The People of Gibraltar
1756 - The Arengo Family - From Victualling to Banking

Bartolome, Theresa and Juan - Wellington, Fitzgerald and Cepolina

Another important Genoese immigrant was Bartolome Arengo who arrived as a married man in 1756. His wife Theresa eventually added to Gibraltar's growing population of Genoese residents by giving birth to a whole clutch of children - Magdalena, Angelo, Pedro, Franco and Maria. 

Their eldest son John was the only one born in Genoa and was less than one year old when he arrived in Gibraltar. Within a generation the Arengo family had managed to add themselves to a lengthening list of rich Gibraltar merchants. So much so that during the early 19th century Bartolome's eldest son, Juan Arengo, had become an influential figure in local Freemasonry.

He was one of the leading lights in the creation of the Lodge of Friendship no. 577 which was made up mostly of local Catholic worthies. Rather surprisingly this lodge was an offshoot of Hiram’s Lodge which was itself unique in that it was the only Lodge in Gibraltar – and perhaps even elsewhere - where membership was almost exclusively Jewish. The fact that Juan was immediately chosen as Master shows his standing among his peers.


History of English Freemasonry in Gibraltar

One possible reason for finding himself in such an unusual position - and it was an exalted one by Gibraltar standards - was that by now he had become one of the principle victuallers to the Garrison having made himself especially useful during the Great Siege. But that was not the only reason.

For a start he had become Spanish Vice-consul in 1805 and by 1808 with the start of the Peninsular War and subsequent shift in relationship between Britain and Spain, he had suddenly found it useful to move his priorities from victualling to banking. Wellington's fame as a military genius is unarguable. But he still needed to pay his troops who unfortunately insisted that this be done in Spanish duros. It was Juan who met his needs by exchanging British gold bullion into the required currency.


The Duke of Wellington (Francisco Goya)


Wellington and his men after Waterloo. These were the people who were paid off with Arengo's duros. Juan made his fortune - could Wellesley not have done so as well?

That the amounts of money involved were enormous is confirmed by William Mark in his book At Sea with Nelson;
Amongst other things, during this important period, was the collecting money for the use of Lord Wellington’s Army.  We generally had a ship of war in Gibraltar Bay, taking on board money for Lisbon, and every month we sent from a million to a million and a half hard dollars to carry  on the war, while, for this purpose, not a dollar was to be procured  anywhere else; there was no coin in England that would answer the  purpose.  
All this is public and notorious.  Lord Wellington was often reduced to the greatest difficulties for the want of money, on which his supplies so principally depended, and he has often declared the great importance of Gibraltar from that very circumstance. 
It has even been suggested that the reason why the Commercial Library - which was inaugurated in 1806 - was eventually called the Exchange and Commercial Library was largely because this was where Arengo met with Wellington's agents to carry out his extremely lucrative transactions.

The Exchange and Commercial Library

Later in his life Juan - who now perhaps understandably tended to call himself John - arranged for an altar to be built inside the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned. Fluted marble columns with Corinthian capitals were used to support a six ton ‘bogattino’ or half circular pediment.

These marble structures were originally intended for an unknown South American church. The ship that carried them sank somewhere in the harbour and the Arengo family bought the salvage rights. Many years later the marble columns and the pediment were transferred to the main altar. The columns - even today - tend to be carefully covered up in order to conceal the many carved Masonic symbols that decorate them.


The pillars and bogattino of the main altar of the Catholic Cathedral.
In 1931 Bishop Fitzgerald (of the interminable sermons) decided that the pillars and bogattino that decorated the Arengo side chapel would make the main altar look far more impressive than it was at the time. He had them moved accordingly.

When he died in 1819, John Arengo was buried within the Cathedral itself – an expensive privilege only available to the very rich. His memorial describes him as ‘a noble Genoese who maintained the honour and glory of Genoa.’ Despite having lived on the Rock virtually his entire life, he felt more for the land of his birth than for the place where he had made all his money.

Memorial plaque in the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned.

His family eventually acquired their own coat of arms and these were also incorporated as part of the altar.


Arengo family Coat of Arms

John's son, Juan Bautista, never enjoyed the fruits of his father's business acumen - he died in 1812 aged 22 perhaps either of yellow fever or the plague.


Juan Bautista Arengo's memorial plaque in the Cathedral

The name Arengo is still commemorated in two minor streets on the rock, 'Arengo's Palace', and 'Palace Gully'. The 'Palace' refers to a large house near the Church of the Sacred Heart which was the family's main residence for many years. It was a strikingly opulent mansion by any standard but even more so in Gibraltar where most civilian houses at the time - with one or two notable exceptions - were relatively pedestrian. The house came with extensive flower and vegetable gardens - an almost unheard of perk for any Gibraltar residence - and commanded exceptionally beautiful views of the bay.

 In 1830 the house and the gardens above it warranted a mention in a report written by Dr. J Hennen - Medical Superintendent to the Garrison at the time;
About midway between the castle and southern boundary of the town, (known by the name of Charles the Fifth's Wall,) is an insulated strip of the hill, with a gentle swell on either side ; it is inclosed with a stone wall, which renders it somewhat pyramidal to the eye: the base is occupied by a range of houses known under the name of 'Arengo's Buildings,' the upper part, by the Gardens called after the proprietor. On each side a gully runs down. These gullies completely insulate the interjacent space, and give it a striking appearance from the Line Wall and Bay.

Arengo's Buildings appear on the top middle section of this 1830s map of the town marked Dt.     ( Piaget et Lailavoix )   ( See LINK )

When the house was up for rental in 1874 the Gibraltar Chronicle described it as 'a very commodious and well-ventilated mansion.' The later description is open to interpretation but it probably meant that its rooms were airy and full of windows. It was almost certainly built by Juan Arengo and paid for with Wellington's gold.


Plan of the House showing extensive gardens rising behind it on the slopes of the Rock



Arengo's Palace - It has since been demolished to make way for a car park


 The statues from Arengo’s Palace were ‘salvaged’ – if that is the correct term – and are now found in the Governor’s gardens in the Convent. Here are two of the original five


Post-war wedding held in Arengo's Palace. The man in the middle is Bishop Fitzgerald

In the early 1770s, Magdalena - John Arengo's elder sister - married a young man from the Genoese town of San Pier de Arena. His name is recorded both as José Chipolina and as José Cepolino. Their subsequent offspring and descendants ensured that the author of this history would become the great, great, great, great, great grandson of Bartolome and Theresa Arengo.

Magdalena was born in 1762 and died on the 1st of March 1802. There is no memorial plaque in the Cathedral to commemorate her name.


The Rock in the early nineteenth century at a time when Juan Arengo was probably thinking about building his palace   ( Sutherland )     LINK 


The town looking north with Arengo's Palace on the right ( 1883 - Frederick William J. Shore )