Thursday, 18 June 2015

Who actually discovered the 'Cantilena'?

It was Michael Fsadni alone who found the Cantilena



Now that, alas, both Michael Fsadni (pictured below) and Godfrey Wettinger have passed away, the truth can finally be told as to who really discovered Peter Caxaro’s famous Cantilena on September 22, 1966. To immediately cut to the chase, I here categorically state that it was Michael Fsadni alone who made the discovery. Wettinger came into the story later.

Before proceeding further to prove what I have just affirmed, I would like to express my sorrow for the loss of Wettinger as much as for Fsadni. Though no two persons could be found more unlike each other (Wettinger an avowed agnostic; Fsadni a scrupulous religious), they were both remarkable people. What made them so special, I think, was not only their inquisitive minds, their love of study and their persistent appetite for silent mischievousness, but also their eccentricities and unconventionalities. They were fun and lovable, though they both could choose to be very difficult and wilful at times. I personally miss them both very much.

Now, to come to my claim that it had been Fsadni alone who had discovered Caxaro’s Cantilena back in 1966, I must first say that I have personally spoke with both Fsadni and Wettinger at length about this matter. Each time I broached the subject to them (always separately), asking them point blank who had really discovered the poem, both reacted in the same manner: they lowered their eyes (avoiding eye contact), kept silent for a few seconds (pondering their answer), and smiled broadly (as if saying ‘I have been caught out’). None ever admitted straight and clear that it had been Fsadni alone. However, while Fsadni invariably came back with the same refrain “We discovered it together”, Wettinger never conceded as much. He craftily always avoided the ‘together’ part, and always answered by dodging the question. True to their characters, they both did not want to lie without, however, saying the truth. They were artful in this. Fsadni, for one, used ‘discovered’ not to refer to who actually located the document (which was him), but to who unravelled it (and thus bring it to light). Though when pressed he shirked from answering the question directly just like Wettinger. Nonetheless, none of them ever had the stomach to tell me that what I claimed about Fsadni making the actual discovery was false.

Moreover, during our discussions both Fsadni and Wettinger disclosed to me (independently of each other, I repeat) that, at one point or other prior to coming out with the discovery, there had been an explicit verbal accord between them—a sort of gentlemen’s agreement—that they shall forever tell everyone that the Cantilena had been discovered by both of them together. Both of them kept this up scrupulously to the last. Wettinger would not budge not even after Fsadni’s death in 2013.

This was Fsadni’s idea. Wettinger just played ball. Since the 1968 publication announcing the Cantilena’s discovery was co-authored, and Wettinger had laboured as much as Fsadni to unravel the poem’s puzzles, Fsadni did not want to take all the merit, thus displaying Wettinger as a sort of add-on. He considered that this would have been demeaning to his friend. Besides, Fsadni was no historian, and both he and Wettinger wanted the Cantilena to command respect from the start. Wettinger’s name was essential for this to happen.


My suspicion as to who, in reality, first discovered the actual document stood to reason. In 1966, Fsadni and Wettinger were separately researching their respective interests in Maltese history: Fsadni that concerning the Dominicans; Wettinger, slavery (with Maltese place names on the sidee). They first met at the National Library, introduced to each other by Prof. Carmelo Glanville (Fsadni’s brother-in-law). Fsadni introduced Wettinger (according to his own admission) to the Notarial Archives in Vassalli Street, Valletta, where, he was advised by Fsadni, the notarial deeds contained many a reference to both slavery and Maltese place names. The two scholars even promised one another to share whatever information they stumbled upon which interested the other (which they did). Back then the archives at Vassalli Street opened to the public only once a week for a few hours. Very few researchers visited. Since Fsadni and Wettinger regularly found themselves talking to each other while waiting together for the doors to open, they came to know each other quite well. As it happened, they often spoke about documentary evidence for the Maltese language back in the 16th century, which was very scanty. Once inside, they worked side by side in silence, each absorbed with their own research.

When, on September 22, 1966, while delving into a volume with the original deeds of Notary Brandan de Caxario, towards the end of the volume Fsadni came across the Cantilena, he immediately recognised its importance for Malta’s literary history and heritage. He spoke not a word about it to Wettinger. Nevertheless, back at his convent at Rabat that day, Fsadni excitedly announced to other members of the community that he had made a “trovatura kbira” (a big discovery). In a very rare lowering of his guard, Fsadni once inadvertently told me that he had spent three whole months returning to the Notarial Archives trying to decipher the Cantilena while all along keeping the discovery to himself. Though he had furtively copied the poem as best he could, being no philologist he had to admit that in no way could he get to the bottom of it alone. He had to share his trophy, and Wettinger was there for the asking.

That’s how they became ‘accomplices’ in the matter. Of course, that Wettinger alone made the discovery and shared it with Fsadni is out of the question (and has never been seriously envisioned) since the former did not need the latter in any professional way, at least where the Cantilena is concerned. It was Fsadni who needed the other.

When the ‘collusion’ between them had been fixed, both Wettinger and Fsadni decided to cease proceeding with their respective research and dedicate all their attention to the Cantilena. At first, just as Fsadni had done before on his own, they decided together not to let others in on their secret. They went to ridiculous lengths to obfuscate any prying eyes, demanding to consult volumes from all over the archives so as not to draw attention to the fact that one particular volume was being requested too often. At Wettinger’s home in Mellieħa (for never did Wettinger venture into Fsadni’s convent), they worked on fresh transcripts they had made of the poem. However, when they conceded that that was proving to be to gruelling, and considering the risks and the little time they had every week to check their record with the original, they decided to take a photo of the document. Like naughty schoolboys, while Fsadni surreptitiously snapped pictures of the thing with a borrowed camera, Wettinger milled about making sure the coast was clear.

They kept their clandestineness for almost two whole years. Even when they came up against a brick wall on particular words in the poem, and had to consult people like Ġużè Aquilina, Ninu Cremona, Erin Serracino Inglott, Karm Sant, Peter Paul Zerafa, Prospero Grech and others, they never told any of them what their queries were all about. They provided the least information possible, very often also saying things which threw the eminent professors off the scent, if there ever had been one in the first place. But their suspicious minds did not allow any slack in caution. Fsadni and Wettinger only revealed their invaluable treasure to the public at a press conference held on October 29, 1968, held at St Albert the Great College, Old Bakery Street, Valletta, more than two years after Fsadni had originally made his extraordinary find.

But they did not disclose everything. As agreed between them, they refused to say who, exactly, had actually located the document. And that is how they went to their grave, having all narratives assign the discover to both of them together. But now, I believe, this has to be corrected and clarified once and for all.

What I am here categorically stating—that it was Michael Fsadni alone who made the Cantilena’s discovery in 1966—I have kept to myself due to the deep respect I had for both Fsadni and Wettinger, since I esteemed both of them too much to hurt their feelings. Further, I do not believe that this disclosure shall or should diminish by a iota Wettinger’s contribution in the matter, since it was partly with his outstanding scholarship which unravelled the Cantilena’s puzzles and brought so beautiful a composition to light.

Published for the first time on The Sunday Times of Malta's Culture and Entertainment magazine (with some omissions) of June 14, 2015, page 1. Click here 


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