THE NORMAN HOUSE
Cover photo: Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority (Peter Vaniscek)
Amongst the many residential buildings of old in Mdina, none stands out more conspicuous in its elegance than Palazzo Falson, formerly known as ‘The Norman House’. This building boasts one of the oldest medieval architectural styles anywhere in Malta. Down the centuries, the structure grew into a spacious patrician’s home, vying in its frontal appearance with numerous other houses that belonged to the noble families of Mdina, such as those of the Desguanez, the Gatto Murina, the Santa Sophia, the Mesquita and the Testaferrata. These families were, more often than not, members of the universitas, that is, the communal governing council that throughout medieval times administered not only the needs of the residents of Mdina but also tended to various aspects of national importance.
The origin and the architecture of Palazzo Falson
According to scholars, the original kern of the palazzo is attributed to the post-Muslim period, some time in the 13th century (M. Buhagiar, 2005). The earliest structures were somehow physically integrated into an ancient tower referred to in documents as ‘la Rocca’, that is, a fortified tower. (Charlene Vella, 2013). Located as it was on the highest and central part of the island, this edifice held a commanding view of the outlying northern and south-eastern shores of Malta thus serving as a watch-out post that warned of any approaching armada. This tower was dismantled some time around the mid-15th century, thus providing space for new buildings to be erected. (C. Dalli, 2006). Some historical documents also state that the structure of the house replaced a synagogue which served a sizeable Jewish community of some 300 or more, that co-existed peacefully with the rest in late Medieval times, until the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from the Spanish empire in 1492.
Throughout the centuries, Palazzo Falson underwent numerous alterations, having had new features added to the original one storey edifice, mostly between the 15th and 16th centuries. From its north-eastern side, that is, the rear side, the building abutted onto a chapel in Triq is-Salvatur, whereat the Palazzo also had a back entrance. Its present ground floor structure with its frontal side located in Strada Reale (known today as Villgaignon Street) was built at the turn of the 15th century (M. Buhagiar, 2005). An ornate piano nobile with its three mullioned windows was added later, some time during the early decades of the 16th century. In a drawing by the artist Charles Von Brockdorff (1785 – 1850), there is what is presumably the date of construction of the first floor in 1533, showing at the top level of the ground floor (Charlene Vella, 2013). It is the architectural style of the windows as well as the main Late Gothic styled doorway that were the main reason for the house to be referred to as ‘Norman’. In more recent times, the architecture of the facade was alternately termed, ‘Siculo-Norman’ as the style refers to an architecture that flourished throughout Sicily in Norman times. Lately, the architecture of the facade was also specifically termed as being of the Chiaramonte style, so called after the Palazzo Chiaramonte in Palermo that bears the same decorative style. Yet another term surfaced as ‘Catalan’, a style that was carried over from Spain to Sicily and evident in such Sicilian localities as for instance in Taormina. The windows have a slender and delicate central column (mullion) that separates two bays. This so called ‘Norman’ style actually incorporates Western, Byzantine and Islamic decorative elements. The windows are possibly the work of Jacobo Dimeg (1475 – 1524) who designed them as an integral part of his work on the first floor (M. Buhagiar, 2005 & Claude Busuttil, 1999.)
Presently, the facade of Palazzo Falson has two entrances, each having two semi-pointed arches (voussoirs) fashioned in the Late Gothic style. Only the entrance on the right, that is the one centrally positioned, is an original. The other on the left was modelled in lieu of a very modest rectangular doorway when in 1929, Captain Olof Gollcher, took over the property. High above the newly arranged entrance, there are two ancient, small, narrow windows known as ‘lancets’, that penetrate the facade, thus connecting with the interior of the room behind. Their function was merely to provide adequate ventilation from the outside into the interior (M. Buhagiar, 2005). This feature proves, if proof is needed, that in Malta of late Medieval times, the ground floors often lacked elaborately wide windows apart from doorways in order to ensure a degree of safety to the abode. This reason could also be the real one behind the so called muxrabija apertures found in residences in different localities. For bettter lighting and ventilation windows were more often than not provided by larger apertures in rooms that overlooked small but sunlit courtyards.
Another distinctive architectural feature of the facade of the Palazzo is the serrated frieze (palline losanghe) acting as cornice lining the ground floor. This is made up of two strings of serrations, one above the other. Another single row runs along the roof level of the second floor of the building. A similarly designed cornice is also to be found in Palazzo Santa Sofia in Mdina, down the street, a feature that is reminiscent to that of Palazzo Montalto in Syracuse (C. Busuttil, 1999).
The structure of the ground floor is constituted of very thick walls. The layout of the rooms belies a multitude of architectural interventions and renovations that occurred at different times throughout the centuries. Indeed from restoration work conducted in 2002, it has been revealed that even the pavement of the ground floor was once one metre lower than it is at present (M. Buhagiar, 2005).
The owners of the Palazzo
Down the centuries, the Palazzo was owned by various proprietors. In 1299, the property was owned by Filippo Falsone, or Fauzone. Later descendants of this family included an Antonio who was a prominent notary. In the late 15th and early 16th there was a Michele Falsone who was vice-admiral (Charlene Vella, 2013). However, according to Claude Busuttil, none of the documents examined reveal that any of the family Falsone resided permanently in this Palazzo (C. Busuttil 1999). In 1657, the house became the property of Ugolino Cumbo-Navarra. (Charles Dalli, 2006). Yet, from a document we learn that on 11th January 1681, a Federico Falsone drew up a wedding contract in which he bequethed the ‘Norman Palace’ to his son Carlo when the latter was engaged to marry Eleonora, a daughter of the Testaferrata family. A short note on the margin of this deed states that the wedding between Carlo Falsone Navarra and Eleonora took place on 7th August 1684. Carlo and Eleonora never had any surviving male descendants from their marriage. Claude Busuttil warns us that there were various families in Mdina with the Falsone surname, and that the reference in documents to a ‘Norman House’ might have referred to a different property altogether. (Claude Busuttil, 1999).
Gian Frangisk Abela mentions in his writings that Grand Master L’Isle Adam, on Sunday November 13, 1530, that is some time after the arrival of the Order of St John in Malta, paid an official visit to Mdina. He was invited to dinner by Admiral Falsone, mentioned above, at his residence. Some sources maintain that the house even became a temporary abode to the same Grand Master, from October 20 until November 5 of 1530 (M. Buhagiar, 2005.) This historical documentation if taken at face value, belies the status at the time of the Falsone family, as being a prestigious one amongst the noble and prominent personages of Mdina.
Skipping through the centuries in fast forward mode, we get to know that during the early decades of the 20th century, the owner of the palazzo was Count Francesco Palermo Navarra Bonici who at the time resided in Sicily. It was from this gentleman that Captain Olof Gollcher, a Maltese born in Valletta, hailing from a Swedish family that had settled in Malta in the 19th century, bought the house. The Gollcher family had been involved in the shipping industry.
In 1927, Captain Gollcher, together with his mother Elisa Gollcher née Balbi bought the first part of Palazzo Falson for the sum of £680. The purchased property was the part that was accessible from Villegaignon Street (then known as Strada Reale, that is, main street) and No. 1, Strada San Salvatore. On 7th June 1938, Gollcher acquired residence No. 2 in Strada Salvatore for which he paid £550 (C. Busuttil, 1999).
In 1929, in the course of ‘restoring’ the house, Captain Gollcher included new architectural features to it in order to imbue furthermore its medieval aura. As already mentioned, Gollcher substituted the old simple entrance standing to the left of the original Late Gothic with a fake one, to match the original. He also remodelled the courtyard inside the house by including a renaissance staircase, while a decorative fountain was added in the centre of the same courtyard to enliven the ambience with a sense of renaissance Gothic (M. Buhagiar, 2005). He also installed two coat of arms that represent Grand Master L’Isle Adam, one inside the courtyard and the other one in the lounge.
Following Gollcher’s passing away in 1962, in 1967 the house and all its artistic collection inside it were bequethed to a purposely created Captain O. F. Gollcher OBE Art and Archaeological Foundation with the intention to have the house become a museum of artistic collectibles. This foundation was taken under the protective wings of the government’s Museums Department and a resident curator was installed thus ensuring a 24 hour security.
In 2001, an agreement was reached between the Gollcher Foundation and Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti for the latter to take over the upkeep and running of the house as a museum house, thus ensuring the conservation of the building and its collection while providing a higher standard of presentation to the discerning visitor. Indeed, upon the signing of this agreement, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti closed down the building temporarily to embark on a massive restoration project of the palazzo. The house was once again opened for visitors in 2007.
The Museum House
For Captain Olof Gollcher, the main reason to buy the house was for him to store and put on display his burgeoning collection of antiques that he had acquired throughout his lifetime. These he set up in all the rooms, furnished in different manners, some maintaining a historical and folkloric character thus recalling the fine tastes of domesticity amongst the upper echelons of Maltese society of old. The kitchen and the dining room were fully furnished with utensils and objects as befits each one. Other rooms contain paintings both of Gollcher’s own artistic creation as well as a much larger collection of antiques and objets d’art that he acquired from various sources. Amongst these there is a great quantity of prints, paintings and domestic furniture. Also exhibited are scale models of ships that reflect Gollcher’s passion and business interests in maritime activity. An armoury of sorts, a numismatic collection as well as a collection of oriental carpets are on exhibit in various rooms. Then there is the library with its vast collection of some 4,500 books. Needless to say, such a patrician house is not lacking in its own small but ornate chapel that contains an array of religious objects d’art as befits most residences that belonged to the nobility.
Visiting Palazzo Falson is a truly enlightening experience, that stimulates one’s knowledge in mediaeval lore, while providing an insight into the domestic lifestyle of the noble families of Mdina.
Photos : Courtesy of Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum
December 1, 2022
Buhagiar Mario, The Late Medevial Art and Architecture of the Maltese Islands. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. 2005.
Busuttil Claude, ‘A Double Act for the ‘Norman House’: Palazzo Falzon or Palazzo Cumbo-Navarra?’ Melita Historica. 12 (1999).
Dalli Charles, Malta – The Medieval Millenium. Midsea Books Ltd. 2006.
Galea Michelle and Balzan Francesca, Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. 2007.
Vella Charlene, Late Medieval Malta, 1091 – 1530. Midsea Books Ltd. 2013.
Numerous articles on various aspects of the Palazzo and its collection were published in Treasures of Malta, no. 69, Christmas 2017, Vol XXIII. No. 3.
See also: https://www.facebook.com/palazzo.falson/