Admiralty House

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The National Museum of Fine Arts is located at the lower end of South Street (Valletta).  The building was originally one of the earliest to be built in Valletta and served as residence to successive knights of the Order of St John.  The site was acquired as early as 1569, by Chev. Fra Jean de Soubiran dit Arafat of the Langue of Provence, who had taken part in the Siege of Malta of 1565 and who was captain of the galley “San Giovanni” in 1602. It would seem that on the site which he acquired Chev. de Soubiran built two houses, one large and one small.  Later, the premises passed to Comm. François le Petit de la Guerche, also of the Langue of Provence, captain of the galley “Santa Maria” in 1654. When this knight died outside the Convent on June 21, 1663, the Treasury took possession of the property on September 1st, 1663.

From May 17, 1668 to November 16, 1669, both houses were let to Comm. Fra Eustachio Bernard d’Avernes for a yearly rent of Sc. 120. The premises were then let successively to three members of the de Fleurigny family: Chev. Fra François Octave de Fleurigny from November 17, 1699 to May 16, 1670, Chev. Fra Louis de Fleurigny from May 17, 1670 to October 31, 1670 and Chev. Fra Hugues de Fleurigny Vauvilliers from November 1st 1670 to July 31, 1671. On August 1st, 1671, they were taken on lease by Comm. Fra Simone Rondinelli of the Langue of Italy who held them up to January 31, 1673.

The Treasury again leased the property to Chev. Hugues de Fleurigny Vauvilliers and to his brother Jacques from February 1st, 1673, to the end of January 1682. In virtue of a deed dated January 27, 1682, the premises were given on lease to Chev. now Commander Louis de Fleurigny for the duration of his lifetime, but at the reduced rent of Sc. 110 per annum, and on January 16, 1697, it was agreed that Chev. Fra Jacques de Fleurigny Vauvilliers should also enjoy the use of the house during his lifetime, together with his brother Comm. Louis. After the Fleurignys the house was given on lease to Chev. Fra. Boniface de Castellane of the Langue of Provence on May 14, 1720, though, Sir Hannibal Scicluna states that, before this, the brothers Jean and Charles Dou had taken the house on lease but had later renounced their rights to the continuance of same. The house was later rebuilt during the 1760s by Fra Ramon de Sousa y Silva, a wealthy Portuguese knight of the Order of St John, and adopted as his private residence.

Following the death of the Balì of Lessa the house was divided into several apartments and occupied, from March 1783 to April 1785, by several knights among whom we find the names of Fra Luca d’Argence, Fra Vincenzo Perelli and Fra Daniele Berlinghieri who later represented the Order at the Congress of Vienna. On April 7, 1785 the premises were again let as a private residence to the renowned French naval commander, the Balì Pierre André Suffren de Saint Tropez, Captain General of the Galleys of the Order in 1780, who occupied them until his death outside the Convent on December 8, 1788. After his death they were let, on the same conditions, to his brother, Comm. Fra Paul Julien Suffren de Saint Tropez, until June 1795 when the palace was taken on lease by Chev. Fra Antonio Miari di Belluno, Secretary to Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, who occupied it, at the yearly rent of Sc. 250, until the Order was driven out of Malta by Napoleon in June 1798.

 

The French Republican Government offered the palace to the Bishop, Monsignor Vincenzo Labini, as an episcopal seminary, but owing to the revolt of the Maltese, this project was never implemented. After the capitulation of the French garrison, “Casa Miari,” as the palace was then known, was occupied by the Commander of the Anglo-Maltese troops, Captain Alexander Ball R.N., the house having been refused by Canon Francesco Caruana, to whom it had been offered by the British Commissioner in recognition of his services during the campaign against the French. The next occupant of the residence was Mr. Alexander Macaulay, Secretary to the Civil Commissioner, who leased it from August 1802 to June 1803 at a rent of £24, 15. 6 per annum.

 

By an Order given on May 12, 1808, His Excellency the Governor ordered that the palace be reinstated for the immediate reception of His Royal Highness the Duke of Orleans. Mr. G. Darmanin Demajo relates that Louis Charles, Vicomte de Beaujolais, and his brother, Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, arrived in Malta on May 16, 1808 on board the French warship “Voltaire” and lodged in the “Casa Miari” where the Vicomte de Beaujolais died on May 29, 1808. From 1808 to 1820 the house was occupied by the British Military Authorities without payment of rent. By the 1820’s the palace became known as Admiralty House and was the seat of the Commander-in Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet until 1961 when it was taken over by the Maltese Government.

 

The palace was officially inaugurated as the National Museum of fine Arts in 1974 and has since then been Malta’s most important museum for the arts. Plans dated 1884 show the layout of the building when used by the Commander-in Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet.  Part of the basement accessible from Old Mint Street was rented out separately while the underlying premises was used as the accommodation of the porter. Two square rooms built in the courtyard both at basement level and at ground floor level were used as toilets and have since been removed.

 

Since the building’s use as a Museum other changes have also been carried out.  A flight of stairs leading from the basement level to underneath the adjacent property have since been removed. A cistern under the courtyard that used to collect rain water was converted for a limited period of time into an exhibition space but has been disused for several years. A number of toilet facilities at basement level have been introduced. Partitions in the front rooms at ground floor level have been removed, while several alterations were carried out in the rooms at the back.

The building was in a relatively good state of repair with some signs of water infiltration and rising damp. Given that it has remained in use maintenance works have been carried out over years to keep it in a good state of repair. The external facades have been painted over and showed little damage.  Areas of flaking paint and open joints could be observed in the lower areas of the wall.  More areas of powdering and flaking were observed underneath the main cornice, indicative of water ingress. The timber apertures and balconies were in need of maintenance.

A visual and photographic inspection of the site was undertaken in 2015 to ascertain the condition of this building, thus enabling the formulation of a proper conservation strategy.  This appraisal concluded that the damage which has occurred could be generally summarised as follows:

·         The exterior of the property has been coated with an exterior quality paint.  It is in a relatively good state of conservation with a few areas of flaking paint, mostly at low level but also in some areas directly beneath the cornice.

·         The walls of the internal courtyard were recently restored and exhibited no particular signs of deterioration.

·         Internally there were signs of damp in the basement level and in the lower parts of some of the ground floor walls.  All the other areas seemed to have much less of a problem.

·         Areas of staining have been observed in the ceiling over the first floor but the roof water ingress seemed to have been solved.

The main concern with the state of conservation of this building was the rising damp which given the fact that no damp proof courses existed it could not be solved without intervening heavily on the building.  It was decided however to seek to contain the problem using adequate plaster/paint types and to control the environment conditions accordingly.

The painting of the facades was a relatively recent intervention which did not have any historic basis.  This paint layer was therefore to be removed and any underlying damages addressed. As for the proposed interventions required to convert the building from a museum to an office, methodologies were sought to minimise the effect of the works on the existing fabric (such as surface mounted cable runs).​