Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette’s ceremonial sword and dagger which were looted by Napoleon Bonaparte are being showcased in Paris with items from the Palace Armoury in Valletta.
By Lisa Gwen Baldacchino
La Valette’s notorious sword and dagger, plundered by Napoleon Bonaparte as war spoils, forms part of a major armoury exhibition under way in Paris along with two-thirds of the artefacts that form part of Malta’s national collection.
The exhibition is being held at the Musée de l’Armée, also known as the Hôtel des Invalides, Napoleon’s burial place and one of the top armour museums in the world. The museum is a top attraction in Paris, drawing as many as one million visitors per year.
A refectory at the Invalides was fully restored and inaugurated specifically for the event, which will run until January. Some 60 individual pieces of armour have been flown abroad together with 18 paintings, said Michael Stroud, curator of the Palace Armoury, Heritage Malta (HM).
Indeed, those visiting the Armoury in Valletta over the coming months will find a very scanty main showcase, as some of the most important items on permanent display have been included in the Paris exhibition.
Among the more prestigious items are components of the La Valette armour; the full armour believed to have belonged to Jean Jacques de Verdelin as well as that thought to have belonged to Grand Master Martino Garzes; the parade armour of Alof de Wignacourt and the portrait of the same Grandmaster by Leonello Spada, which has been placed on the easel upon which Jean Diminque Ingre’s painting of an enthroned Napoleon is customarily placed.
Other paintings on show are the Beheading of St John by Mattias Stomer and another of St John the Baptist wearing the Order’s habit by Mattia Preti.
Preparations for the exhibition had been underway for a whole year, said Pierre Bonello, HM senior executive for exhibitions and design.
The items were flown to Frankfurt and then escorted overland by incognito security officers to Paris. On arrival in France, it took a whole week to be set up.
Mr Stroud, Mr Bonello and metal conservator Robert Cassar were present throughout the process to ensure it went smoothly.
The costs were largely borne by the French government and by the Musée de l’Armée while the Malta Tourism Authority and Go sponsored the exhibition catalogue.
HM took the exhibition as an opportunity to restore and conserve some of the items prior to putting them on show.
The exhibition was inaugurated by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and by the French Minister of Defence, Hervé Morin, on October 20 and will be open for public viewing until next January.
Jean Parisot de Valette (born in 1494; died in Malta, 21 August 1568) was born into a noble family in Quercy. He was a Knight of St. John, joining the order in the Langue de Provence, and fought with distinction against the Turks at Rhodes. As Grand Master, Valette became the Order’s hero and most illustrious leader, commanding the resistance against the Ottomans at the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, widely regarded as one the greatest sieges of all time. He became Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller on 21 August 1557.
The Valette family had been an important one in France for many generations, various members having accompanied the Kings of France in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Crusades. Jean Parisot’s grandfather, Bernard de Valette, was a Knight and King’s Orderly, and his father Guillot was a Chevalier de France. Jean Parisot was a distant cousin (through their mutual ancestor Almaric de Valette) of Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, first Duke of Epernon.
Little is known about Valette’s early life, although he was present during the Great Siege of Rhodes in 1523, and accompanied Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, after the Order’s expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Rise Within the Order
In 1538, while on Malta, Valette was sentenced to four months in a guva (a hole in the ground) on Gozo for nearly beating a layman to death, and he was subsequently exiled to Tripoli for two years to serve as military governor. Upon his return he was punished again for bringing a nigro slave not liable for servitude. In 1541 he was captured and made a galley slave for a year by Barbary pirates under the command of Turgut Reis. In 1554 Valette was elected Captain General of the Order’s galleys. This was a great honour to the Langue of Provence, as throughout most of the Order’s history, the position of Grand Admiral was usually held by a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Langue. In that capacity he won a name that stood conspicuous in that age of great sea captains, and was held in the same regard as the Chevalier Mathurin Romegas – one of the greatest Christian maritime commanders of the age. In fact both sides had extremely talented sailors. If Valette, Romegas and Juan de Austria could be considered the best commanders that the Christian forces could bring to the sea, the forces of Islam were able to call on the equally outstanding maritime and leadership skills of admirals such as Barbarossa and Dragut. In 1557, upon the death of Grand Master Claude de la Sengle, the Knights, mindful of the attack that was sure to come, elected Valette to be Grand Master.
Siege of Malta
He fought and successfully repulsed the Turks at the Great Siege of Malta (1565), in which the vastly outnumbered Christians held out for over 3 months against an Ottoman force containing no less than 30,000 soldiers, including the notorious Janissaries, as well as the Sultan’s prized fleet of some 40 warships. The desperate battle, which saw the reduction of Fort St. Elmo, was one of immense brutality, and is regarded as one the most famous and desperate sieges of all time. As a result of the Order’s victory he gained much prestige in Europe, but he declined the offer of a cardinal’s hat in order to maintain independence from the papacy. This has been portrayed to his sense of modesty and his humility as a warrior monk. However, it has often been overlooked that as a Grand Master of the Order, he automatically had the same precedence as the most junior Cardinal within the Church and enjoyed a Cardinal’s distinction without being involved in the internal politics of the Holy See. Even from its beginnings, the Grand Master of the Order owed allegiance only to the Pope, and to this day is recognised as the head of an Order which has diplomatic recognition with the United Nations and 100 other countries.