Malta, 1775: The Twilight of the Knights
brethren, is sent by Pinto to meditate for five years on his behaviour as deputy commander of Forte Santa Maria, the structure of the Knights located on the deserted islet of Comino and generally used as a punitive destination for the most undisciplined soldiers. A desperate Bartolomeo is welcomed the following day in Comino by Corporal Ninu Fenech, a taciturn Maltese exiled on the island for stabbing a sergeant who had attacked the virtues of his sister. He soon meets his new commander, fra’ Miguel, a Portuguese sent to the garrison many years earlier for having challenged Pinto to a duel and then self-exiled for life in that forgotten outpost, where he drags a life as an alcoholic, totally disinterested in what is happening around him.
The existence in Forte Santa Maria is a continuous struggle against isolation, loneliness and a sense of abandonment until a group of new soldiers arrives on the island, punished for having extorted some shopkeepers. Their leader, Dominich Sciarra, is soon noticed for his arrogant and domineering attitude towards the comrades, and when Ninu tries to discipline him, together with his accomplices, he attacks the corporal. Bartolomeo rushes to the defence of the graduate, and a struggle arises in which Dominich is killed by Ninu. Bartolomeo manages to cover up the incident, and a sort of friendship is born between him and Fenech. This friendship will last all along the almost two years in which the Roman will remain on the islet before being recalled to Valletta on the occasion of the death of the Grand Master Pinto and the election as new Grand Master of an obscure 70-year-old Navarrian bailiff, fra’ Francisco Ximenez.
The return to Malta is, however, bitter for fra’ Bartolomeo: not only is he constantly assigned, probably on the recommendation of fra’ Yves, to minor and humiliating tasks and he is repeatedly refused to be transferred to the Bailiwick of Rome but, above all, he finds the island in an explosive situation.
Ximenez, elected with the consent of the Knights of the three French Langues and their leading exponent Rohan-Polduc as a transitional Grand Master before the government gets entrusted to the Grand Marshal, proves to be much less manoeuvrable than one could think and is implementing a program of extreme austerity to clear the accounts of the state, drained by the opulent court of Pinto. This program is particularly tough for the poorer Maltese classes, farmers and fishermen who, because of taxes, see the prices of basic necessities swell and live more and more in a state of indigence, also harassed by absurd laws like that banning of rabbit hunting, their only chance to eat some meat. The defence of the islanders’ rights is taken only by the Bishop of Malta and Grand Chaplain of the Order, Monsignor Pellerano, an elderly Sicilian who, having chosen the religious life to escape poverty, has over time understood how his mission requires the defence of the humblest and weakest people. The Bishop, therefore, initially tries to get by diplomatically by exhorting Ximenez to moderate all taxes and measures that affect the less well-to-do classes and the parishes of the poorest and most isolated villages but, due to the tightening of the Grand Master on his positions, the clash between the two becomes inevitable and turns into a progressive fracture between Knights and secular clergy. To make the situation even more complicated is the recent return to the island of don Gaetano Mannarino, a middle-aged Maltese priest who, after a late vocation, has studied in