Sicily is both famous and notorious. The splendour of its past is recognised worldwide: Greeks, Byzantines, Fatimids, Normans and on and on. If you flip the coin you have mafia, corruptions, omertà (code of silence).
The story of the Council of Egypt combines in part these two aspects of the island. The historical and artistic legacy and the fraudulent activities.
One of the greatest writers that this island of the Mediterranean brought us is Leonardo Sciascia. His book The Council of Egypt deals exactly with an Islamic forgery. The plot revolves around a manuscript, forged by the abbot Vella to achieve his own aims.
The Council of Egypt – the manuscript
The manuscripts of the Kitab Diwan al-Misr is odd.
Sorrowfully enough, I could not find any photo of it, thus, we have to rely on written accounts and our own imagination.
As the eye-witness Richard Gottheil wrote in his 1913-paper, “Two Forged Antiquities“:
“The volume had all the outward marks of great age; even the bookworm had left many traces on the pages. The edges of the codex had been frayed, and each page ears set in paper that was very evidently of much later date than the original [467/1074-1075]. […] The thin brown paper was entirely foreign to Arabic manuscripts; the artistic design of the frontispiece was as un-Oriental and as un-Arabic as it could be.” (p. 308-309)
But the oddities do not stop here. Gottheil also recognizes that the script used was “a well-defined Maghribi script”, too well-defined and developed to have been genuinely from the alleged dating of the manuscript. Also, the language looked strange to Professor Gottheil, he says it was “the most impossible Arabic” he had ever seen. He recognized Tunisian and Maltese dialects but more interestingly Italian: Italian constructions, and Italian word composition. “This is too much even for a willing believer”, needs to conclude Gottheil.
These oddities had been spotted already less than a decade after the alleged discovery and translation of the manuscript, in 1784: the forgery did not last long.
Giuseppe Vella, Maltese member of the Jerusalem order, was in 1792 the Chaplain at the Abbey of St. Martin in Monreale, next to Palermo.
In that very year, Muhammad ibn Uthman, ambassador of Morocco, happened to visit Palermo and the library of St. Martin, where he was shown a number of Arabic codices.Sciascia’s account describes perfectly how Vella pretended to have a wide knowledge of Arabic and improvised as translator and mediator between Monsignor Alfonso Airoldi, secretary of the Inquisition, and the ambassador. As Gottheil notes “as Maltese [Vella] was naturally familiar with the local Arabic dialect of his birthplace; but he was ignorant of literary Arabic as well as of Mohammadan history”.
In Sciascia’s book, Giuseppe Vella translates the words of the Moroccan ambassador the way he wants. Examining a manuscript, the ambassador concludes “A Life of the Prophet, nothing Sicilian: a Life of the Prophet, there are many like this”; Vella’s translation is “His Highness says it is a precious codex: there is nothing similar, not even in his country. It tells the history of the Sicilian conquest, the facts of the domination…”.
Shortly after the departure of the ambassador, Vella declares he has found the codex of the Council of Egypt, a manuscript about the Arab conquest and domination of the island. From then on, and for many years, Vella will have been busy forging the manuscript, translating it and producing other fake artifacts and manuscripts over the correspondence between the Fatimids and the Norman rulers of Sicily (later called The Council of Sicily).
He was not alone in this endeavour: faking artifacts and manuscripts is a hard business. Giuseppe Camilleri, a friend of Vella, helped him out with the ‘material work’.
The translations of the codices were published by Giuseppe Vella and Monsignor Airoldi in the following years: they were The Council of Egypt and The Council of Sicily. They gained their momentum and became famous in the circle of Islamists around Europe and of course in Sicily. Oluf Gerhard Tychsen, the German orientalist, lines up with Vella and confirms the authenticity of the Council. On the other side, moving forwards doubts are the French De Guignes, the Italian orientalist Rosario Gregorio, and the Austrian Joseph Hager.
To make a long story short, in 1795 the manuscripts were definitely recognised as forgeries, Vella was condemned and arrested. He knew that his fraud would eventually be discovered, but probably did not expect it took only 10 years.
Sciascia writes: “He knew that in his work, in what it was, there was a sort of creativity, of art; that the fraud, revealed in a couple of centuries, or in any case after his death, the novel would have remained, the extraordinary novel of the Muslims of Sicily”.
And he was right, at least partially.
A forgery needs to be done with an aim in mind and in Vella’s case the main goal was probably achieving a more prominent status in society. He surely gained something: when in 1785 a chair for Arabic was opened at the University of Palermo, Vella obtained it easily. Also, from being the Chaplain of St. Martin, he became Abbot and was recognized as a real authority in the Sicilian society, until his fraud lasted.
But the effects of the forgeries were wider than that: the Council of Egypt and of Sicily contained information over the land and the ownership feuds. Sicily at that time was part of the Kingdom of Naples and aristocracy was, as you can imagines, strictly connected to the ownership of the land. In Sciascia’s account, it is clear how the contents of the ‘ancient manuscript’ could interfere with the status quo of the aristocracy. In some occasions we read how aristocrats disclosed Vella their concerns, and how the forger additionally faked the manuscript(s) in order to please them or to avoid them a financial loss.
The story of Vella and his forgeries seems to have been forgotten for a century or so, to my knowledge.
In 1905 a certain Varvaro claimed the partial authenticity of the manuscripts of the Council, saying that Vella “had based them upon authentic documents of great value which were in his possession” (Gottheil, p. 312). Gottheil informs that two of the three volumes of Vella’s codices were kept in the Archivio di Stato in Palermo, where probably still are. But Gottheil’s conclusion is more alarming:
“It is this last volume, evidently a copy of the original corpus delicti, which has at length been sold, and has found its way [to America], in the hope that it may be sold here to some credulous American. Its sole value is a mournful one, and it belongs, by all right, in a Museum of Criminology”
In 1963 Sciascia revived the facts of Vella and the forgeries in his book, as a way to discuss not only the forgeries themselves but the society that made such a fraudulent production possible.
According to the Enciclopedia Italiana, Vella’s forgeries keep emerging, here and there.
R. Gottheil, “Two Forged Antiques”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 33 (1913), pp. 306-312. [available at JStor]
G. Vella, Libro del Consiglio d’Egitto tradotto da Giuseppe Vella, Reale Stamperia di Palermo, Palermo 1793. [GoogleBooks]
Biografia universale anitica e moderna, voll. 1-65, Tipografia Molinari, Venezia 1830, pp. 248-249. [GoogleBooks]
E. Lo Giudice, “Protagonisti e Cronologia de Il Consiglio d’Egitto“, in Leonardo Sciascia Web, blog of the Association “Gli Amici di Leonardo Sciascia” (last accessed: Mar 13th, 2016).