Publice egestas, privatim opulentia – public squalor, private opulence was how the famous historian Sallust described Rome’s decadent period. But Sallust could well be describing present day Malta.
Our country is a tale of unbridled gluttony with political elites and their proxies, who masquerade as business people, enjoying unprecedented levels of private opulence amid public squalor.
As the average worker struggles to acquire the smallest darkest basement flat in the ugliest development on the island, Labour’s cronies acquire luxury palaces complete with swimming pool, stores, cellar, archives and multi-car garage in the most upmarket areas – on the back of three over-remunerated government jobs and God knows what other hidden sources.
As those who cannot even afford a basement flat struggle to pay the rent on their cramped apartment, Silvio Debono gulps up a massive tract of prime public land for peanuts.
As the common citizen trudges through the increasingly chaotic ugliness of a hyper-developed concrete jungle in the dingy shadows of towering apartment blocks, replete with tangled electric cables hanging from facades, and choking fumes of exhaust and broken pavements, Robert Abela escapes on his yacht to enjoy the luxury of the exclusive Marina di Ragusa.
As the pensioner struggles to pay for medicines that the State fails to fund, suffering in silence waiting for essential surgery postponed for months, Deborah Schembri scrounges hundreds of thousands of taxpayer euros through multiple direct orders.
As the Maltese family searches for some weekend respite, MDA president Sandro Chetcuti seals off their access to Fomm ir-Riħ, aided and abetted by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia.
As the single parent tightens the belt further to pay the ARMS utility bill, Rosianne Cutajar collects another bagful of cash from Joseph Muscat’s and Zammit Lewis’ chat partner.
As the elderly widow locks her door at night worrying about her safety, the Commissioner of Police and his Deputy leak inside information to those busy making handsome profits and living lavish lifestyles from blowing up our fellow citizens.
As those who dare utter a word of objection are pilloried on ONE TV’s ‘Pjazza’, Karl Stagno Navarra cashes his fat cheque from his bankrupt Airmalta fake job as Head of Communications. And Robert Abela unleashes his NGO Commissioner to persecute Repubblika.
As Kenneth Grech is castigated for voicing his honest expert opinion, Robert Abela peddles his myths of normality while reality steadily catches up.
How did we get this far so quickly? How could the nation that produced the beautiful Renaissance city of Valletta descend into such abject repulsiveness? How could the virtues of beauty, truth and wisdom be so unceremoniously interred?
The Renaissance was driven by intellectual leaders who were relentlessly practical. They wanted to run their society successfully for the benefit of their people. Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici were filthy rich. They were extremely ambitious about making money – but even more ambitious about how they spent it.
They spent it on huge book collections and on researchers tasked to scour European courts, monasteries and libraries seeking knowledge. They funded philosophers to undertake pioneering research into the philosophy of Rome and Ancient Greece. They bankrolled Leonardo, Botticelli, Michelangelo and other towering geniuses.
The de Medicis had a mission for their art and architecture. Art became a form of education promoting kindness, serenity, compassion and good leadership. Had they simply made piles of cash and corrupted their entire society, infiltrating the main political parties and striking shady deals in healthcare and energy, the renaissance would never have been remembered.
The real source of its glory was in the imagination and intelligence with which piles of cash were spent – urgently searching to change their world for the better. Cities were constructed with unparalleled attention to beauty. Urbanism for the renaissance was a philosophical mission – humans were shaped by the character of their buildings which conveyed dignity and calm and ensured the sanity, vigour and happiness of the whole population. For Renaissance thinkers, the public sphere had to be opulent – beautiful, refined and appealing.
Malta had its own renaissance, eloquently portrayed in the building of Valletta. While Laparelli, Perez d’Aleccio and Caravaggio were not Maltese, Ġlormu Cassar, Melchiorre and Lorenzo Gafa, Stefano Erardi were. In their works of art, our forefathers bestowed an aspirational value to beauty, truth and wisdom.
It is entirely embarrassing to contrast their efforts with our own sorry mess. We have luxury and avarice, public squalor and private opulence. The piles of cash are now used to capture the State – buying the power brokers with a trip to Vegas or a Champions League final, bottles of wine, a wristwatch, a luxury stay at Evian les Bains, and piles of cash through secret offshore companies.
The breathtakingly corrupt are defended by our prime ministers. Joseph Muscat relentlessly defended Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi, Brian Tonna, Adrian Hillman. Robert Abela relentlessly defends Joseph Cuschieri, Johann Buttigieg, Rosianne Cutajar. All efforts are expended to bury the truth – rejecting calls for inquiries, refusing to give evidence in front of those inquiries imposed by Europe, attempting to curtail them by bullying the board, refusing to answer parliamentary questions, intimidating civil society, hijacking the state broadcaster and blowing up journalists.
Our most majestic monument from the renaissance period is St John’s Co-Cathedral. And its most beautiful jewel is its floor, the most beautiful floor in the world. It harbours a powerful and awe-inspiring message for all of us – memento mori, remember you will die. Existence is desperately fleeting, use your time wisely.
As his predecessor fades into obscurity from notoriety, Robert Abela must realise that the sand in his own hourglass is running out. He should draw inspiration from one of the impressive marble tombstones on the Cathedral floor celebrating the Maltese Guzeppi Chinzio: “He did not rise to haughtiness by the breeze of popular favour but was dear to noble men for the fairness and integrity of his character”.