Maroma Camilleri

National Library of Malta, Deputy Librarian

The National Library of Malta and Its Collections

The National Library of Malta, generally known as the Bibliotheca, is an imposing edifice situated in the heart of Malta’s capital city Valletta. It forms part of the Malta Libraries entity which also includes the public libraries network comprising regional and branch libraries operating all over the Maltese islands. The mission of Malta Libraries is to ‘ensure the collection and conservation of Malta’s documentary heritage for present and future generations, to maintain and develop the libraries regulated under the Malta Libraries Act, and to encourage reading for study, research, self-development and lifelong-learning information and leisure purposes.’ The national library achieves this aim by collecting and preserving all possible library material whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form. In just over 465 years since its inception, a fine national collection of books, manuscripts, newspapers, maps, engravings and other material spanning almost a thousand years has been built. The national library is constantly committed to acquiring, assembling and preserving for posterity the nation’s written and printed heritage, and making it accessible to scholars, researchers and the general public.

NLM, Plans Collection V11B: Plan of the Valletta waterfront showing the Pinto Stores (Credit: Malta Libraries)

The idea of the formation of a library by the ruling Hospitaller Knights of St John originated in 1555 with the issue of a decree by the grand master of the order, Fra Claude de la Sengle, whereby all books in the legacies of deceased knights were to pass to the Common Treasury of the Order. However, the history of the Bibliotheca as we know it today goes back to the 1760s and was very closely linked with two prominent members of the Order of St John – Fra Louis Guérin de Tencin (1702–66), a bailiff grand cross of the order belonging to the langue of Provence, and Cardinal Fra Joaquìn Portocarrero (1681–1760) who upon his death left a collection of 5,570 volumes as well as a number of mathematical instruments. On the cardinal’s death, de Tencin purchased his collection from the treasury of the order and amalgamated it with his own 9,700-strong collection as well as with that of Knight-Commander Fra Charles Fassion de St Jay. He then donated them to the order on condition that they form part of a public library which was to be built for the purpose in a suitable place. Meanwhile, he rented a large palace known as the Forfantone situated on the main street of Valletta, and it was there that the nucleus of the Bibliotheca began to grow, under the watchful eye of the Gozitan erudite scholar, Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis, appointed by de Tencin to be the first librarian. De Tencin, himself a meticulous collector of books, in the introduction to the manuscript catalogue of his personal collection lamented the total lack of awareness of the importance of knowledge and education both within the ruling class of Malta as well as among the Maltese population. De Tencin died in 1766 and ten years later Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan decreed the formal foundation of a Bibliotheca Publica, expressly so that the order may have ‘religiosi utili, ed atti al di lei servizio, e Vassalli istruiti dei loro doveri.’ This was the original raison d’être behind the foundation of the public library. De Tencin had lived long enough to see his scheme through the initial difficulties and though he did not live to see the formal recognition of his work, he is rightly considered to be the founder of the Malta Public Library.

The present building of the Bibliotheca, erected between 1786 and 1796, was the last major architectural work of the Knights of St John before their expulsion from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. The architect responsible for the design was Stefano Ittar (1724–90), a Polish-born architect residing in Italy. Although the construction was completed before the departure of the order, it was left unoccupied until the year 1812 when the British civil commissioner, Sir Hildebrand Oakes, realising the need to utilise this new building built expressly to house the Bibliotheca, ordered the transfer of the existing books, which by then had dwindled from about 80,000 to 30,000, from the Forfantone to the new premises. From then on, the Malta Public Library, as it was then called, continued to flourish with a number of new acquisitions. In 1925, the library acquired its ‘legal deposit’ status by an act of parliament and 11 years later was granted the prefix ‘royal’ by King George V. In 1976, the Bibliotheca was officially designated as the National Library of Malta and became solely a research and reference library.

The National Library of Malta’s main attraction lies in the historic collection of books belonging to the Knights of St John as well as their archives spanning the years 1107–1798. The impressive collection of printed material includes several first editions and very rare works, such as a 1566 edition of the Propheties of Nostradamus and early sixteenth-century editions of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. The collection also comprises a considerable number of works produced by the Venetian printing house of Aldus Manutius (1449–1515). These rare Aldine editions include Aesop’s fables printed in 1505 and Plato’s complete works printed in 1513. Within the library’s vast collection of pre-nineteenth century books is also a smaller collection of rare bindings, notably those donated to de Tencin ex typographia regia by King Louis XV of France. De Tencin himself brought over to Malta from France several French bookbinders to bind books in his collection, and this can be seen in the tooling found on the book spines.

NLM, Libr. Codex I: Illuminated manuscript depicting the life of St Anthony the Hermit (Credit: Malta Libraries)

The Archives of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, referred to as AOM, only found a suitable abode at the Bibliotheca in 1937 when the librarian, Hannibal Scicluna, requested to have them transferred from the public registry. This substantial corpus of documents consists of the papers produced and received by the Chancery of the Order since its origins until the end of its rule in Malta in 1798. The archives contain the title-deeds, privileges, correspondence and other documents concerning the central authority of the order, that is, the grand master and his council, the chapter general, the priories, the commanderies and individual knights. The earliest document, dated 1107, is a charter issued by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem confirming the donation of property to the religious of San Salvator de Monte Tabor. The property was transferred to the Hospital of St John in the thirteenth century. However, the most precious document in the archives is undoubtedly the Piae Postulatio Voluntatis, a papal privilege dated 1113, whereby Pope Paschal II officially recognised the Hospital of St John (later to become the Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta) as an operative and militant part of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, he granted it papal protection and confirmed its properties in Europe and Asia. Although the script on the document is now considerably faded and the parchment torn and repaired in two places, it is in quite a satisfactory state of conservation, considering its 900 years of existence. Also worth mentioning is the deed of donation issued by Emperor Charles V and his mother Ioanna in the town of Castelfranco in 1530, granting the Maltese islands and Tripoli as a fief to the Order of St John following their expulsion from Rhodes. The official archives of the Order in Malta come to an abrupt halt with the end of its rule in Malta in 1798. The post-1798 documents are conserved in the magistral archives in the Grand Magistry in Rome.

A separate archival group composed of the records of the treasury of the Order of Malta (Treas.) consists of 555 volumes divided into three series. These constitute the financial records formerly preserved in the government treasury. The ‘Treasury A’ section is a miscellanea of documents produced both by the Order of St. John and by the Università dei Giurati of Mdina. The ‘Treasury B’ documents consist of the registers, journals of income and expenditure, libri esigenziali and cabrei of several foundations. The recently discovered ‘Treasury C’ series comprises the ledger books of two institutions, namely the Massa Frumentaria during the time of the knights until 1805, and the government treasury during the British Protectorate of Malta between 1800 and 1813. Another archival group which is of particular interest to Maltese social historians is the Univ. fonds which is composed of volumes pertaining to the medieval Università dei Giurati of Mdina and Valletta. The rich documentation found in these archives sheds light on the powers and activities of the Consiglio Popolare and the Maltese giurati from the time of the Aragonese rule in Malta until 1818, when the Consiglio Popolare was suppressed by the British. The earliest records date from the fourteenth century. 

By its very nature and mission, the National Library of Malta specialises in the collection of Melitensia, namely published material by Maltese authors or on any subject relating to the Maltese islands, in the form of books, pamphlets, newspapers, journals and single-sheet items, as well as audio and visual recordings. In accordance with legal deposit legislation, the Malta Libraries’ national bibliographic office conserves a copy of every locally published work which is deposited by the publisher or author free of charge. Another copy is delivered to the Gozo National Library. Additional copies of such material are purchased by the national library in order to facilitate access and consultation. The rich collection of Melitensia includes some rare and important items, such as several editions of Gio. Francesco Abela’s Descrittione di Malta first printed in Malta in 1647, Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s Mylsen Phoenico-Punicum (Rome, 1791) and his Lexicon Melitensis or Ktŷb yl Klŷm Mâlti (Rome, 1796). Also worthy of note is the immense collection of pamphlets and ephemera mostly bound in volumes entitled Miscellanea. 

A considerable part of the national library’s Melitensia collection is made up of newspapers and other periodical literature, either published locally or abroad but of direct interest to Maltese affairs. Among the latter are to be found a number of newspapers published by Maltese emigrant communities in various countries. The earliest material dates back to 1798, when the newly established French administration in Malta published the first local newspaper, the Journal de Malte. Ten issues of this short-lived gazette are known to have been published, only some of which are available at the national library. From 1813 onwards, the local administration started publishing the Gazzetta del Governo di Malta. This has continued to be published, with some changes in its title and format, down to the present day. A fundamentally important development in Maltese journalism came with the granting of freedom of the press, by Ordinance IV of 15 March 1839. This was to result in the publication of a large number of newspapers in Italian, English and Maltese. Since that date, a vast number of periodical titles have been published, covering practically all aspects of Maltese social, political, cultural and economic life. 

The National Library of Malta possesses a small but important collection of 62 incunabula, that is, books printed before 1500. Among them is Ptolemy’s Cosmographia. printed by Petrus de Turre in Rome in 1490. The collection has grown over the years by means of donations and purchases. When printing was introduced in the mid-fifteenth century, printers produced mostly ancient texts. Thus, the texts of the incunabula present at the national library may be roughly divided into the classics, that is, works by Roman and Greek authors such as Plato, Aristoteles, Plautus and Seneca; and early religious works by, for example, St Augustine, St Albert the Great and Pope St Gregory the Great. The collection features two works by Guillaume Caoursin, chancellor of the Order of St John in the fifteenth century. These are the Obsidionis Rhodiae urbis descriptio (Venice, 1480) and the well-known Rhodiorum Historia (Ulm, 1496) which belonged to the knight Fra Sabba di Castiglione who died in 1554. The book bears Fra Sabba’s signature as well as an autograph note by the historiographer Fra Giacomo Bosio.

NLM, AOM 6: The 1113
Pie Postulatio Voluntatis papal privilege (Credit: Malta Libraries)

The national library’s manuscript collection features significantly in this exhibition. The initial section of the collection is composed of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century codices. The provenance of most of the 23 codices is unfortunately undocumented, although we do know that some of them formed part of the outstanding collection of Fra Jacques-Laure Le Tonnellier, bailli de Breteüil (1723–85), a French knight and keen collector of manuscripts and rare books. He was the owner of Cod. VI and Cod. VIII, two exquisite books of hours carrying miniature illuminations. The first item in the collection is the precious manuscript depicting the life of St Anthony the Hermit in 196 miniature paintings, produced in 1426. This beautifully illuminated manuscript on parchment, which came to belong to the library through the merger between the library of the French Order of St Antoine de Viennois and that of the Order of St John in 1776, is undoubtedly one of the national library’s most treasured possessions. Another outstanding item of the collection is the Libro de l’arte dela mercatura, a fifteenth-century treatise on commerce and accounts by Benedetto de Cotrugli, which features in this exhibition (doc. 68).

The volumes belonging to the manuscript collection have been acquired by the library over the years through donations, bequests or purchase. These manuscripts in general concern the most diverse topics, ranging from literature, music, art, history and geography to mathematics, physics, chemistry, geometry and accountancy. As is to be expected in a country so historically rich as Malta, more than half of the national library manuscripts deal with history, which can be divided into two principal categories – Melitensia and Hierosolymitana. A close study of the collection shows that the works dealing with Maltese history treat ecclesiastical and civil/political topics. By far the most prolific writer of Melitensia present in the collection is Ignazio Saverio Mifsud whose Stromata occupy no less than 24 manuscript volumes. Another outstanding Maltese historian whose writings about Malta and its language and history feature prominently in the collection is the abovementioned G. P. F Agius de Soldanis whose well-known four-volume dictionary Damma tal Kliem Kartaginis features words in Italian, Latin and Punico-Maltese. His most celebrated work, Gozo Antico-Moderno, includes a very detailed manuscript map of Gozo. With regard to ecclesiastical or religious history, worthy of mention is the well-known report of Mgr Pietro Dusina, apostolic visitor to Malta in 1574–75, of which four copies are found in the collection.

The rich and chequered history of the Order of St John occupies an important place in the collection, the reason being that most of the writings were produced during the order’s 268-year rule. The volumes include a number of diaries as well as the catalogues of the original collections of Cardinal Portocarrero and Bailiff de Tencin, which formed the nucleus of the Bibliotheca. Another manuscript boasts of two original ink-and-wash drawings by Calabrian artist Fra Mattia Preti, himself a knight of Malta, as its frontispieces. One also finds manuscripts written by such prominent knights as Fra Romano Carapecchia and Fra Christian Osterhausen. The more modern section of the collection includes two volumes of watercolours depicting views of Malta by Danish artist Charles Frederick de Brocktorff as well as handwritten drafts or typescripts of later-published works by prominent Maltese literary figures such as Anton Buttigieg, Ninu Cremona and Ġużè Aquilina. The library manuscript collection continues to grow thanks to the acquisition of new manuscripts from various sources. The same may be said of the library’s sizeable photographic and postcard collection which is augmented regularly by means of purchases and donations.

The national library also houses a small collection of maps and plans ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The manuscript designs and plans encompass the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and mostly depict the fortifications that surround the harbour cities and other important areas of the Maltese islands. This significant and unique collection is of exceptional value since it documents the progress of the fortifications in Malta and Gozo in their various phases of development as the massive walls grew to achieve the grandiose and majestic proportions we see today. The collection of maps dates back to the sixteenth century and includes some rare items, among them Great Siege maps by sixteenth-century Italian engravers Domenico Zenoi and Tommaso Barlacchi, as well as maps of Malta and the city of Valletta by such eminent cartographers as Antonio Lafreri, Abraham Ortelius, Nicolas de Fer, Frederik de Wit, Pieter van der Aa and A. F. G. Palmeus.

Since the National Library of Malta possesses such a great wealth of documents and rare books, the need has been felt over the past years to render this prestigious material more accessible to the public. Thus, a number of initiatives and projects have been undertaken by the library to promote its priceless holdings. Apart from the ongoing process of digitisation of the library collections, an ambitious programme of theme-based public lectures was embarked upon in 2018–19 with great success. The 2019–20 series had to be suspended in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, an alternative was found and the lectures were offered in the form of filmed documentary features which were uploaded on the national library’s Facebook page and Youtube channel. The 2020–21 series has also been highly successful and the organisation of the 2021–22 series of features is currently underway. Such a measure not only increases the awareness and appreciation of the national library collections but further supports knowledge and ensures inclusive and equitable quality education for all.