Grandmaster’s Palace, Valletta, Malta

The Grandmaster’s Palace (Maltese: Il-Palazz tal-Granmastru), is a palace in Valletta, Malta. It was built between the 16th and 18th centuries as the palace of the Grand Master of the Order of St. John.The State Rooms are the show piece of the Presidential Palace sited at the heart of Malta’s World Heritage capital city of Valletta. The Palace itself was one of the first buildings in the new city of Valletta founded by Grand Master Jean de Valette in 1566 a few months after the successful outcome of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Palace was enlarged and developed by successive Grand Masters to serve as their official residence. Later, during the British period, it served as the Governor’s Palace and was the seat of Malta’s first constitutional parliament in 1921.

The Grandmaster’s Palace occupies a city block in the centre of Valletta, and it is the largest palace in the city. Its façade is located opposite the Main Guard in St. George’s Square along Republic Street. The palace is also bounded by Archbishop Street, Old Theatre Street and Merchants Street. The palace today is the seat of the Office of the President of Malta. Parts of the building, namely the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury, are open to the public as a museum run by Heritage Malta.

The Palace Armoury is one of the world’s largest collections of arms and armour that is still housed in its original building. The Knights of St John were a unique brotherhood of resolute warrior monks. From Malta, their island stronghold, these combatant aristocrats from the noblest houses of Europe, carried out their relentless crusade against the Ottoman Turks in defence of the Catholic faith. The Palace Armoury is certainly one of the most visible and tangible symbols of the past glories of the Sovereign Hospitaller Military Order of Malta.

Ever since the times of the Order of St John, the palace was the seat of a collection of works of art and heritage items some of which still grace its walls. Some were purposely produced and form part of the historic fabric of the building. Others were acquired, transferred or presented at different times throughout its chequered history.

When the Order of St. John established the new city of Valletta in 1566, the original intention was to built the palace of the Grand Master on high ground in the southern part of the city. In fact, present-day South Street was originally known as Strada del Palazzo, since the palace was meant to be built there.

The site of the palace was originally occupied by several buildings, including the house of the knight Eustachio del Monte which was built in 1569, and the auberge of the langue of Italy which was built in around 1571. Both of these buildings were built to designs of the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar.

In 1571, Grand Master Pierre de Monte moved the Order’s headquarters to Valletta, and he lived in the house of Eustachio del Monte, who was his nephew. The Council of the Order subsequently purchased the house, and in 1574 it began to be enlarged into a palace for the Grand Master. By this time, del Monte had died and he was succeeded as Grand Master by Jean de la Cassière. The Italian langue moved to a new auberge in 1579, and the original auberge was also incorporated into the palace. The Grandmaster’s Palace was built to Mannerist designs of Glormo Cassar.

Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt transferred the Order’s arsenal to the Magisterial Palace in 1604 where it was the pride of the Order.Armour of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt Apart from being lavishly adorned with elaborate trophies of arms, it held enough arms and armour to equip thousands of soldiers. It was housed in the magnificent hall at the rear of the building, right above its present location. At present, it is displayed inside two halls that were originally the stables of the palace.

Following the forced departure of the Order of St. John from Malta, the armoury somehow lost much of its original grandeur. However, it was restored and was officially opened as Malta’s first public museum in 1860. Although only a fraction of its original splendour remains, the Armoury still contains abundant material of Italian, German, French and Spanish origin from principal production centres. Also displayed is an exotic selection of Islamic and Ottoman arms and armour. Apart from the massed arms of the common soldiers in the collection, the enriched personal armours of the nobility still manage to make a statement.

The palace was modified and embellished by subsequent Grand Masters, which gave the building a Baroque character. The ceilings of the main corridors were decorated with frescoes by Nicolau Nasoni in 1724, during the magistracy of António Manoel de Vilhena. In the 1740s, Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca made extensive alterations to the building and gave it its present configuration. Pinto’s renovations included the embellishment of the façade, the opening of a second main entrance, and the construction of a clock tower in one of the courtyards.

During the French occupation of Malta, the building became known as the Palais National (National Palace). The name was a reflection of the French ideas resulting from the revolution and part of the whole reformed establishment in Malta.

The Grandmaster’s Palace became the official residence of the Governor of Malta after Malta fell under British rule in 1800, and it therefore became known as the Governor’s Palace. During the British protectorate, the kitchen of the palace which served the Grand Master was converted into an Anglican chapel. A semaphore station was installed on the palace’s belvedere in the 1840s. Parts of the building, including the hall housing the Palace Armoury, were hit by aerial bombardment during World War II, but the damage was subsequently repaired.

The Grandmaster’s Palace was the seat of the Parliament of Malta from 1921 to 2015. Parliament met in the Tapestry Hall from 1921 to 1976, when it moved to the former armoury. The House of Representatives moved out of the Grandmaster’s Palace to the purpose-built Parliament House on 4 May 2015. During Malta’s first presidency of the European Union in 2017 the former parliamentary meeting hall was used to host the meetings of the Council of the European Union.

Following Malta’s independence in 1964, the building became the seat of the Governor-General of Malta. It has housed the Office of the President of Malta since the office was established in 1974. Parts of the building, namely the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury, are open to the public as a museum run by Heritage Malta.

The palace was included on the Antiquities List of 1925. It is now a Grade 1 national monument, and it is also listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands.

The main façade of the Grandmaster’s Palace is built in the simple and austere Mannerist style, typical of its architect Cassar. The façade is asymmetrical due to the extensive alterations carried out to the building over the centuries, and it has heavy rustications at the corners along with an uninterrupted cornice at roof level. There are two main entrances on the façade, and they each consist of an arched doorway surrounded by an ornate portal which supports an open balcony. Long closed timber balconies wrap around the corners of the main façade. Both the portals and the balconies were added to the building in the 18th century.

The Grand Master’s Palace has a rectangular layout and is 97 meters long and 83 meters wide. This makes it Valletta’s largest building in terms of area. It was built of local limestone. This is the only mineral treasure of Malta and is still used today for many new buildings. Externally, the two-storey palace is extremely simple and reflects the usual architectural rigor of the 16th century. Apart from small ornaments, the wooden oriels on the west and north ceilings as well as the two richly decorated Baroque portals on Palace Square on the northwest side are the only decorative elements. However, they were installed just over two centuries after the palace was completed. The bay windows replaced the old iron balconies in 1741.

Originally, the palace had only that entrance portal at Palace Square, which is further north, closer to Archbishop Street. It turns into a large vestibule that leads to Neptune’s Courtyard. The more southerly portal, located near Republic Square, was, like the bay windows, first constructed under the reign of Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca. It leads into the Prince Alfred Courtyard.

The side façade in Old Theatre Street contains a secondary main entrance which leads to one of the courtyards. The building’s exterior was originally painted in red ochre, a colour used by the Order to mark public buildings.

Similar to the Italian Renaissance palaces, the Grand Master’s Palace, the first floor of the building, the Piano Nobile, was the most important. Here were the sumptuous rooms, while on the ground floor were the stables, the quarters of the staff and shops. Today, the ground floor houses many offices and also some state ministries. The wooden ceilings of the rooms are in the majority of coffered ceilings, which are supported by brackets resting on consoles.

A spiral staircase from the Prince Alfred Courtyard leads to the upper rooms. The stairs were laid out very flat out of consideration for the knights in heavy armor and older grandmasters. The staircase is wide enough to accommodate a litter. This staircase was built during the reign of the 52nd Grand Master Hugues Loubenx de Verdale. In the Piano Nobile, the staircase meets a kind of vestibule formed by the angle of two corridors. The right one merges into the 31-meter-long Armory Corridor, located in the wing that divides the two courtyards and runs from northwest to southeast. He is flanked on both sides by knightly armor. The marble floor is adorned with various large coats of arms, including that of the 44th Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de l ‘Isle-Adam, that of the famous 49th Grand Master and Maltese national hero Jean de la Valette and the current of the Republic of Malta. The walls and the ceiling are decorated with numerous large-scale paintings. From this corridor there are rooms on one side, while the other side has large windows facing Neptune’s Courtyard. Above the doors and windows are lunettes. Those above the windows date from the first quarter of the 18th century and were created by Nicolau Nasoni. Opposite, the Maltese painter Giovanni Bonello made the opposite 160 years later. Both series show Maltese and Gozitan landscapes.

The corridor, which continues in a line from the vestibule at the top of the spiral staircase, the Entrance Corridor, runs parallel to the northwest side of the palace and also has numerous paintings by Nasoni. In this area of the palace, however, the lunettes do not show any landscapes, but some of the naval battles between the Order and the Ottoman Empire. Armor and paintings of the grand masters also line this corridor.

At the end of the Entrance Corridor, the Prince of Wales Corridor joins at right angles to the southeast. This got its name in 1862 after a visit by the then British Crown Prince and later King Edward VII. In this corridor are the not publicly accessible offices of the Maltese President, which were previously used as private chambers of the Grand Masters. Next to it are the offices of the former British governors. The Prince of Wales’ Corridor also has lunettes depicting the success of knights in the naval warfare.

State Rooms:
The Throne Room, originally known as the Supreme Council Hall was built during the reign of Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière. It was used by successive Grandmasters to host ambassadors and visiting high ranking dignitaries. During the British administration it became known as the Hall of Saint Michael and Saint George after the Order of St Michael and St George which was founded in 1818 in Malta and the Ionian Islands. It is currently used for state functions held by the President of Malta.

The cycle of wall paintings decorating the upper part of the hall are the work Matteo Perez d’Aleccio and represent various episodes of the Great Siege of Malta. The coat-of-arms of Grand Master Jean de Valette on the wall recess behind the minstrels gallery was painted by Giuseppe Calì.

In 1818, the British transformed this hall by completely covering the walls with neo-classical architectural features designed by Lieutenant-Colonel George Whitmore. These were removed in the early 20th century. The minstrel’s gallery is thought to have been relocated to this hall from the palace chapel which was probably its original location. Of particular interest is the original coffered ceiling and the late 18th century-style chandeliers.

The other state rooms are the Tapestry Hall, the State Dining Hall, the Ambassador’s Room and the Page’s Waiting Room.

Grand Council Chamber:
The Grand Council Chamber is the first room on the right side of the Armory Corridor after the spiral staircase. There, the Legislative of the Order of Malta met, but he was also for a long time part of the private band of the Grand Masters. As such, she had above the entrance the Minstrel’s Gallery, a gallery on which sat the choir and which had been made from the stern of the Great Karacke of Rhodes. In 1522, the Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam had fled from the Ottoman fleet under Suleiman I of Rhodes. The gallery, covered with gold leaf, is sculpted to the smallest detail and has six panels depicting the creation.

The room has an ornate and carved wooden ceiling, but under it was a provisional ceiling retracted for more than a hundred years. Their installation went back to an order of the same Grand Master, who also had the bronze leaf attached to the Neptune Statue. Over the years, it was forgotten that there was a much more opulent one over the simple ceiling before it was discovered by chance during maintenance work.

During British colonial rule, the Grand Council Chamber was converted into an office for the governor’s secretary and removed the Minstrel’s Gallery, which was built into the Supreme Council Hall. The governors use the spacious hall to make their speeches. The remaining murals of the Grand Council Chamber are probably the oldest in the entire palace, showing episodes from the life of John the Baptist, Patron of the Order.

The most distinctive and famous items in the Grand Council Chamber are ten tapestries, which is why the room is also known as Tapestry Hall. The carpets were donated by the 64th Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful. At that time, a new Grand Master was expected to hand over a gift to the Order, a so-called Gioja. The production of the noble tapestries lasted several years. Roccaful was elected in 1697 and gave the tapestries in the tapestry manufactory in Paris commissioned, where they could be completed only after 13 years. The carpets form a series of pictures called Les Tentures des Indes, inspired by stories from the early 17th century that dealt with the hunting adventures of a German prince in the then exotic areas of Brazil, Africa, India and the Caribbean. Drawings on these trips arrived in 1679 at the court of the French King Louis XIV .. On the carpets are wildlife, native people and rainforest vegetation to see, however, the representations by today’s standards are often exaggerated and romanticizing. Each of the carpets contains a knitted pear, as this fruit was part of the coat of arms of Perellos y Roccaful.

The spaces between the tapestries and the coffered ceiling are decorated with paintings. They usually show martial operations of the order ships and also twelve allegorical figures that embody Christian and ancient Roman virtues.

The Maltese Parliament met in the Grand Council Chamber from 1921 to 1976 before moving to the former armory. Even today, behind small wooden desks, the red velvet-covered wooden chairs of the deputies stand. During a particularly heated discussion, one politician threw an inkwell at another parliamentarian. He missed it, however, and the ink struck one of the rugs. Although it could be washed out, but the deputies were allowed to use only pencils since the incident in the Grand Council Chamber. In the room today the appointment celebrations of new Maltese presidents as well as the awarding of Order of Merit take place.

Supreme Council Hall:
The large Supreme Council Hall has two entrances from the Entrance Corridor and stretches from the vestibule to the end of the hallway. This former chapter hall served as a meeting room for the Knights’ Council and was re-commissioned by the British in 1818 on the occasion of the founding of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, whose members were nominated in the Hall, Hall of St. Michael and St Renamed George. Opposite the entrance stands at the end of the hall on a pedestal under the coat of arms of Malta the former throne of the Grand Master, which is why the hall is popularly referred to as the Throne Room.

The hall, severely damaged during the Second Great Siege of Malta in the Second World War, but is restored, is famous for a twelve-part series of frescoes representing the siege of 1565 and 1576-1581 by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio was manufactured. He was a student of Michelangelo and worked with him in the Sistine Chapel. He also decorated the coffered ceiling. The paintings are today considered by historians to be the most reliable chronicle of the events of that day.

Above the entrance to the Supreme Council Hall is the gallery that was removed from the Grand Council Chamber by the British.

The Palace Armory, the armory of the Grand Master’s Palace, was originally from 1604 on the first floor in the premises of today’s Parliament. In 1860, the British colonialists declared them the first public museum in Malta and in 1976 they moved to two ground floor vaults that used to be stables. The collection, which forms a separate section of the museum, contains more than 5,700 exhibits from the 16th to the 18th centuries, including arquebus, halberds, forks, helmets, cannons, carriages and shields as well as many armor of knights. These are so numerous because they fell back after the death of a knight in the possession of the Order. The most famous examples are the armor of Grand Master Jean de la Valette and Alof de Wignacourt. Due to the multi-nationality of the Order of St. John and his landsmanlike divisions into so-called tongues, weapons can be seen from many different countries in the vaults. In addition, the Palace Armory also houses Ottoman weapons, which the knights took after fighting. Also owned by the Palace Armory are the Sword of Turgut Rice, one of the oldest flintlock rifle launchers, a sword with built-in revolver and a Gonne Shield – a round shield with a small chimney-shaped bulge large enough to shoot from.

A large hall at the rear of the palace was used as an armoury from 1604 onwards. The arms collection in the Palace Armoury is regarded as one of “the most valuable historic monuments of European culture”, despite retaining only a fraction of its original size. The armoury includes many suits of armour, cannons, firearms, swords, and other weapons, including the personal armour of some Grand Masters such as Alof de Wignacourt, and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.

The original hall of the armoury was converted into the meeting place of the Parliament of Malta in 1975–76, and the arms collection was relocated to two former stables at the palace’s ground floor, where it remains today. The armoury has been open to the public as a museum since 1860.

In the years of armed conflicts with the Ottomans, the knights kept a precise inventory of the holdings in the arsenal. In the years of declining military activity of the Order these strict controls were eliminated and many pieces, mostly weapons, disappeared. Some reappeared in the 20th and 21st centuries in the Louvre in Paris or in the Tower of London.

Other Rooms:
Of the two main public corridors open to the public, there are still more important rooms:

In the State Dining Hall leads a door from the vestibule, just after the staircase. The room has a finely crafted coffered ceiling, a fireplace, two chandeliers, two windows, a simple stucco ceiling and a central oval wooden table. On the walls there are gold-plated side tables and chairs, as well as miniature knight armor. Furthermore, the State Dining Hall houses the paintings of all former Maltese presidents and British governors in Malta as well as portraits of some British kings.

The Ambassador’s Room
The Ambassador’s Room has both access from the Supreme Council Hall and the Page’s Waiting Room. He is colloquially referred to as Red Room due to the red damask on the walls. In addition, the curtains, the carpet and the velvet on the golden furniture also have this color. The room was used for audiences of the Grand Master and has, in addition to eight frescoes, a frieze by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, depicting scenes from the two centuries of religious history before arriving in Malta and a painting by Antoine Favray, the Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam maps. It can be seen how he receives the keys of the then island capital of Mdina, after the archipelago in 1530 had been given by Charles V as a fief in the responsibility of the Order.

The Page’s Waiting Room, also known as Paggeria, has access from the Ambassador’s Room and at the angle of the clashing corridors of Prince of Wales’ Corridor and Entrance Corridor. The walls are hung with yellow brocade fabric and damask, which gave the room the name Yellow Room. At the time of the order, he served as a waiting room for 16 pages, who had to perform this service before they were enrolled in the Order. They were registered by their mostly European parents before they had reached the age of twelve. Knights of the Order could be only after the age of 18 years become. In the Page’s Waiting Room, a frieze by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio shows various events in the history of the Order in the 13th century, ie the period before the conquest of Akkon by the Saracens and the consequent expulsion from the Holy Land. There are also four urbin majolica vases and a portrait by Jean de la Valette created by Favray.

The Armory Corridor ends in the southeast on some low, there symbolic marble steps leading to a magnificent portal, behind which lies the Chamber of Representatives of the Republic of Malta. It occupies the entire southeast side of the building and is not open to the public. The Parliament moved in 1976 into these extremely simple designed premises, which had served since 1604 as an armory.

The palace is built around two courtyards, which are now known as Neptune’s Courtyard and Prince Alfred’s Courtyard.

In 1712 Romano Carapecchia designed the Perellos fountain, originally dominating the courtyard under the loggias, but since the British period became hidden from the main view with the Statue of Neptune and a garden landscape in the middle. The statue was brought to decorate the courtyard, on orders of the British Governor John Gaspard Le Marchant, some time between 1858 and 1864.

Visiting hours:
The arsenal of knights of the time can be visited daily between 9:00 and 17:00 o’clock. At the entrance audioguides are provided, which are included in the entrance fee. Available in six different languages, they provide the visitor with interesting information about the various weapons and armor of the respective eras and their development.