Grand Master's Palace

Grand Master's Palace

During the reign of Grand Master La Cassiere in 1572 the palace originally consisted of the former Auberge d’Italie and the two-storey house of Eustacio di Monte. The Grandmaster further added the Supreme Council Chamber on the airspace overlying the old Auberge. Between 1582 and 1595, Grand Master de Verdalle ordered the construction of a summer apartment on what was left un built by the Italian Auberge. Gerolamo Cassar (1520-1592) who was appointed with the challenging task of building the palace included entirely the whole block all the way up to Merchants Street with the result that the palace became the largest single building in Valletta. The former stepped skyline of the palace became substituted by a straight cornice while the old and modest rusticated entrance of the former residence was replaced by a new monumental doorway projecting upwards to more than half the height of the first floor.

The facade of the palace as we know it today is the result of the grandiose reconstruction works of the palace which was carried out during the reign of Grand Master Manoel Pinto de Fonseca. The single portal from Strada San Giorgio was reinforced by a second portal of architecturally equal importance, while what were two doorways into the former Auberge d’Italie from Archbishop Street were replaced by the present entrance. The redesign of the palace is attributed to the Maltese architect Andrea Belli. One of the reasons is that the two new palace doorways are very similar to the massive portal of the Augustinian priory in Rabat which was designed by Andrea Belli ( 1703-1772) in 1740.

A newly discovered plan showing the ground floor and a contemporary description of the Grandmaster’s Palace was found recently, the plan and the description are dated to post 1741, that is, after the reconstruction works of the palace ordered by Grandmaster Manoel Pinto de Fonseca, as they show and describe the palace with two entrances in Republic Street as we know it today. However, this new information contains a number of details that throw new light on the original layout of the palace. The manuscript describes the palace as a rectangular building in the city of Valletta facing the four winds with its facade, having two marble entrances oriented towards the northwest. There is also the mentioning of the ‘corpo di guardia’ and veteran soldiers who daily changes guard at the palace. It also refers to a veranda (loggia) which is probably the roofed arched passageway surrounding Neptune’s courtyard. There is also a reference to the dining room used by the palatial knights and pages, two kitchens, the slaves’ prison towards the northeast, two coach rooms, the stables, an entrance presumably the one leading to Archbishop’s Street the guard and postilion room, a small courtyard leading to an orchard with citrus trees, a flight of eighteen steps which according to the plan should be the staircase adjoining Prince Alfred’s courtyard with Neptune’s courtyard, and the entrance leading to Old Theatre Street. The plan and description also indicate two staircases, one still existing (built by Grandmaster Verdalle) and a smaller staircase that no longer exists today. From here onwards the description refers to the piano nobile where there is a reference to the winter and summer apartments, the latter also built by de Verdalle, the council chamber, another room, a chapel for the celebration of mass, a room adorned with paintings, a reference to ferro piccioli and swords probably housed in the armoury, a beautiful hall and room, both adorned and used for councils, and another chapel.

Towards the end of the description there is the mention of the tower in which were hidden the treasures of the Order, surmounted by a clock which struck every hour. Such a reference surely predates the turret clock inaugurated by Pinto on 22 June 1745. Therefore, the dating of this plan and description should be after 1741, the date when Pinto ascended to the throne and before June 1745, the date when Pinto’s clock was inaugurated in the smaller courtyard.  The plan and the description are found in the Cabreo del Magistero and the Cabreo della Secrezia respectively. The plan along with most of the other illustrations is still in a very good condition but the description, which is on page one, is battered due to the worn out condition of the first foglio of the Cabreo della Secrezia.

The main issue with the conservation was the sheer size of facade. It was noted during an inspection that the elaborate sculptured corbels required a high level of craftsmanship and meticulous interventions. The long wooden corner balconies had to be carefully restored by specialised workmen. Some areas such as the corner on Merchants and Archbishop Street were suffering from recalcification where Ca+ ions migrate to the surface and create a crust leaving behind a layer of friable stone material which is calcium depleted. The outer stone layer or crust was falling bit by bit to the streets below. Whilst trying to retain as much of the original stone material as possible due to aesthetic considerations the lost material was replaced so that the architecture of the facade could remain legible. Several localised cracks appeared to be of no structural consequence. In such instances interventions were limited to the removal of metal inserts when they were causing the damage and adhesives were used to ensure re-attachment of the detached stonework. Stone replacement was only resorted to in extreme cases. Rusting steel elements were a major cause of damage to the stonework. Better detailing and more appropriate materials were used to avoid reoccurrence in the future. With regards to black crust various methods of removal were applied, depending on the consistency of the dirt and the condition of the underlying stone. The cleaning techniques adopted were non-abrasive, to ensure that the stone patina was being preserved.

Located beneath the balcony at the corner of St. George’s Square and Archbishop Street, some of the gypsum corbels beneath the corner balcony exhibited cracks in varying degrees, the methods of intervention were not to let the timber fascia of the balcony touch and bear pressure on the corbels, the use of a better mix which is less prone to cracking and making sure that the timber frame beneath the gypsum was sound. An experienced sculptor who understands the material problems was required.  Some of the timber balconies were infested with dry and wet rot even though from afar they appeared sound. The deteriorated areas were replaced, retaining as much as possible of the original timber fabric. Preservative coatings were then applied to safeguard the timber balconies. Additionally some of the timber balconies have iron stays or cables connecting the balcony roof to the facade wall so as to take part of the balcony load. As most of the metal supports were rusty, at times becoming detached from their anchorage, they were replaced with stainless steel cables and were fixed with a proprietary grout.