Salvatore (Salvu) Cumbo was born in Malta on the 10th April1810. He was the eldest son of Vincenzo and Antonia (nee Vassallo) who were married in 1802 and who had nine children. Salvatore's siblings included Francesco, Michelangelo and his youngest brother - Paolo (Paul) who was a printer and publisher).
Salvatore attended the seminary and became a priest as well as a scholar graduating with a Doctorate in Divinity. According to one account his education included spells in Pisa and then in Rome, that he became a priest at the age of 22 and took up the Chair of Moral Theology at the age of 25. (Fiorentini B. 1982. in 'Echi del Risorgimento a Malta').
In 1835 he started lecturing at the University of Malta
in literature (Latin and Italian) and in theology and ethics. As
mentioned above, he was appointed Professor of Moral Theology at the University (1835-1846). One
record in 1847 cites him as being Professor of Latin and Italian
while another states he was Professor of Dogmatic Theology in 1856.
His most noteworthy contributions as an academic and educationalist were in the promotion of the Maltese language. He advocated that Maltese was a language in its own right, and not a dialect of Arabic, and he championed its cause in education as the mother tongue.
The following are some of his contributions to this subject:
In 1839 Don Salvatore Cumbo founded a journal entitled "Il Filologo Maltese" (in Italian) for the purposes of furthering the study and appreciation of the Maltese language.
Salvatore Cumbo advocated the use of the vernacular i.e. the Maltese ('mother tongue') as the language of instruction in primary schools in the Maltese Islands. He argued that this would be more successful in engaging young children in education than attempting in the first instance to teach them Italian, and through the medium of the Italian language. (He argued this case even though he was an accomplished University scholar in Italian.)
He felt that by taking advantage of the population's fluency in their mother tongue learning and communication would be more successful than through the medium of a foreign language such as Italian or English. He proposed his views and his plan in a booklet in Italian entitled "Piano di Pubblica Istruzione", published in 1839, and printed on Francesco Cumbo's presses.
This text proposed his plans for education at primary school ('Scuole Normali'), secondary school (Lyceum) and at the tertiary i.e. University level. He was clearly trying to influence policy makers in Government and in the University. Whilst he said that he was not against change he felt more inclined to follow proven and time honoured educational methods than to experiment with new unproven ones. Although very concise the text goes as far as proposing specific time tables for secondary school classes, considering discipline in schools, defining what Professorial positions there should be in the various University Faculties, and which curricular subjects should be covered in respective years even in disciplines such as Medicine - far distant from his own.
(A pdf copy of this work can be downloaded through Google Books)
He identified shortcomings in the various alphabets that had been used for the Maltese language and made a strong case for the use of a single standardised alphabet using Roman (Latin) characters and argued against a mixed Latin-Arabic script to write Maltese. He did accept some additional symbols (as is the case in the written Maltese language today). However the finally adopted version of the Maltese alphabet was different from what he had proposed in a number of respects.
Cumbo was an accomplished polyglot and conducted comparative study of Maltese alongside other Semitic languages namely Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.
Salv Cumbo published 'Carmina' - a 36 page collection of poetry in Latin in 1839.
He wrote various other works including poetry in Maltese, as well as his
scholarly works which were essentially in Italian or Latin. For example
his poem entitled in Latin "Nuper
Fugit Amor" was written in that language, but also translated by
him in Maltese and published in the periodical pamphlet "il-Kawlata Maltija"
in 1839. In the poem Cumbo deals with the feelings of a mother who laments that she
has lost her son's love to another's heart, and he has left her. The son is identified with a popular deity,
Namur, representing the human need for love. This is set against the other but better known mythological figure of
Venus. According to Oliver Friggieri this poem was originally written by Cumbo in Latin and then translated by him into Maltese in 1838.
Friggieri asserts that Cumbo was one of the few early writers who moved on
from Italian to experiment in Maltese poetry.
Some of the above and other miscellaneous works of his (such as an oration on the influence of Christianity on the development of the sciences) are listed in the "Indice delle miscellanee che si conservano nella pubblica biblioteca di Malta", on pages 64 and 65, and in another index. Note that in his works Cumbo's name appears in various ways e.g. in Latin as Salvatoris Cumbii.
Indeed Cumbo appeared to enjoy delivering orations, and commonly did so during the University of Malta's graduation ceremonials. The image above and to the right is an excerpt from the Acta Academiae Melitensis , reproduced by courtesy of the University of Malta Library and it shows (third line from the bottom) that he delivered the oration on the occasion of the graduation ceremony of the 1st October 1844.
In and around 1860 Salvatore lived in a terraced town house in St Ursula Street, Valletta, Malta. The house was not in an ideal condition when the above photograph was taken, but some renovation was in progress. The facade should merit a commemorative plaque one day. He also later had one or two residences in Sliema.
Salvatore Cumbo steadily moved up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, becoming a Canon of the Cathedral, and was also bestowed the title of 'Monsignor'.
When Bishop Pace Forno died, Cumbo wrote his elegy: "Elogio funebre di Mons. Gaetano Pace Forno, arcivescovo di Rodi, vescovo di Malta" (1874). Then he became vicar-general to Bishop Carmelo Scicluna. Thus the climax of Cumbo's achievement in the Church was as Vicar-General of the Diocese of Malta. As vicar-general he deputised for the bishop fulfilling the executive functions of the bishop Pace and assisting the Bishop in governance of the Diocese.
Cumbo also involved himself in political matters, although his position in these regards was far from being universally acceptable. In one general election for the Council of Government in October 1854 he polled an equal number of votes with a rival but withdrew at the next round and thus was not elected. He was of course not the only Roman Catholic priest to be involved in a blend of religion, academia and politics. For example he publically expressed an opinion on the matter of the (Protestant) Oath of allegiance to the King. (The history of Malta like that of southern Europe has numerous examples of these).
Salvatore Cumbo died in Valletta on the 22nd March 1877 at 5.15 a.m. aged 67 years. He died of a stroke: a cerebral infarct ('rammollimento cerebrale').
He was buried in the Cathedral of St Paul at Mdina (Notabile), Malta's old capital.
The image alongside shows the marble slab / tomb stone on his grave. which occupies a prominent position about half way down the middle aisle.
The inscription starts off by saying that "Here in the peace of Christ rests Salvator Cumbo ...". It goes on to provide a very concise biographical note about him both as a high-ranking and esteemed achiever in the Maltese Roman Catholic hierarchy, and as a learned academic at the University.
Note that the Cumbo knot features prominently in the crest at the top of the
slab (just as it does above the gate of the Cumbo tower limits of Mosta).
Footnotes with reference to relevant sites:
Part of the information in this webpage was gleaned from or corroborated by the book (pages: 283-287 ), and this is gratefully acknowledged.
In his book, Geoffrey Hull investigates and discusses the intricacies of the evolving attitudes towards and use of the Maltese language vis-a-vis Italian and English, in the Maltese Islands. This scholarly work addresses the complex issues in a historical, political, social and cultural context. The work focuses mainly on the last one and a half centuries during which Malta was a British Colony, yet still under considerable Italian political, cultural and economic influence.
This excellent book was first published by Said International in 1993 (ISBN 99909 43 08 7) but is currently (2012) understood to be out of print.