The restoration of Palazzo Falson was a long and painstaking process that lasted for more than five years, but the benefits of this project are now being reaped. The Palazzo re-opened to the general public in May 2007, and it is the visitors’ enjoyment and amazement at this splendid house and the magnificent collections it contains, which makes all the efforts worthwhile. Another reason is that in opening this museum, Olof Gollcher’s wish was finally fulfilled.
Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher OBE (1889-1962), was the last owner and resident of Palazzo Falson. He bought the Palazzo in 1927, and renamed it ‘The Norman House’. He was a painter, scholar and philanthropist, as well as an ardent collector of objets d’art and historical items. Gollcher wanted the Norman House to be preserved with its contents as a museum, and in his will he left instructions for the setting up of a foundation bearing the name The Captain O. F. Gollcher O.B.E. Art and Archaeological Foundation to execute this wish. In 2001, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti entered into a management agreement with the Gollcher Foundation, whereby it would restore the Palazzo and its contents, and open it to the general public as a historic house-museum.
Palazzo Falson is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Mdina. This imposing palazzo was originally a one-storey high courtyard house that was built around the first half of the 13th century. This first house was substantially larger than today’s Palazzo, the main façade of which was on what today is Bastions Square. This incorporated a covered passageway, or sikifah, which was the principal means of access. There was also another covered entrance on Our Saviour Street, which served both the house as a back entrance, and a church dedicated to Our Saviour, which the house abutted. The ground floor façade on Villegaignon Street, with its double-serrated stringcourse of inverted triangles with pendant balls, and centrally placed doorway with Sicilian-inspired hood-mould, belongs to the turn of the 15th century, when the Palazzo was more compactly redesigned on a new orientation. The first floor was largely added and rebuilt, in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries.
Other distinctive features on the façade include the three mullioned windows on the first floor, which in all probability were included around 1524, at the time when Jacobo Dimeg, the leading master mason of his generation, was responsible for some interventions. At this time, the property was inherited by the Vice-Admiral Michele Falson from his cousin Ambrosio de Falsone, who was the Head of the Town Council. The first floor of the house was mostly rebuilt around this time. Other changes to the first floor seem to have taken place in 1530, when Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam was hosted at Palazzo Falson. L’Isle Adam came to Mdina during that year after Malta was donated to the Knights of the Order of St. John by Emperor Charles V. It is probable that at this time the entrance hallway and the front rooms on the first floor were adapted to make them more suitable for the Grand Master’s presence. L’Isle Adam’s coat-of arms is carved on the fireplace in one of the Sale Nobili as well as in the courtyard. These are however 20th century additions to commemorate that event.
Prior to Patrimonju taking over Palazzo Falson, the building had been closed for over 40 years. During that time weather conditions led to substantial water infiltration into the walls, as well as to severe deterioration of the wooden apertures. Part of the roof had to be replaced due to the rust and deterioration of the ungalvanised metal beams which supported it. The lack of roofing membrane and cracks in the pipes of the old drainage system led to substantial water seepage that damaged the wood panelling and the friezes of the Sale Nobili.
Great care and due diligence have been exercised in preserving the original features of the Palazzo. Parts of the building that had deteriorated over the centuries had to be restructured and secured. When the plastering of the interior walls was removed, it was discovered that three stone arches at ground floor level were cracked, and that the first floor was at risk. On a positive note however, the removal of the plaster also yielded a number of interesting features and openings that can now be viewed, including graffiti of 15th century galleons. All the stonework throughout the entire Palazzo had to be cleaned and conserved, and replaced only where absolutely necessary. Any repointing that was needed throughout the building was done using a natural hydraulic lime-based mortar solution. The interior walls were also rendered with a lime solution, but unfortunately, the first coating of this solution did not prove to be pure enough thus affecting the breathable properties of the walls beneath. Within 8-10 weeks of this application, salt crystals started pushing off the plasterwork. The walls had to be washed, and a purer and thicker porous lime solution that was specially imported was applied. The use of pure lime mortars allows the moisture to be released from the background as water vapour, therefore controlling the level of dampness and the concentration of salts from the walls.
The façade possessed a number of layers of old plasterwork, most of which were showing signs of detachment. Consolidation works were carried out either by injecting a hydraulic grout, or by using a silicate based consolidant, depending on each particular instance. A number of superfluous iron fixtures that had caused considerable damage to the stonework of the façade had to be removed. Large parts of the pointing in the façade, especially at the upper level, were absent, loose or friable. After consultation and considerable research into lime-based mortars, it was concluded that hydrated lime-sand mortars would be considered suitable in compatibility with local globigerina limestone in terms of porosity and strength. The walls were cleaned from any biological growth with an anti-algae agent dissolved in distilled water. After this treatment, the surfaces were washed down with distilled water, and the organic material was removed with a soft brush. Though this treatment has been in the larger part effective, constant maintenance is necessary and a certain amount of re-plastering has had to be done.
Stones that showed signs of mechanical damage were carefully repaired, or replaced only when the extent of the damage warranted such an intervention. Such examples include the decaying stones on the door jambs, and instances where deterioration had allowed water to infiltrate the architectural fabric. The wooden apertures, particularly those on the upper floor, were in a poor state of repair due to lack of maintenance and regular use. The old paint was totally stripped, the wood was treated against woodworm, any cracks were filled in, and the metalwork was cleaned and restored. Leaded lighting was also inserted in some of the windows. The missing metal studs on the main door were replaced, and the old original hinge system was restored with the use of metal, leather and brass.
The extensive works on the internal terrace overlooking the courtyard have included cleaning the active fungus from the facing wall, removing the old cement floor and any rusting chimneys, and replacing roofing slabs. The weathered stones featuring decorative motifs along the terrace ledge have also been replaced. The old broken flagstones in the central courtyard, which had been randomly patched up with cement, were replaced with worn and weathered ones, and the decorative column of the fountain, which lay unfunctional for many years has been repaired and strengthened.
Gollcher’s vast collection of historical books, which number to around 4500, proved to be too heavy for the library on the first floor. The excessive weight caused severe damage to the flooring beneath, and some of the roofing slabs (xorok) had to be changed. The books themselves had to be moved to a separate secure location, and each individual book had to be dusted from the DDT powder that had been liberally sprinkled over them for protection purposes prior to the time that the Palazzo was under the care of Patrimonju. The wall-to-wall wooden shelving has also been restored, which included dismantling, stripping, treating against woodworm, refilling of cracks, the application of a preservative, and painting. The shelving was then refitted, and galvanised metal fittings have been installed to support it.
The entire drainage system had to be replaced and modified, and the old electric wiring made of single-strand copper wrapped in cloth, was replaced with new low and high voltage electrical systems to support the correct museum lighting and the various alarms and CCTV systems. A museum gift shop and a panoramic roof café were also included, these being necessities in the modern day museum experience.
Palazzo Falson is also committed to the preservation of the environment, and the first step in reducing the museum’s carbon footprint was to install the Evalon-V Solar membrane on the roof, which incorporates photovoltaic elements, is pollution-free, and converts solar energy into electricity to supplement the energy needs of the museum. This technology, which was new to the islands, was done thanks to the sponsorship of the two principal banks on the island and we are now considering upgrading and modifying the system to render it more effective. The beauty of this system is that when the electricity generated exceeds the needs of the museum, particularly during hours when the museum is closed, the surplus electricity generated can be fed into the national grid.
The crowning glory of this Palazzo was reached when the artefacts that number over 3,600 were returned to their former home, having been removed to a secure warehouse to be restored and conserved by numerous experienced restorers. Refurnishing the Palazzo was in itself a slow and laborious task, especially when applying the finishing touches, which make all the difference. Although the restoration work may have now been completed, the mission of the Palazzo is an ongoing concern, as it aims to use the collections and the building itself as a means to educate and to transmit the enjoyment of culture to all who visit, as well as to provide an unparalleled visitor experience.