The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Remains At Inquisitor’s Palace date back to pre-Knights period

Malta Independent Friday, 7 October 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Medieval remains which date back to the pre-Knights period were found during recent restoration works carried out at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa, curator Godwin Vella told The Malta Independent.

In a nutshell, the Inquisitor’s Palace is one of the most interesting surviving buildings, for the simple reason that it was built in phases, with the oldest parts dating back to pre-1530, Mr Vella said.

These medieval remains were only discovered recently, as when the Castellania – the Civil and Criminal Tribunal of the Order – was built, workers did not demolish and rebuild, but rather demolished only parts, in order to change some aspects, such as vaulted ceilings.

He went on to explain that at the time of the Knights, Vittoriosa was the capital city, so it had to be transformed for that purpose, which included the building of auberges, hospitals and the like.

At the time of the Knights, who arrived in Malta in 1530, around a quarter of the footprint of where the Inquisitor’s Palace stands today served as the Castellania.

However when Valletta replaced Vittoriosa as the capital city, the courts moved with it, leaving the property vacant, until it was passed on to the Inquisition in 1574, he explained.

Along the years adjacent properties have been purchased, until enough was bought to constitute a free standing block.

Today the Inquisitor’s Palace houses a melee of different architectural styles; ranging from the pre-Knights period to the Knights, the Inquisition, and even to the time of the British in Malta.

“I would describe the Inquisitor’s Palace as one of the most exciting labyrinths in Malta,” he said, adding that it is also interesting as it was one of three hubs of power in Malta, at the time of the Knights.

There was the Grand Master, the Bishop and the Inquisitor, who was also the Nunzio Appostolico, and who in fact had a very important role, representing the Pope, as a watchdog on the Church’s teachings.

The Inquisitor’s role was established as a result of the Council of Trent, when the major threat was Protestantism. That ended after some decades, but the Inquisition also took on a second, more pro-active role.

Its role was to spearhead new cults and religious practices, including occasions such as Lent, and in fact if one were to look at different countries, the Lent tradition is strongest in countries where there was the Inquisition.

Although it is often depicted a cruel institution, a place to torture others, this was not the case, rather in over 200 years of the Inquisition in Malta there were only two cases of the death sentences, in two very extreme cases. The general rule was that people would be given acts of penitence.

The torture chamber was in fact rather small, and it was only when there was suspicion that a person may be lying that it was used, and the idea was of giving someone the ‘tools’ to save themselves.

Even in torture there was no threat to life or bloodshed, he said, and it was all documented.

In the early 1900s, the Palace was in danger of being demolished, to make room for another building, however this fortunately never came through and the Antiquities Committee, set up in 1903, set about restoring it.

During the interwar period, there was a major period of conservation and restoration, under the guidance of Vincenzo Bonello, and it opened as a fine arts museum in the 1930s.

It also housed the Dominicans until the 1960s, who now reside just opposite, when their convent was hit during WW2 and while the convent was being restored. In the 1980s it served as a folklore museum, and more recently became the ethnographic museum of today.

Today it serves a dual role as the Inquisitor’s Palace, and where possible offers historical constructions. The team also works to preserve what it can of the surviving architecture, which reveals a lot about the building.

One case in point was the pre-Knights features, which only emerged during the recent works of conservation of some six vaults at ground level. The plan is to publish this so far little-known information as much as possible, he said.

After Birgufest, the Museum will embark on further restoration works, he said, adding that the aim is simply that conservation must be an ongoing procedure.

“Since as I said, the Palace is like a labyrinth, people tend to get lost, which is why we are introducing a new visitors’ trail, to offer direction,” Mr Vella explained.

Recent market research revealed that over 80% of visitors consider the place to be well-equipped and engaging, but this obviously means that work remains to be done, he added.

Starting today Vittoriosa will come alive for Birgufest, the annual event which sees people flock to the old city, and once again the Inquisitor’s Palace will be offering a reduced entry fee of €2.

This evening it will be open until midnight, tomorrow until 1am on Sunday, and on Sunday until 10pm.

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