web space | free website | Business WebSite Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

The Cantilena
by Pietrus Caxaro


" ...a poem attributed to Petrus Caxaro entitled 'Cantilena', is dated to pre-1485. It was recorded by Caxaro's nephew, Brandano, in his notarial register (Dec.1533 -- May 1563) and, taken at face value, speaks of a collapsed edifice, but who knows, he may have been speaking at a deeper level; a failed romance or an ill-fated homeland perhaps? "

The Maltese Language (Part 2)

(please scroll down)

 excerpt from Pietru Caxaro's Cantilena
excerpt from Pietru Caxaro's Cantilena

On a biographical note, we have to say that we are not sure when Petrus Caxaro was born, but we do know his demise to have been in 1485.   He was buried at the Chapel of Our Lady of Intercession (tal-Madonna tal-Għajnuna) which forms part of the Dominican Conventual Church at Rabat, Malta.

The poem we have from Caxaro was recorded by his nephew, Brandano, a public Notary. It appears that this was a family profession for Petrus (or Pietru as he is sometimes referred to in Maltese) was himself a public Notary. But he is also thought to have been a philosopher and able orator, his name being listed as a member of the
Universita' (or Council of Government) in Medieval Malta.   We find the name Pietro Caxaro registered as a Jurat of the Universita' for the year 1452, then again in 1458, 1461, 1464, 1468, 1474 and finally in 1482.

From a literary point of view, it is said that Caxaro's Cantilena fused the nation's Semetic culture with the author's Latin literary abilities. Some scholars argue that the poem which was handed down to us may have been slightly altered by the nephew, Brandan, pointing out variations in spelling (of the same words) and what may otherwise be suggested as an unnecessary repitition of some lines. Perhaps Brandan only had it committed to memory and was writing it for the first time, lest it be forgotten? But why on earth did he transcribe it in his notarial register?   No one knows.

Let us first have a look at a modern-day version of Caxaro's poem; rewritten in the latest Maltese orthography, though the words used (unchanged) are often strange-sounding to the modern ear.   Then we shall look at the same poem as was written in archaic spelling and phonetics.

Xidew il-qada, ja ġirieni, tale nħadditkom,
Ma nsab fil-weri u la nsab f’għomorkom
Qalb m’għandha ħakem, sultan u la mula
Bir imgħammiq irmietni, b’turġien muħsula,
Fejn ħajran għall-għarqa, ninżel f’taraġ minżeli
Nitla’ u nerġa’ ninżel dejjem fil-baħar il-għoli.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni,
Ma ħtatlix mgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli tafal merħi;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, niżżlet hi s-sisien,
Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli l-ġebel;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni.
U hekk waqgħet hi, imrammti! w erġa’ ibniha!
Biddilha inti l-imkien illi jewtiha;
Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:
Hemm art bajda, w hemm art sewda u ħamra.
Aktar minn hedawn hemm trid minnha tmarra.

Pietru Caxaro's Cantilena

The poem was discovered by scholars Patri Mikiel Fsadni O.P. and Prof. Godfrey Wettinger during their research at the Notarial Archives (Malta).   What follows is our loose translation of Pietru Caxaru's Cantilena inserted within the original text.   In some instances, this translation draws meanings from the Fsadni-Wettinger version.

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 xibir sura
for each [piece of land] has its own shape (features);
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
there is white land and there is black land, and red Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamara.
But above all, you must stay clear of it.

An interesting literary study of the Cantilena may be found in Arnold Cassola's book entitled The Literature of Malta -- An example of Unity in Diversity (Malta, 2000).   Another book, this time by Fr. Mark Montebello, entitled Pietru Caxaru u l-Kantiliena Tiegħu (Malta, 1992) combines the works of the author with those of Professors Godfrey Wettinger and Oliver Friggieri, the former elaborating about the poem's discovery and the latter providing a literary study.


  1. "The Consiglio Popolare was the island's traditional Council. No records are extant of the eary years of the institution, and the first mention of the Consiglio occured when King Alphnsus of Aragon had mortgaged the island to Antonio Cardona in 1420. But it was certainly in existence since the 13th century.

    "The councl controlled to a certain degree of independence the internal affairs of the islands.

    "The known functions of the Consiglio were to send envoys, sytled ambassadors, to the Viceroy of Sicily, and to the king himself; to ask ofr redress of grievances, and to suggest government measures; to choose the municipal officers for the ensuing years;; to audit the accounts of outgoing officers, and to criticise their administration, and occasionally, to impose taxes and perhaps make laws.

    "The Old Inquisition already existed in Malta when the Order arrived in 1530 and was lead by the office of the Bishop of Palermo.

    "Powers were delegated by the Consiglio to the Jurats of the Universita' who were elected Judges and defended he integrity of the respect due to the ancient customs.

    "The Capitano della Verga, styled also il-Ħakem, did not intervene in the sittings of the Universita', which was composed of four jurats, the secreto, the portulano, the massaro, the credenziere, the vice-admiral, the bajulo, the accatapani and the constables.

    "The electors were all heads of families: the elected were chosen from the nobles, honoured citizens, professional people or those exercising a liberal art, secular priests, businessmen and artisans.

    "The election, which took place every year on the feast of Saint John (24 June), was made orally and the votes were collected in towns and in the casals, by the constable.

    "The privilage of the Consiglio Popolare. after the surrender of Valletta, were suddenly suspended, and were later suppressed in 1818."

    Excerpt from Malta's Timeline -- A Handbook of Maltese Chronology, by Chev. Joseph Galea (publ. Laga Co Ltd., Malta)

    return to main text

my-malta.com © 2003