The Malta Independent 18 August 2019, Sunday

The Piecemeal history of the Palace

Malta Independent Sunday, 3 June 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

It was meant to be the final lecture in this year’s series, which had concentrated on the Palace of the Grand Masters but, in the end, organiser Salvator Mousú had a surprise: he is trying to get permission to hold an extra talk which would allow visitors to tour, for the first time, the vast basement of the Palace.

The lecture proper, last Monday, just down the corridor from the Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici debate in the House, was by architectural historian Conrad Thake on the history of the architecture of the Palace. Conceptually, this should have been at the beginning of the series.

Dr Thake showed how the history of the Palace is a convoluted and complex one. Yet for over 200 years it was the centre of power in Malta.

St John’s and the Palace are practically back to back – a proximity that is not accidental and that exemplifies the dynamics of power under the Order. The bishop was at Mdina, the Inquisitor at Vittoriosa and the Order ruled in Valletta. There was a very angry reaction by the Order when the bishop proposed having his palace in Valletta and he was only allowed to have one without a prison. St John’s, in contrast to its present position as the Co-Cathedral, was the church of the Order.

Yet originally, the plan was for the palace of the grand master to be at the highest point of Valletta, near where today the Auberge de Castille stands.

The decisive change happened when the Order, under Grand Master Pietro Del Monte, moved from Vittoriosa to Valletta in 1571. The nephew of the Grand Master, Ustaccio, had purchased two plots of land in the centre of Valletta for an Auberge d’Italie. He was one of the first to start building in Valletta, in 1568, three years after the Great Siege.

His uncle got him to exchange properties: the Auberge d’Italie moved to Castille Hill, while the Grand Master moved his palace to the two properties in the centre of the city as planned by Laparelli on a grid pattern. Maltese architect Ġlormu Cassar was charged with converting the two houses into one palace. Fundamentally, however, the structure remained, and in part remains, two adjoined houses. The corner at the back, on the corner of Merchants Street and Old Theatre Street, was a garden and remained so for a number of years. Originally, the palace was a one-storey building, designed – as was the rest of Valletta and even St John’s before Mattia Preti beautified it – as a very austere building. The Sala del Gran Consiglio (today’s throne room) was added later and it was Grand Master Pinto who created the two doorways in the late 18th century.

Then, slowly, things began to be added: the spiral staircase was constructed under Grand Master Verdalle in the late 16th century (with shallow steps because the Grand Master had gout), linking the ground floor to the piano nobile in typical Renaissance style.

The ground floor housed the stables where the carriages were kept and the horses stabled.

Originally, the balconies that surround the piano nobile were open. They were closed up much later on and were the first closed balconies in Malta. The corbels, that is the figures holding up the balconies, are worth close inspection, especially the one on the corner of Archbishop Street and St George’s Square which shows a bare-breasted woman carrying a man on her shoulders.

Grand Masters – from the two Cotoners to Zondadari – all contributed to embellishing the palace, but the greatest impetus came with Grand Master Pinto who, just two weeks after he was elected, took steps to enhance the palace as befits a sovereign. The portals he established give the impression that the place was secure and well defended.

There are two courtyards in the Palace: Neptune’s Courtyard and that of the Clock Tower.

The statue of Neptune was brought to the Palace from the marina near what we today call the Victoria Gate by a British governor. The courtyard originally contained flowerbeds and shrubs and the arcades led to the aforementioned stables. The Perellos fountain dates from 1712.

The doorway leading to Old Theatre Street is a fairly late addition, as is the nearby Bibliotheca, one of the last buildings built by the Knights.

The piano nobile is mainly three corridors: one leading to the Armoury, at the other end of which is the Tapestry Chamber, originally the Council Chamber; another leading to the state rooms including the Grand Council Chamber (today’s Throne Room); and the third one is the Prince of Wales Corridor leading to the Grand Master’s private rooms.

The present configuration of the rooms on the piano nobile is greatly changed from what was there originally.

For the Knights, the Armoury was very important. It housed one of the best collection of arms in Europe and the knights proudly showed it to all visitors to Malta. Today, it houses the Parliament and the compressed armoury is in the stables on the ground floor.

It was Governor Le Marchant who replaced the floor of the Prince of Wales Corridor with marble.

Fortunately, the Tapestry Chamber has not been tampered with. It was Grand Master Perellos’ gift following his election and people who came to see it spoke of how the tigers and the baby elephants in the tapestries almost came to life.

The worst depredations committed by the colonial rulers occurred in the Grand Council Chamber. The marble floor was replaced and the hall was anglicised into the Hall of St Michael and St George, where all functions of this order established by King George IV in 1818 were held. The Matteo Perez d’Aleccio frescoes were covered up and the hall was redecorated in the Empire style, with hangings and chandeliers. Fortunately, in 1907 the Duke of Connaught ordered that everything be changed back to their original state.

In World War II, the Palace suffered a direct hit that destroyed most of the spiral staircase.

Down in the square, the British added a stone bench running along the Palace’s façade, but this was removed when it was taken over by beggars. The square itself has always been the focal point of Maltese history, whether for celebrations of joy, military parades or riots.

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