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Carnival (Maltese: il-Karnival ta' Malta) has had an important place on the Maltese cultural calendar for just under five centuries, having been introduced to the Islands by Grand Master Piero de Ponte in 1535.
The carnival is held during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, and typically includes masked balls, fancy dress and grotesque mask competitions, lavish late-night parties, a colourful, ticker-tape parade of allegorical floats presided over by King Carnival (Maltese: ir-Re tal-Karnival), marching bands and costumed revellers.
Carnival has been celebrated in Malta since the 15th century, but it received a major boost in 1535, five years after the arrival of the Order of St John. This started taking place officially in Birgu where a number of knights played games and displayed their skills in various pageants and tournaments.
However, the second Grand Master to rule in Malta, Piero de Ponte, complained that some knights had exaggerated in their banquets and masquerades, and there were numerous abuses and brawls. At the general assembly of knights a week later, De Ponte made it clear that he would no longer tolerate any wild excesses, especially since they came from members of a religious community. He limited himself to approving tournaments and other military exercises necessary to Christian knights to train themselves for battle against the Turks.
In 1560, Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette too, felt he had to reprimand his knights for going overboard with their festivities. He had allowed the wearing of masks in public (which was forbidden in Malta for the rest of the year) and this made the celebrations more fun. The knights decorated the ships of the Order's fleet in harbour and there was song, dance and revelry never seen in Malta before. But La Valette was not amused at the number of people wearing masks who had been invited to celebrate Carnival aboard the vessels held up in Grand Harbour by unfavourable weather conditions.
Much later, in 1639, the old and austere Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris issued a proclamation prohibiting women from wearing masks or participating in ball organised at the knights' auberges on penalty of being publicly whipped. Another order was that nobody could wear a costume to represent the Devil.
Neither the knights nor the women took kindly to these prohibitions, blaming the Jesuit Fr Cassia, who was the Grand Master's confessor. Some of the most spirited decided to make fun of the Jesuits. While one of the dressed as a Jesuit with offensive writings on his back, four others dressed as scoundrels who pretended to beat him mercilessly. This was reported to the Grand Master, who had one knight, Girolamo Selvatico from Padua, arrested as he was believed to have organised the satire.
This caused considerable unrest; the Jesuits' college was attacked and ransacked by young knights and force was used to help Selvatico escape from St James Cavalier. They demanded that Lascaris expel the Jesuits from Malta and close their church, which he did till things calmed down. It was a historical irony that during the Carnival of 1823, 110 children inside the Jesuits' church were trampled to death following some argument. To this day one can hear a Maltese idiom " Wiċċ Laskri" which is used to describe a nervous and sad person.
On February 27, 1664, Inquisitor Galeazzo Marescotti wrote that the traditional Carnival celebrations ended quietly that year because the knights were still mourning the death of their Grand Master Raphael Cotoner. In 1678, Inquisitor Ercole Visconti mentioned the "scandals" involving some knights during Carnival days.
The Maltese were scandalised by what they saw, leading the ailing Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner to take steps after listening to Visconti's complaints. And we are told that Cotoner wasn't easily scandalised in his early years as Grand Master.
On the second day of Carnival the following year two knights, named Gori and Saraceni, wearing masks, insulted Paolo Testaferrata, a depositary of the Inquisition, for no reason whatsoever. Inquisitor Giacomo Cantelmo complained to the Grand Master, who explained that it would be better to accept an apology rather than create any fuss. Saraceni went with two other knights to look for Testaferrata and excused himself saying that he had not recognised him. Than he called on Cantelmo to pay his respects.
The Parata Dance
True to an age-old tradition, Carnival was ushered in by the Parata which was taken very seriously both by the knights and the people in general as it was of special significance in the history of this festival.
It was customary for some peasants and later companies of young dancers to gather early under the balcony of the Grandmaster's Palace and wait eagerly until they received formal permission from him to told the Carnival. The most recently appointed Knight Grand Cross would obtain the necessary permission and a proclamation giving the go-ahead to Carnival was immediately read from the Palace balcony.
This was the sign for the general merriment to start, and the companies dressed as Christians and Turks performed a mock fight recalling the Great Siege of 1565. Then a girl representing Malta was carried shoulderhigh and taken around the streets of Valletta. Meanwhile a stone would be hung from the Castellania, or Palace of Justice (now the Ministry of Health, in Merchants Street), as a sign that justice was "suspended" for the three days of Carnival.
Inquisitor Fabrizio Serbelloni tells us that he was invited by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) to enjoy the last day of Carnival from the palace. "It was a popular feast attended by the Bishop and many Knights Grand Cross." In fact, the Sunday afternoon défilé was usually led by the Grand Master's carriage flanked by cavalry marching to the beating of drums. Then followed other decorated open carriages and finally came the decorated floats.
Grand Master Ramon Despuig (1736-1741) was asked by the Holy Office through the Inquisitors to dedicate himself to the Order's reform. But this was never taken seriously; indeed, certain knights were frequenting women of ill repute.
Inquisitor Luigi Gualterio (also spelled Ludovico Gualtieri) couldn't proceed against these knights but started sending his spies to keep an eye on them. One novice, by the name of De Livry, used to organise dinners with these women. He was reported to the Grand Master, who admitted that he did not know what was happening in Malta. However the knight was arrested and he and another seven young knights who was misbehaved during the last Carnival were expelled from the island.
Carnival parades during the British period, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were noted for their biting satirical themes, and many of the intricate floats were designed to poke fun at political figures and unpopular government decisions; however, political satire was essentially banned as a result of a law passed in 1936.
The largest of the carnival celebrations mainly take place in and around the capital city Valletta and Floriana, however there are several "spontaneous" carnivals in more remote villages of Malta and Gozo. The Nadur Carnival is notable for its darker and more risqué themes including cross-dressing, ghost costumes, political figures and revellers dressed up as scantily clad clergyfolk. The Għaxaq spontaneous carnival is an original carnival organised by the inhabitants of this locality, where people wear masks and all the old-fashioned clothes that they can find in their wardrobe.
Traditional dances include the parata, which is a lighthearted re-enactment of the 1565 victory of the Knights over the Turks, and an 18th-century court dance known as il-Maltija. The parata, in these days is being held by the 1st Hamrun Scout Group.
Food eaten at the carnival includes perlini (multi-coloured, sugar-coated almonds) and the prinjolata, which is a towering assembly of sponge cake, biscuits, almonds and citrus fruits, topped with cream and pine nuts.
Grand Master Marc'Antonio Zondadari introduced the game of kukkanja (cockaigne) to carnival in 1721: on a given signal, the crowd assembled in Palace Square converged on a collection of hams, sausages and live animals hidden beneath leafy branches outside the guard house. The provisions became the property of those who, having seized them, were able to carry them off.
- The Sunday Times of Malta, of 18 February, 2007, page 56, article by Tony C. Cutajar.