The Malta Independent 10 December 2018, Monday

Restoration Of Palazzo Falson in Mdina to be completed this year

Malta Independent Sunday, 12 March 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

NOEL GRIMA

The restoration of what used to be known as the Norman House, now known as Palazzo Falson, should be completed by the end of this year and will provide Malta with a small, high-quality museum.

Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti’s Maurice de Giorgio was speaking at the Istituto Culturale Italiano last Monday on what has been achieved so far in the restoration being carried out by Patrimonju.

Second oldest building

Palazzo Falson is the second oldest building in Mdina. The oldest is Palazzo Santa Sofia, across the street.

Palazzo Falson’s structure has been drastically altered over the centuries. It was built in the first half of the 13th century as a one-storey house with a courtyard.

One of its first known owners was Ambrosio de Falsone, Capitano di Verga who died in 1524. His cousin, who inherited him was, Michele Falson, an Aragonese Vice-Admiral, who made extensive changes to the building, which then became the temporary home of Grand Master L’Isle Adam from October to November 1531 when the Knights arrived in Malta.

Olaf Gollcher, its owner in the 20th century, made extensive changes to the building, specifically copying medieval Sicilian architecture to embellish the building. Thus the fountain in the courtyard is an exact replica of a fountain found in a Benedictine cloister in Monreale.

In 1943, Mr Gollcher donated the building and its 45 different collections to the Venerable Order of St John in Clerkenwell, UK, but this offer was (fortunately) turned down by the British order.

In 1960, Mr Gollcher set up the Gollcher Foundation to take over the house and its contents after his death and turn the house into a museum.

It was in 1995 that Patrimonju came into the picture. As usual, what happened was the result of a private visit. Mr de Giorgio accompanied Dr Giovanni Bonello who was trying to find a painting to go with one of his celebrated articles. Their search allowed them to look at the house and its contents with different eyes. While talking about what they saw, they agreed the house would make a wonderful gem of a museum and that Patrimonju could take this as its next project.

They then took a close look the Gollcher will and contacted the Gollcher Foundation. However, it was only in October 2001 that a legal agreement to restore the house was reached. The Gollcher Foundation was very supportive throughout.

Restoration begins

The first task was to draw up a complete inventory of the house contents. It was established that the house contained no less than 3,700 items. It was also found that the previous inventory was incomplete because after drawing up the inventory the restorers continued to find documents in drawers and so on.

There was also a huge library containing 4,500 books, mostly on Maltese and Italian history. The books were taken to Palazzo Vilhena to be inventoried and restored. Restoration was quite painstaking: every page had to be hoovered in order to remove all the DDT that had been spread 40 years before. It took four youths three months to do this!

Next came the removal of all other items in the house to a secure warehouse for the restoration work to begin.

Restoration work proper began in mid-2002.

The main problems of the building was the very age of the structure and the consequences of water seepage, as well as the fact that the main door had been kept closed for most of the past 40 years and humidity was feeding on itself in a big way. The restorers kept the door open as much as they could and even now the building is still quite damp.

When the old plaster on the walls was scraped off, three arches were found to be near collapse and needed urgent repairs. The stones were then pointed, and the clay lining replaced. The courtyard was completely resurfaced and raised and the iron studs and knockers of the two main doors replaced. Windows and doors were scraped and galvanised. Five beams, as well as broken xorok, were replaced. The fountain’s plumbing was also replaced, as was the electrical wiring of the house, which was copper wire covered with cloth.

The frieze in most rooms had to be repainted. All internal walls had to be painted twice over, floor tiles had to be replaced and a small belfry that had been blown down during a gale was rebuilt.

The topmost room, which was completely rebuilt, will the cafeteria when the museum is opened. From it one can enjoy a wonderful view of Malta.

Old features of the house came to light. A large loggia now lets in more light into the stairwell. Old forgotten doorways were discovered, double doors were found between the refectory and the kitchen, leading to some speculation that the house may have had access from the back at some point.

In all, over 1,000 interventions were made.

The collections

The restoration of the collections was made by qualified restorers in what used to be known as the Malta Centre for Restoration (now included in Heritage Malta) and by graduates from MCR.

Two hundred and fifty paintings all required cleaning and in most, part repairs or regilding done to their frames. The most notable paintings include paintings by Mattia Preti, Edward Lear and a painting attribute to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

There are 200 antique pieces of furniture in the house and 80 carpets of quality.

There are 800 pieces of silver, most top quality silverware from Malta, Naples and the UK (but the best of the collection remains in Clerkenwell).

There are also 120 antique weapons mainly from the Great Siege.

There is also a watch, one of only four made, with

the date of manufacture listed as 1791, with a 10-

hour dial, reflecting Napoleon’s attempt to decimalise time.

The new museum

The sheer number of items in the house is too great to be on show all the time. Thus there will be a reserve collection and the exhibits will be rotated every so often.

Planning the museum has had to take into consideration the fact that the house was originally bigger than it is today since some rooms have been ceded to neighbours.

There are, in all, 29 ambienti in the house but some will have to be used as a souvenir shop, a cafeteria, offices and so on.

Still, when the museum opens, hopefully by the end of the year, it will prove to be a learning experience. It will have the right lighting and will also have audio-guides. It also intends to offer a participatory experience to young visitors to become aware of their national heritage.

The library will be accessible to students, one at a time for security reasons. Apart from the books, the students may also wish to consult the many documents and research work done by Mr Gollcher. Obviously, security has been a prime concern throughout and it is quite costly.

Mr de Giorgio was asked if the building has a cellar. He replied that many thought the building would have a big cellar but only one small cellar was found: it was the wine cellar and was full of bottles, unfortunately all empty.

Other than that, the house like most other buildings in Mdina, was built directly over Roman ruins.

Another old palazzo for Patrimonju exhibitions

Once this restoration work is concluded and the museum opened, Patrimonju intends continuing with its work. In particular, it intends to continue with its series of exhibitions.

And here Mr de Giorgio dropped his bombshell: Patrimonju is looking at another palazzo in Mdina it can convert and turn into a building where it can house its exhibitions.

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