THE AURORA OF THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA Back

The initials “A.B.” engraved on an R.A. 3 from 1929 might be those of heraldry scholar Augusto Bertini.

There’s a particularly beautiful pen in my collection made around 80 years ago engraved with the initials “A.B.” With the initials a fairly common combination and the pen coming to me some 20 years ago, it’s been difficult to work out what the name and surname of its owner may have been.
Like any mystery, there’s any number of feasible solutions and no end to the hypotheses and conjectures. And, with no unequivocal proof available, all of them are equally likely. This is the allure of a good mystery. And if it also involves a pen that’s beautiful and unique, then the mystery is even more intriguing and romantic. 
I described this pen in the third issue of Penna (November 1993). It’s an Aurora R.A. 3 safety that’s completely hand engraved with mythological figures. It has the unusual dedication “Gli allievi d’araldica” (The students of heraldry) and is dated the seventh year of the fascist era, that is, 1929. 
The initials “A.B.” are engraved on the cap inside a shield shaped like a horse’s head and are presumably those of the original recipient of this masterpiece of engraving. 
So who was giving courses or lessons in heraldry in the 1920s that could have elicited such appreciation as to be rewarded with a gift like this?

Dating from the Middle Ages, the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem were one of the oldest equestrian orders in existence. 
The order was founded around 1050 when a few merchants from the maritime republic of Amalfi received permission from the caliph of Egypt to build a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem for helping pilgrims of every faith and race at a time when the Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land tolerated each other. The church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and a monastic community called the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was established here, which later became independent under the guide of its first great master, Gerard. 
With the overthrow of Jerusalem in 1099 and the founding of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by the crusaders, the number of pilgrims from all over the Christian world escalated. 
The Muslims didn’t resign themselves to defeat, however, and repeatedly tried to win back Palestine. The order was therefore forced to militarily defend its patients, pilgrims and territory. On February 15, 1113, the order was officially recognized by Pope Paschal II.

In 1120 Raymond du Puy succeeded Gerard and stepped up the military defense of the pilgrims and patients in the order’s care. All the knights were bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They adopted the insignia of the eight-pointed Amalfi cross, symbolizing the beatitudes of the faith. 
Their standard was red and they had a black mantle with a white cross. Their Muslim enemies called them the “black men” after their ferociousness in battle. Their fame took on legendary proportions, rivaling the Knights Templar. 
After the capture of Jerusalem in 1187, the Hospitallers sacrificed themselves en masse, with the survivors withdrawing to the remaining cities of the Kingdom of Jerusalem: Antioch, Tyre, Edessa, Jaffa and Acre. Under attack from the Muslims, they later also withdrew from these cities to settle in 1291 in Cyprus. 
Here they reorganized their manner of warfare with a fleet of ships. They finally settled in Rhodes, where they renamed themselves the Knights of Rhodes. 
The order built a powerful fleet and began patrolling the seas of the Orient, defending Christianity in numerous celebrated battles, including in the crusades in Syria and Egypt. The members of the order that reached Rhodes, from all over Europe, regrouped at the end of the 16th century according to their original langues. 
Each langue was divided into priories or grand priories, bailiwicks and commanderies. The order was governed by the grand master (the prince of Malta) and the council, minted its own money and had diplomatic relations with other countries. 
In 1522 Suleyman the Magnificent attacked the island with 700 ships and 200 thousand men. With their numbers totaling only 300, the Knights of Rhodes were forced to surrender. They retreated in 1530 under the leadership of Grand Master Philippe de Villiers to the island of Malta. 
Malta was an extremely difficult base to attack, and it wasn’t until 1798 that Napoleon succeeded in driving out the order and taking possession of all its property. In 1800 the British occupied the island but the order has never returned there, despite the recognition of its sovereign rights in the Treaty of Amiens (1802). 
After temporarily moving to Messina, Catania and then Ferrara in Italy, in 1834 the order established itself in Rome, where it now occupies Palazzo Malta (68 Via Condotti) and Villa sull’Aventino, which have been granted extraterritoriality.

Since then, the main activity of the order has been the original one of providing hospital care. This work intensified last century through the activities of the Grand Priories and associations in different countries of the world. These are a few notes on the history of the Order of Jerusalem narrated in the minimum detail by Count Augusto Bertini in a book on the order published in Rome in 1929. In the 1920s, Bertini was secretary general of Rome’s Collegio Araldico (Heraldic college).
He was responsible for a 26-volume armorial manuscript in which each coat-of-arms was either hand drawn or ex libris. Bertini is therefore recognized as Italy’s greatest heraldry expert. So, could the initials “A.B.” on the Aurora R.A. 3 been Bertini’s?
Certainly he is the suspect with the most evidence in his favor.