roman Inquisition was a system of tribunals developed by the Holy See during the second half of the 16th century, responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of a wide array of crimes related to heresy, including sorcery, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft, as well for censorship of printed literature. The tribunals covered most of the Italian peninsula as well as Malta and also existed in isolated pockets of papal jurisdiction in other parts of Europe, including Avignon, in France. The Congregation of the Holy Office, one of the original 15 congregations of the Roman Curia created by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, presided over the activity of the local tribunals. While the Roman Inquisition was originally designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy, the institution outlived its original purpose, and the system of tribunals lasted until the mid 18th century, when the Italian states began to suppress the local inquisitions, effectively eliminating the power of the church to prosecute heretical crimes.

The Pope appointed one cardinal to preside over the meetings. There were usually ten other cardinals who were members of the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also had an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advised it on specific questions. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," and the first to be "formally heretical" and the second "at least erroneous in faith" in theology. This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until revised and Galileo Galilei to be admonished about his Copernicanism. It was this same body in 1633 that tried Galileo, condemned him for a "grave suspicion of heresy", and banned all his works.

Among the subjects of this Inquisition were Francesco Patrizi, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Girolamo Cardano, Cesare Cremonini, and Galileo Galilei. Of these, only Bruno was executed; Galileo died under house arrest, and Campanella was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. The miller Domenico Scandella was also put to the stake on the orders of Pope Clement VIII in 1599.

The Inquisition also concerned itself with the Benandanti in the Friuli region, but considered them a lesser danger than the Reformation and only handed out light sentences.

The Inquisition in Malta (1561 to 1798) is generally considered to have been gentler than the Spanish Inquistition.

Italian historian Andrea Del Col estimates that out of 62,000 cases judged by Inquisition in Italy after 1542 only 2% (ca. 1250) ended with death sentence.

The last notable action of the Roman Inquisition occurred in 1858, in Bologna, when Inquisition agents kidnapped a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, separating him from his family.[3] The local inquisitor had learned that the boy was secretly baptised by his nursemaid. Pope Pius IX raised the boy as a Catholic in Rome. The boy's father, Momolo Montara, spent years seeking help in all quarters, including internationally, to try to reclaim his son. The case received international attention and fueled the anti-papal sentiments that helped the Italian Nationalism movement.

The coming of the Roman Inquisition to Malta, 1561


Before the arrival of the Order there already existed a tribunal of the old medieval Inquisition in Malta under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Palermo. The Bishopric of Domenico Cubelles (1542-1566) was divided into two periods: as bishop of Malta (1542-62) and as bishop and inquisitor (1562-66). The Inquisition was officially established as a separate institution from the Bishop in 1574. This came about almost by incident. 

Grandmaster La Cassiere sought the advice of Pope Gregory XIII over a quarrel between him and Bishop Royas. Mgr. Pietro Dusina was sent as mediator, apostolic visitor and inquisitor. His office lasted for only nine months, but it served enough to set up the Inquisition as a separate institution from the Bishop’s Court.


Who were the Inquisitors?


The Roman Inquisition (or Holy Office) was the official stand by the Catholic Church against Protestantism. It was set up in 1542 by Pope Paul III. Its aim was to inculcate a sense of correct behaviour and the correct beliefs expected from a Catholic. The Inquisition subordinated all aspects of life and government, acted as a watchdog against all kinds of heresies, including blasphemy, apostasy, bigamy, reading of prohibited books and the practice of magic. 


The greatest concern for the Inquisitors in the 16th century were heretics and the reading of prohibited books that were brought to Malta by foreign Protestants. In the 17th century the Inquisitors sought to deal with the impact on the Maltese, especially women, of the growing number of Muslim slaves practicing sorcery and magic. In the 18th century the Inquisition entered its period of decline. Inquisitors became mostly concerned with the increase of blasphemy, bigamy and apostasy to Islam.


The Inquisitor as Papal Legate (ambassador) exercised great power in Malta as the direct representative of the Holy See. In many instances of quarrels with the Grandmaster or the Bishop, it was usually the Inquisitor who came out victorious because he had the more support at the Holy See in Rome . Most Inquisitors who came to Malta were able and ambitious clergymen, who later became Cardinals and two of them were elected Popes (Alexander VII in 1655 and Innocent XII in 1687). 


The Inquisitor's Palaces at Vittoriosa and Girgenti


The Inquisitor's Palace is found in the city of Vittoriosa , one of the very few surviving of its kind in Europe and South America . It contains one of the rare early modern prison structures which still survives. Not much attention has been given to the building. A few years ago the building was restored and transformed into an Inquisition museum and opened for visitors. Until 1571 the Inquisitor's Palace had been used as the seat of the Castellania (Law Courts) of the Order. The building had been left vacant when the Knights moved to Valletta until it was handed over to Mgr. Dusina in 1574 as the first Inquisitor in Malta. Various Inquisitors in the 17th and 18th centuries undertook a number of additions and alterations to the original building in order to make it more comfortable and adapted to serve its functions as: residence, court and prison of the Inquisition Tribunal in Malta. 


In 1625 inquisitor Onorato Visconti   built a palace and a chapel to serve as summer residence for himself and for his successors at Girgenti, limits of Siggiewi (today the Girgenti Palace serves as Countrul Residence of the Prime Minister). It was renovated by inquisitor Angelo Dorini in 1763.


The end of the Inquisition in Malta, June 1798


The Inquisition came to a sudden end in Malta when the French took over the islands in June 1798. The Inquisitor was given 48 hours to leave Malta and the Tribunal was closed down. The rich archives of the Inquisition were taken over by the Bishop's Curia. In the 1970s these archives were transferred to the Cathedral Museum of Mdina where they were opened for research by scholars and historians. These archives give us important information on how the Inquisition Tribunal functioned and what went on inside its prisons.



How was life in the Inquisitor's prison?


There were two prison sections: one for detention (ad custodiam) before a trial and one for punishment (ad poenam) after a sentence. In both cases prisoners were kept in separate cells. Prison sentences were frequent but of short duration – from a few days to a few years. In the 1630s Inquisitor Fabio Chigi had to slow down the sentencing process because the cells were so full that they could not host other prisoners. Life in the prisons was not as desperate as in most civil prisons of the time. In civil prisons, women and children were put together with adult criminals in cells with no beds or sewers. In the Inquisitor’s prisons, prisoners could receive presents and food from relatives and friends. There were no fixed schedules for eating. They could make use of a candle at night and have beds with straw mattresses and blankets. Some had toilet facilities in their cells; others were taken by the warden to the toilet pit. Prisoners were kept in good health by regular visits by a doctor, giving medicine to sick prisoners or taking them to hospital. The Inquisitor took care

also of the spiritual needs of the prisoners: they could confess in their own cell, taught catechism and attend Mass.


Prisoners usually used their free time to decorate the walls of their cells with all sorts of graffiti (e.g. ships, religious motifs, symbols, dates, initials. Gambling, singing and playing music were other common pastimes. Attempts at escape were most common at night. One prisoner Pietro Licini escaped eight times in 1697-98, once by removing a stone from the wall of his cell that led to one of the streets. Others tried to commit suicide by poison o hanging. On leaving the prison, prisoners had to take an oath not to reveal anything they had seen or heard in the prisons. 




The overall contribution of the Inquisition was to introduce the concept of the prisoners’ reform whereby prisoners were made to ‘pay’ for their misdeeds. The emphasis of most Inquisitors was on the ‘reformation’ of the prisoner not on his ‘elimination’ as was usually the case in the civil prisons of the time. 


Some case studies of sentences given by the Malta Inquisition Tribunal


1. Carlo Vella, prison warden , in 1670 was dismissed from his job for having stabbed Antonio Rave' to whom Vella was in debt.


2. Antonio Bellia, prison warden, in 1622 asked a Muslim slave to keep his money, which he later stolen. 


3. Lazzaro Seichel, prison warden, in 1705 was found guilty of having had sexual relations with a female prisoner and was condemned for 5 years on the Order's galleys.  


4. Giovanni Maria Zammit, in 1725 escaped from his cell while the warden was fetching water from the well in the courtyard. He disguised himself as a beggar but was caught one month later. 


5. Salvatore Cauchi from Zebbug was imprisoned for 1 day for insulting some Church dignitaries.


6. Two Greeks (Gioanne and Costantino) were found guilty of apostasy to Islam. They were not sent to the galleys because they were disabled and were imprisoned for 3years  and 18 months  respectively instead.  


7. Sulpita de Lango, in 1618 was imprisoned for 8 years because of sorcery. 


8. Blasio Visei, a Genoese buonavoglia, was accused of false testimony and sentenced to row on the galleys for 2 years.  


Constant problems which arose between the Inquisition, the Bishop and the Order


The Inquisition was the third authority in the Maltese islands, and various incidents took place between members of the Curia, the Order and the Inquisition. The population looked at the Inquisition as a Court of redress. Thus the Inquisition became the authority to whom the

Maltese could appeal against given sentences by the Grand Master’s or bishop’s court. The inquisition differed from all forms of secular justice since it was penitential, that is, it aimed at instilling in the culprits a sense of penitence.


Although Inquisitors had full power over persons of any rank, they had no power just over two persons: the Grand Master and the Bishop of Malta. But still it was his duty to denounce them to the Supreme Congregation in case of some evident error against the faith. Those who were at the root of friction between the Inquisitor and the other authorities in Malta were the lay patentees. These patentees were the envy of all in Malta . They depended totally on the Inquisitor in a sense that the Grand Master and the Bishop had no jurisdiction over them. Therefore, they were a continual source of friction, particularly with the Grand Master.



The Inquisitor's Palace



The Inquisitor's Palace, sited in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving examples of a style of palace that would have been found all over Europe and South America in the early modern period. Many such buildings succumbed to the ravages of time or became victims of the reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution against the ancien regime and all it represented. The fact that Malta's palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main ruling powers on the Island helped ensure its survival.

The palace also survived the Second World War and the threat of modern development. Although its successive occupants changed much in the structure of the building, the Inquisitor's Palace remains an architectural gem, representative of the chequered history and European heritage of the Islands.

The palace was not built purposely as a residence for the Inquisitor. It was erected in the 1530s as the civil law courts of the Order of St John (Castellania) soon after the Knights arrived in Malta. It continued to serve as law courts until 1571, when the Order transferred its headquarters to Valletta after the siege of 1565.

The palace then remained empty, but not for long. 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. They all shared the same cultural values of clerical baroque Roman society, and by the mid-18th century they had managed successfully to transform the building into a typical Roman palace.

The Inquisitor's Palace is now home to the museum of Ethnography. It focuses on the popular devotions and religious values latent in Maltese ethnic identity and culture up to the present day. The palace was the ideal place to emphasise such a concept since the raison d'etre of the Inquisition was to model popular devotions and religious culture and make them conform to the official doctrines sanctioned by the Church and imposed by the Council of Trent (1545-63). The Council dictates moulded Catholic faith and practice until the mid-20th century and influenced all major Catholic ceremonies, including the most important - rites of passage of birth, marriage and death.

Today, the Inquisitor's Palace is being given a new lease of life. Careful historical reconstruction of the palace is under way based on extensive research of documents in the Inquisition archives in Malta and at the Vatican. In addition to the display areas in the tribunal room, the prison complex, and the kitchen which are already restored, there is a permanent exhibition on the impact of the Inquisition on Maltese society. The exhibition studies themes such as the Eucharist, the Holy Family, confession, preaching, and the cult of saints.


Girgenti Palace



Close to Siggiewi, at the western  end of the island, is the fertile little valley of Girgenti. At its head is a flat, rocky ledge, from which the ground falls sharply below what it is  a precipice in miniature. At the foot of the lodge is a grove of poplars, medlars, lemon, orange and pomengaranate trees; all sorts of shrubs grow with a luxuriance rare in Malta besides running water that irrigates the farms below.

On the ledge, when even in summer is cool and in winter is buffeted by every wind that blows, stands a little gem of a house - plain harmonious, restrained.

Girgenti was built by Inquisitor Onorato Visconti in 1625 and commands a superb view of the surrounding country. Its gardens are watered by a number of springs, the main one being that of Għajn il-Kbir, which also irrigates the valley of Girgenti below. Its chapel, dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo, was built by Inquisitor (later Cardinal) Angleo Dorini in 1763.

The facade consists of three blocks which lie in one continuous face with recessed panels and plain projecting strips marking the vertical and horizontal divisions. The window surrounds consists of similar palin strips whilst the central axis is accented by a balustraded balcony over the door and a high semi sercular-headed French window in the first floor. Good proportions, a clear articualtion and an interesting broken skyline produce a pleasant effect so that, although plain, the facade in neither monotonous nor preceptibly severe. It is worth nothing the effectiveness of the single top windows in the two wings. 

The ground floor plan originally consisted of seven rooms built in a row overlooking the beautiful valley. Three of these rooms, to the right of the entrance hall, now form what is called the Long Room, the prinicipal reception room. At the back of this is a narrow passage which is connected by a graceful loggia to the charming little chapel, which is now the Dining Room. To the left of the entrance hall is a small study and a serving room which leads to the old kitchen.
The first floor extends over the whole of the ground. It includes the Library which is a beautiful high ceilinged room with windows in three of the four walls. This floor also contains the main bedroom with it's private terrace, as well as a secondary bedroom and Reading room.

The second floor only extends over the right wing and contains two bedrooms. What appears to be a second floor over the left wing has been taken up by the Library's high ceiling.

From 1625 to 1798, when the French regime suppressed the Inquisition, Girgenti was the summer residence of Malta's Inquisitors.  Of the 41 Inquisitors who used this house, 26 later became Cardinals and two became Popes, reigning as Alexander VII and Innocent XII respectively.

During the British period Girgenti served initially as the summer residence of the Lieutenant Governors of Malta. In the second World War it was used as one of the stores for the National Musuem's collection. It fell into total despair after the war and was partially restored in 1966 an 1967. It again fell into depair in the 1970's and was fully restored between 1988 and 1990, when it became the country residence of the Prime Ministers of Malta.



The Archives of the Roman Inquisition in Malta

Archivum Inquisitionis Melitensis (A.I.M.)

Housed in the Archives of the Cathedral Museum, Mdina, Malta.

The Cathedral Museum of Mdina contains the archives of the Roman Inquisition on Malta, one of two complete sets of Inquisitorial archives in Europe.  Sicilian Inquisitors had jurisdiction over Malta before 1561, and occasionally visited the island.  The Bishop of Malta handled most problems of ecclesiastical discipline.  But when the Emperor Charles V gave the island of Malta to the Order of the Hospital in 1530, he also introduced possible conflicts between two ecclesiastical overlords.  Pope Pius IV ordered a resident inquisitor on Malta in 1561, where the office lasted until 1798.  The Roman Inquisition on Malta ostensibly guarded against the introduction of Lutheranism and rooted out heresy, ignorance, and superstition. But the Inquisitor also checked the power of the Grand Master on Malta and reported to the Pope about the ecclesiastical misconduct of the Knights and their servants.  The Maltese Inquisitor's tribunal in Birgu formed one of the three centres of ecclesiastical power on Malta, balancing the Bishop in Mdina, and the Grand Master in Valletta. The office of the Inquisitor provided a stepping-stone to ecclesiastical promotion.  Many inquisitors went on to become bishops and cardinals, and two -- Fabio Chigi and Antonio Pignatelli - became Popes (Alexander VII and Innocent XII).  The French abolished the tribunal when they took the island in 1798, and its records were transferred to the Cathedral, where they remain to this day.

The inquisition on Malta had no connection with the Spanish Inquisition, which Ferdinand and Isabella set up to enforce religious conformity in Spain.  Instead, the word "inquisition" describes the nature of tribunal, which summoned those accused of religious improprieties and interrogated them to determine the facts of the case.  Like the Spanish Inquisition, the interrogation could include torture.  Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition on Malta released few people to the secular arm for execution (church courts could not execute the condemned, and heresy was considered a capital crime).  Instead, the Inquisitor sought to convince the accused to admit his or her errors and to impose the appropriate penance.  Very few Protestants appeared before the tribunal; the most notable case, involving two religious teachers accused of Lutheranism, occurred before the appointment of the Inquisitor in 1561, and the Grand Master shielded French members of the Order who were suspected of being Huguenots.  The best-known example of non-conformists was that of two English women, members of the Society of Friends, who tried to proselytize on Malta.  The Tribunal of the Inquisition held the women for five years (1658-1663) before finally expelling them from the island.

The Inquisitors realized that most of the cases coming before them sprang from ignorance of religious orthodoxy: husbands feigning illness to eat meat on fast days, foreign sailors blaspheming in taverns, and slaves who claimed to work magic.  Questions of religious identity arose concerning Maltese sailors who had been captured by Muslims and who may have converted to Islam. The local parishes encouraged the Maltese people to denounce blasphemers, sorcerers, and heretics to the tribunal. These denunciations reflect village conflicts and tensions. These circumstances also suggest that the greatest challenge facing the foreign-born Inquisitors was not eradicating heresy but understanding the language of the islanders.  The records of the Maltese Inquisition reveal much about daily life in Malta, particularly, the lives of the peasants and other classes usually hidden from the historical record. 


Brief Index of the Archives of the Maltese Inquistion. 

(Short descriptions of each volume are incorporated into the HMML online catalogue):


Index of the Archives of the Malta Inquistion



Alexander Bonnici, A bad reputation for the Maltese Inquisition under Mgr. John Baptist Gori Pannellini (1639-1646) [Valletta, Malta] : Malta Historical Society, 1973; idem, L'Inquisizione di Malta, 1561-1798 : riflessioni critiche circa il materiale edito e inedito   [Valletta, Malta] : Malta Historical Society, 1968; idem, Medieval and Roman Inquisition in Malta (Rabat, Malta : Religjon u Hajja, 1998) (San Gwann, Malta : P.E.G.); idem, A trial in front of an Inquisitor of Malta : 1562-1798  (Rabat, Malta : Religjon u Hajja, 1998) (San Gwann : P.E.G.)

Carmel Cassar, Witchcraft, sorcery, and the Inquisition : a study of cultural values in early modern Malta (Msida, Malta : Mireva Publications, 1996); idem, Sex, Magic and the Periwinkle, (Malta, 2000).

Charles Cassar, An Index of the Inquisition 1540-1575 (Hyphen 1990, n. 4), pp. 157-78.

Charles Cassar, "The Inquisition Tribunal and the Hospitaller Order of St. John" Melita Historica 71 (1993): 159-95.

Frans Ciappara, The Roman Inquisition in enlightened Malta  (Pieta, Malta : Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2000).

 Annetto Depasquale, Ecclesiastical immunity and the powers of the inquisitor in Malta (1777-1785) (Hamrun [Malta] St. Joseph's Home, 1968).

Andrew P. Vella, The Tribunal of the Inquisition in Malta (Royal University of Malta Historical Studies, 1, 1964; 2nd edition, with updated list of archival material by J. Azzopardi, 1973), Appendix IV, contains a handlist of the sections Memorie lasciate dagli Inquisitori and Corrispondenza.

C. V. Wedgwood, "The Conversion of Malta," Velvet Studies (London, 1949), pp. 129-137.