June 2014 Event: Pietro Caxaro’s "Cantilena" by Joseph Borg

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The lecture on 17 June was well attended, despite the cold night. Joseph Borg spoke about the "Cantilena", the oldest known literature in Maltese.  

Mr Borg introduced the topic with a brief background of the Maltese language.  The earliest Maltese writers in the 12th century wrote in Arabic.  Later, Italian and Latin became the languages of the literati and official documents.  The various dialects of Maltese (Arabic with increasing influences of Sicilian Italian, Latin and other European languages) were considered the 'Lingua tal Cuccina'.  Writings in Maltese, such as Bonamico’s sonnet from the latter part of the 17th century, were unusual. 

However, in 1966, two researchers were surprised to find, in a book by Brandano de Caxario, a handwritten poem, which he attributed it to his ancestor, Petrus de Caxario who lived in the 1400s, two centuries earlier!  After carefully checking it for authenticity, they set about deciphering and understanding the poem.

The "Cantilena" is a song about a wall that collapsed, despite good workmanship, as it had been built on unstable foundations. The poet explains he must try again elsewhere to succeed.  Much has been written about the poem and its author and there are several possible interpretations. 


Pietro de Caxaro was born to a noble family in Mdina around 1400.  Well educated and prosperous, he was a highly regarded judge, as well as secretary of the Town Council of Mdina.  He became good friends with the Dominicans, who arrived in Malta around 1450 and included several erudite friars.

Around 1463, Caxaro aspired to marry a widow, Franca de Biglera. However, her brother objected on the grounds of ‘spiritual affinity''.  Caxaro obtained the approval of the Ecclesiastical Court but no records exist of their marriage or whether he left a widow or offspring when he died in 1485.  In his will he left everything to the Dominicans.  Is this a lament of lost love, with Pietro concluding that he needs to look elsewhere?

The poem may have been a reference to the actual collapse of a tower in Mdina.  Peter Caxaro, acting as secretary at a Town Council meeting on January 11th 1454, spoke in favour of an urgent ‘collecta' or tax to restore the walls.  His brother was appointed to supervise the project but was later murdered by someone from Siggiewi.  Is Caxaro mourning his murdered brother, who left behind a distraught wife and children? Is it a coincidence that the wife’s name was Vintura and the word Vintura appears in the poem as one of only two words not of Arabic origin?   

Prior to the arrival of the knights in 1530, there was no standard Maltese language; only a number of dialects.  Caxaro's dialect, spoken in the west of the island, was defined by Vassalli as ‘fir-rhajjel ta' fuq'. 

I thought it fascinating that when reading the poem out aloud, several times, it becomes possible to understand much of the old dialect, even with my rudimentary knowledge of Maltese! 



The Cantilena

(English translation below each line)


Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Witness my predicament, my friends (neighbours), as I shall relate it to you:
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
never has there been, neither in the past, nor in your lifetime,
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
A [similar] heart, ungoverned, without lord or king,

Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
That threw me down a well, with broken stairs

Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Where, yearning to drown, I descend the steps of my downfall,

Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.
Climb back up, only to go down again in this sea of woe.


Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
It [she] fell, my edifice, [that] which I had been building for so long,

Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
It was not the builders' fault, but [of] the soft clay [that lay beneath];

fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay …

vackit hi mirammiti.
It [she] fell, my building!

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
It [she] fell, my building, its foundations collapsed;

Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
It was not the builders' fault, but the rock gave way,

 fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay


Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
It [she] fell, my edifice, [that] which I had been building for so long,

Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
And so, my edifice subsided, and I shall have to build it up again,


biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
change the site that caused its downfall;

Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
Who changes his place, changes his fate!

haliex liradi 'al col xebir sura
for each [piece of land] has its own shape (features);

hemme ard bayda v hemme ard seude et hamyra
there is white land and there is black land, and red

 Hactar min hedaun heme tred minne tamarra.
But above all, you must stay clear of it.


Read the full lecture


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