Since 1834 Rome has been home to the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (S.M.O.M.).
The Order was founded in 1113 to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land, tend the sick and defend territories that had been wrested from the Muslims. Although the Order had both a religious and a military function, its members were still expected to swear the monastic oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience.
When the Christians were expelled from the Holy Land in 1291 the Order was without a base. It briefly settled in Cyprus before arriving in 1310 on the island of Rhodes, where it remained for over two hundred years. During this time the Order built up a small fleet of ships, which it used to wage perpetual war with the naval arm of the Ottoman empire. By 1523 the Ottomans had had enough and in that year Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), heading a force of 400 ships and 200,000 men, set sail for Rhodes. The knights were able to muster a mere 7,000 men, but they still managed to hold off Suleiman’s army for six long months before they were finally defeated.
After their expulsion from Rhodes the knights wandered around Europe for seven years until, in 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered them the small and rocky islands that form the archipelago of Malta and Gozo.
The Order might have changed its address, but it didn’t change its occupation, and the knights continued to harry Ottoman ships from their new base. In 1565 the Ottomans decided to get rid of the knights once and for all. They laid siege to the island and were on the point of victory when the arrival of a relief force from Spain caused the situation to change dramatically. Malta remained the knights’ home for the next 200 years, during which time it became a base for slave-trading. The knights sold captured Africans and Turks, using the money to purchase the release of Christian slaves.
In 1798 the knights were again expelled, but this time the enemy was Napoleon Bonaparte. The Knights were on the road again, settling briefly in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, before arriving in Rome in 1834, at the invitation of Pope Gregory XVI. The Order already owned two properties in the Eternal City, Palazzo Malta and Villa Malta, both of which now enjoy extra-territorial status.
Palazzo Malta is situated on Via Condotti. Villa Malta, a grander affair, stands on the Aventine hill and is the residence of Order's Grand Master. The Grand Master and Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ, to give him his full title, is elected for life and governs the Order as both its sovereign and religious head.
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, outside Villa Malta, is a rather curious affair. It was designed by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), a Venetian artist better known for his engravings of Rome. Two of the walls of the piazza are decorated with trophies, obelisks and emblems of the Knights of Malta. Piranesi also designed (and is buried in) the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which stands within the grounds of the villa. Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta attracts numerous visitors, but most come not to admire Piranesi’s work but to enjoy the famous ‘keyhole’ view of St Peter’s Basilica! If you look through the keyhole of the door to the garden of the villa, you will see in the distance, its famous dome, the largest in Rome.
The S.M.O.M. started life as both a military and a religious order and while it sloughed off the first skin long ago, it does maintain the second, albeit somewhat more loosely. Few of today’s 12,000 Knights and Dames make vows of poverty or chastity, but they all swear a vow of obedience.
These days, the Knights of Malta provide humanitarian aid throughout the world. The Order is also able to release passports, issue postage stamps and license vehicles.