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In Search of the Maltese Falcon

by Fred Steinberg
 

Most likely the first introduction to Malta for most North Americans came from seeing or reading The Maltese Falcon. The book, by famed mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, was followed by the blockbuster 1941 film, the directorial debut of the famous John Huston and featuring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, which garnered three Academy Award nominations. Today’s students also might be exposed to Malta through study about the fabled ancient Knights Of Malta Order which dates back to the 11th Century and whose mission is to protect the Catholic faith and serve the poor and sick.

The Maltese Falcon was my father’s favorite film and when it would occasionally be screened at our local art theater, we would go. But the film, of course, had little to do with Malta, except for the statue and was set and in San Francisco. But I was intrigued by Malta and needed to find more about its unique history and our local library became my information source for these islands just 50 miles off the coast of Sicily.

Blessed with a mild Mediterranean climate, Malta and its sister islands of Gozo and Comino are a capstone of many cultural, historic and artistic treasures stemming from the fact the islands, which were settled by Sicilians in 5000 BC, and ruled in subsequent years by various invaders including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Greeks, Angevins and French before receiving their independence from Great Britain in 1964 after over 150 years of rule.

As a student of the film, I was fascinated by the statue and was pleased and surprised to find out the falcon has a deep history in the islands and were likely introduced there by the Arabs or Phoenicians in the first Century. In the 15th Century, operating under the protection of King Charles V of Sicily, the Maltese would send a falcon yearly to the King to thank him for safeguarding them. There were several falcon statues made for the classic film by Fred Sexton, a well-known sculptor, but one broke during the filming. Another is in the hands of a collector but one is missing, rumored to be in a private collection; location unknown.



Malta street scene

I have long carried the somewhat far-fetched idea of finding the missing statue and where better to start my search then in Valletta, Malta’s Baroque UNESCO World Heritage Site capital. After a four hour flight from Oslo, we went to the Palazzo Valletta Suites, converted from a historic home in the family of our very friendly, knowledgeable and history buff host, Frank Di Mech, since 1620. Featuring a library of over 1,000 books, antique furniture, statues and art, it seemed the perfect place to start our quest. Frank told us that most Maltese were very much aware of the famous film, even if they have not seen it, but as for the missing statue, he had no idea but suggested we visit the National Library which, interestingly, was founded in 1766 by a leader of the Knights of Malta.

On our 15 minute walk to the Library, we could not help but stop at one of Malta’s top attractions, the impressive St. John’s Cathedral which features one of the finest collections of Baroque art in the world. In the 17th century the well-known Calabrian artist Mattia Petri was commissioned to transform the interior. He covered the walls and ceiling with elaborately carved motifs of baroque ornamentation featuring gilded, foliage, flowers and angels. The inlaid floors of St. John’s consist of tombstones, many of knights with ornamentation depicting their acts of chivalry and religious ardor.  The altar art piece in the Cathedral’s Oratory is “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” by the renowned artist Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio and attracts art lovers from throughout the world.



St. Johns


Maltese is the island’s mother tongue but English is the official second language and most Maltese speak Italian due to the island’s proximity to Sicily, so communicating was never a problem.  At the library entrance desk we asked Maya where we could find information about the missing falcon statue’s location. After a very slow rolling of the eyes she referred us to Louis Cini, the assistant librarian. Louis was very much aware of the book and the movie but not of the missing statue’s location even after carefully searching a number of the library’s proprietary databases.  He suggested that we go to the National Museum of Archeology and ask for Chloe who he said was extremely knowledgeable about 20th Century Malta history. If the missing statue was in Malta, Chloe said she had no idea where it would be but kindly showed us around this lovely small museum which is housed in a very stylish Baroque building dating back to 1571 and houses over a thousand artifacts divided into three period sections:  Neolithic, Phoenician and Bronze. But alas, nothing from the heyday of Hollywood films.

Returning to our hotel, we spotted an information kiosk. After picking up good island maps and local brochures, we asked the somewhat tired looking agent behind the desk if she had any ideas where we could locate the missing falcon statue. She gave it some thought before suggesting the zoo. We thanked her and continued on our way. We relaxed with a stroll through the nearby Upper Baracca Gardens which features Romanesque-style arches and lovely views of Valletta harbor. We found our way to La Sfoglia for an excellent fish dinner – bypassing the local favorites of rabbit stew and bigilla (mashed tic beans).

Frank anxiously awaited our return and had apparently spent some time talking to local fellow amateur historians regarding our quest.  And while he had no specific guidance, he suggested we head out to the Blue Grotto the following morning as it was located on the South side of the islands where there were many caves and grottos near where some wealthy local collectors kept their art work in private estates.

You approach the Blue Grotto area on the South side of Malta Island via a winding road to a cliff high above the Mediterranean.  According to mythology, the Blue Grotto was home to the sirens (sea nymphs) who enticed sailors with their charms. The seaside is dotted with limestone caves. To get to the Blue Grotto you get on a small “luzzu” (fishing boat) and pass through a series of six caves to a vast 25 ft. high cavern above a deep pool of water.  The sun light that comes into these natural caves, especially before early afternoon, beautifully reflects the phosphorescent orange, purple and green colors of the submerged flora, the sandy seabed and the dark blue shade of the sea. And while we listened to some vague stories from local shop and café employees and boatmen in the area, nobody had any idea of the whereabouts of missing statue, and while the Grotto visit was lovely, this was not a location where someone would hide a valuable statue.  Lunching on the terrace of the Alka restaurant high above the Mediterranean, we decided to suspend our search for the afternoon and go on one of Malta’s popular hikes.   

The Malta Tourist Authority provides detailed information on some nine walks from easy to difficult and we ran into many hikers in our wandering. We chose however to take the 10 minute ferry ride from Valletta to Sliema and walk along the harbor’s edge for eight miles passing parks, gardens, beaches, shops, boat yards and shops and kiosks of every kind. After stops for gelato and coffee, it was time to hop a local bus back to the ferry.  We dined on excellent mahi-mahi over Bigilla that evening at Papannis and it was excellent.

Frank strongly recommended we spend our final morning at St. Paul’s Catacombs and Palazzo Falson, located in Mdina, the ancient, walled, hilltop city which served as Malta’s capital from antiquity to the middle ages. Its historic houses, built by Maltese nobility and religious authorities in the 16th and 17th centuries, have been mostly well maintained and passed down from generation to generation.



Catacombs

We started our statue search just outside Mdina’s main gate in St. Paul’s Catacombs, an integrated complex of interconnected cemeteries, passages and tombs built by the Romans in the 7th and 8th centuries and covering an area of well over 2,500 sq. yards. The entrance to the Catacombs consists of two large halls adorned with pillars meant to resemble Doric columns. But though some of the small burial chambers could possibly hide the falcon statue, all were bereft of contents and heavy tourist traffic in the past hundred years would make this a very unlikely hiding place.

We exited the Catacombs and entered the main gate of Mdina which gave the impression of walking back in time.  Surrounded by ancient ramparts, we found ourselves in a world of pedestrian-only streets and alleys lined with beautifully preserved medieval sandstone buildings, dominated by the dramatic Baroque Cathedral St. Paul’s. Legend has it that St. Paul converted the Maltese to Catholicism, which if true, would make Malta the first area to converted, even before the Romans. The Cathedral’s lavishly decorated sanctuary features a dramatic dome, giant marble columns, gilded wall details and intricate ceiling paintings.  

We were on a mission however, so quickly headed to Plazzo Falson, a medieval townhouse, built by the noble Falson family in the late 14th Century, its 17 rooms now a museum housing a breathtaking collection of art and antiques. Featured are a 10-hour French Revolution-era time piece, 17th Century Spanish and British art and Italian engravings.  The collection also contains typical household objects including 19th Century tableware and Maltese “Il-Baqra” earth ware, used to cook the island’s traditional rabbet stew. A most intriguing item on display is a chastity belt worn during the Middle Ages as a sign of a women’s fidelity while her husband was away at war. And while it was fascinating to wander the ancient house, we found nothing from the 20th century, no less a movie set in California.

For our final afternoon, we decided to relax with the Girgenti walk, defined as “easy” in the Tourism Authority brochure. Easily accessible by bus, the five-mile walk starts in Buskett. We passed caves, tombs, the Girgenti and Verdala Palaces, farms, two churches and a collection of small religious statues. Our walk ended in about two hours in Siggiewi Village where we picked up a bus back to Valletta. But even two local hikers we encountered were unable to enlighten us about the missing statue.



Malta Harbor


We had all but given up our search as we went to dinner at San Polo Naufrago Wine Bar that evening, but our waitress Elena, a history major at the nearby branch of the University of Malta, proved to be not only most friendly but provided us with the clue that may  have solved the mystery. Elena said that the subject of the Maltese Falcon film had come up in her European history class recently. The professor commented on how it had put Malta on the map when it came to US and Canadian tourists. And he added that he had recently read an article about the famous mystery writer Harlan Coben who lived in an historic ginger-bread-style Victorian house in Ridgewood, New Jersey amongst a large collection of memorabilia, including small statues, one of which is of the Maltese Falcon. When we returned, I researched the article and found the writer of the article had suggested to Cobin that it was the missing original. Apparently, Cobin did a double-take, smiled but declined to affirm or deny the accusation. However, based on his reaction, the writer felt it surely was.

So here we were in our New York City apartment, having returned from a 4,500 mile trip to find the missing Maltese Falcon, and it was likely just 25 miles away across the Hudson River.


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