A visitor’s assessment of two museums in Malta.



A visitor’s assessment of two museums in Malta


There is a great wealth of history in Malta, so rich and varied that you can get numbed by the sheer volume, but that does not mean the guide can get away with anything he says. We checked some claims on the web and drew some conclusions.


The Palazzo Falson in Mdina


Palazzo Falson is a two-storey palace which is associated with the nobility of Malta. Today it has been lovingly restored and is run as a museum. 


According to the official website the building dates to the 13th century and “it was originally a one-storey high courtyard house that was built around the first half of 13th century on the remains of an even earlier structure known as La Rocca”.


It is also known as the “Norman House” but there is nothing Norman about the building and it appears that this claim has been discontinued.


We have learnt that at least into the 15th century one of the noble families of Malta was that of Rocca represented by one Cola (Nicholas). We also know that up to Abela’s time of writing (1647), this family long extinct in Malta, was still remembered for having constructed a Church (where today’s Carmelite Church stands): “Conserva fin hoggi tal cognome nella nostra Citta’, la Venerabile Chiesa quivi fatta fabricare da i maggiori di questa famiglia detta S. Maria ta’ Rocca”'Oro/Rocca.html


Moreover, today’s Palazzo Falson is immediately opposite the Carmelite Church.


It is therefore probable that there was an association between the medieval Rocca family of Malta and today’s “Palazzo Falson” but this does not appear to be important enough. 


By the 17th century the noble Rocca family’s memory had already been muddled, where “Rocca” became “Bocca”: In the Falsone-Testaferrata marriage contract dated 1684, the house is described as “Item locum domorum situm etpositum in dicta Civitate Notabile in quarterio della Madonna della Bocca sive del Carminecum viridario [...] possides a Federicio donante, et in quo habitat Donna Scolastica mater di Federici [...]”.


The same official website goes on to say that according to “secure documented records” it is known that by the 16th century the house was owned by Ambrosio de Falsone, who was the Head of the Town Council, and was then inherited by his cousin, the Vice-Admiral Michele Falsone, adding that the late 16th century “Matteo Falson was held to be one of Palazzo Falson’s most notorious residents. He was Master of the Rod in Mdina, but fell foul of the Inquisition due to his Lutheran sympathies, and fled the island in 1574. The Inquisition seized his estates which included Palazzo Falson. Possession of the house eventually passed to the Cumbo-Navarra family and their descendants”.  


Unfortunately none of this appears to be supported by the documents we have. 


According to Claude Busuttil in his article “A Double Act for the ‘Norman House’:Palazzo Falzon or Palazzo Cumbo-Navarra? Melita Historica New Series. 12(1999)4(411-418), ( ), after delving into the historical ownership of the building, concludes “it is apparent that the Palazzo was only coincidentally occupied by members of the Falsone family, namely Scolastica Falsone née Navarra and her husband Matteolo. Their son, Federico Falsone, seems to have never lived in the house, and his son, Carlo Falsone Navarra never had any surviving male descendants from his marriage to Eleonora Testaferrata.” In arriving at this conclusion, Busuttil gives much importance to the marriage deed dated 11th January 1681, in the Acts of Not. Andrea Vella, Federico Falsone drew up a document by which he passed the Bahria estates onto his son, Carlo Falsone Navarra since his son was to marry into the Testaferrata family. (Carlo and his wife Eleonora were later granted the right to the titles of “Most Illustrious and Noble” in 1725)


In 1927 Olof Gollcher and his mother Elisa Gollcher née Balbi bought the first part of the ‘Norman House’, for which they paid the then princely sum of £680. Part of the house had been leased out and it could not therefore be sold in its entirety. The 1927 acquisition included the part of the house numbered 28 and 29, Villegaignon Street (then Strada Reale) and No. 1, Saviour Street. Gollcher had to wait for eleven years to acquire the second part of the house, by which date his mother had passed away leaving her share of the Palazzo to Olof. On 7th June 1938 Gollcher acquired No. 2 Saviour Street which had been leased out to a Mrs. Lina Pullicino and for which he had to pay £550. The 1927 deed is itself the key to the history of the house since it gives the details on the line of succession by which the ‘Norman House’ was passed on from generation to generation from the Navarra, to the Cumbo and eventually the Palermo Navarra Bonici family before it was sold.


Busuttil also explains how the Federico Falsone to whom the marriage contract makes reference was certainly not a descendent of the principal branch of the Falsone family which had been cut short by the death of Matteolo Falsone, son of Matteo. He explains how Matteolo Falsone had been charged with heresy by the Holy Inquisition and fled to Sicily, dying in penury. The Matteolo Falsone who married Scolastica Navarra and fathered Federico Falsone, could not have been the same Matteolo Falsone who died in Sicily because Federico Falsone was himself on excellent terms with the Holy Inquisition, holding the office of Promotore Fiscale which administered the property seized from heretics, and was therefore, unlike the disgraced Matteolo Falsone, a familiarus of the Holy Inquisition. One could also add that the Testaferratas were successively appointed Depositarius of the Inquisition therefore eliminating any likelihood of intermarrying with someone who had fallen foul of the Inquisitor.


It is also claimed that “at this time, further architectural changes were effected to the Palazzo in preparation for the visit of Grand Master Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, who was hosted here in 1530 when he visited Mdina, after Malta was donated to the Knights of the Order of St. John by Emperor Charles V”. However, the Grand Master did not reside in this building. Abela describes this as follows:


A xxv d’Ottobre si parte il Gran Maestro Villiers, con il Sagro Convento da Siracusa, e la mattina del Mercoledi xxvj giorno fortunatissimo a’ due hore di sole, approdando felicemente si presenta alla sua Isola, e residenza, & a’ 13 di Novembre, come nuovo Principe accompagnato da tutti I Signori della Gran Croce, e della maggior parte de gl’ altri Cavalieri; fu’ con grandissimo applauso ricevuto nella Citta’ Notabile dall’ Ecclesiastico, dal Magistrato, da i Nobili, e da tutto il resto del Popolo solennemente sotto un Baldachino, portato dal Capitano della Verga, da’ Giurati, e dal Secreto, con universal allegrezza, e contento specialissimo, havendo prima esso Signor Gran Maestro alla porta della Citta’, la qual per cerimonia gli fecero trovar chiusa, reiterate il giuramento d’osservagli I priviligi loro; & essendosi state doppo presentate due chiavi d’argento, fu’ aperta la porta, e salutato con reiterate salva d’artigliarie, e con molti altri segni di giubilo condotto alla Catedrale, in cui udi la Santa Messa; e finalmente menato, e servitor in casa di Michele Falsone Viceammiraglio dell’ Isole, ove un lauto, e sontuoso conuito apparecchiato si era. Su ‘ l principio ando’ ad habitare nel Castel S. Angelo, e nella Chiesa Parrocchiale di S. Lorenzo del Borgo, e destino’ la Conventuale dell’ Ordine.


The noble families of Malta numbering 121 in total are described at The family of Falsone features prominently as a landed family, which held the fief of Diar Chandul (1399), a monetary fief (1506) as well as il giardino della grande Fontana (1513) as well as various appointments to principal municipal offices of the island.'Oro/falson.html


Busuttil notes that to date, it has been assumed that this Michele Falsone’s residence was the ‘Norman House’, but it is now clear that this Palazzo did not belong to the Falsone family. ‘Palazzo Falsone’ is therefore a misnomer. 


Within the ‘Norman House’ one finds the coat of arms of Grand Master L’Isle Adam in the lounge, surmounting the fireplace, and in the garden, showing a quartered emblem with a white cross on a red background, with a handkerchief hanging from a stretched forearm. These coats of arms are a twentieth-century addition and were the result of Captain Gollcher’s belief that his ‘Norman House’ had really been the seat of the Falsone family who received the Grand Master in 1530. In 1929 the facade of the ‘Norman House’ was radically modified after some so-called restoration work was carried out with the permission of the Antiquities Committee. But the lack of attention given to the overall conservation of the building only resulted in confusion between the different architectural features of the facade. This was then the common practice. Busuttil concludes that such an operation would “now be considered a sacrilege, to say the least”. 


Our conclusion is that “Palazzo Falsone” was lived in by old Maltese Nobility in the late medieval period but we can’t say who the family was. 



Whilst the association to the Rocca family and the ‘Palazzo Falsone’ in Mdina may be conjectural, we know that another Rocca did have a large house in Valletta. 


According to Victor F Denaro in his article “Still more houses in Valletta” , Melita Historica Journal of the Malta historical Society. 3(1962)3(42-58), we find "The Sant Fournier family own the palace (No. 143 St. Christopher Street). Here, on the 28 October 1864, died Monsignor Publio de’ Conti Sant, Bishop of Malta. Adjacent to the Sant Fournier house is the Casa Rocca Grande (No. 141 St. Christopher Street) built by Fra Pietro La Rocca, Prior of Santo Stefano, towards the end of the 16th. century.” .


In 1585, Prior La Rocca was sent to Naples to congratulate the new viceroy, Don Diego Enriquez de Guzman d’Alva de Lista. He was appointed resident ambassador in Rome in 1593, where he was to point out that the easy hearing of appeals, at the Roman Courts, from members of the Order who had been punished in the Convent for misdeeds, was making members lose respect towards their superiors and causing discipline to become lax in the Convent. 


In 1598, Fra Pietro La Rocca was appointed Admiral of the Order and later created Bali of Santo Stefano. On Bali La Rocca’s death, the house passed to the Italian Langue.


In an earlier article of Denaro “Houses in Kingsway and Old bakery Street, Valletta” Melita Historica Journal of the Malta historical Society. 2(1959)4(201-215), we find


House No. 74 Kingsway which, from the earliest days of the city, belonged to the Langue of Italy, was known as the Casa Rocca Piccola. A commission nominated in 1784 to trace the origin of the house failed to find any in the archives and the Treasury of the Order relating to the original owner of the house,38 though it is quite possible that, like the Casa Rocca Grande, this building was once the property of Fra Pietro La Rocca, Admiral of the Order in 1598.”


Both houses were retained by the Italian Langue for more than 2 centuries and were leased to many of its important dignitaries. Eventually they were sold: the one in Kingsway (today’s Republic Street) was sold by the Order’s Italian Langue to Count Francesco Sant in 1788. In June 1798 the Order was dissolved and its assets including the house on St. Christopher Street, passed on to the new French Republican Government; This was sold by the Republic to the same Francesco Sant on the 14 Fructidor year 6 of the Republic (21 August 1798): by then Sant had been reduced to simple Citoyen Francesco Sant. Although Sant was a Maltese, his title was of foreign origin.  He was married to the heiress, equally Maltese, whose surname was “Bonnici Platamone Cassia”'Oro/ghariexem.html


It appears that the premises on St. Christopher Street (‘Casa Rocca Grande’) were later in the 19th century into two separate houses - No.141 (Palazzo Messina) and No.143 (Palazzo Marina), St. Christopher Street. 


No. 141 was purchased by Count Messina from whose heirs they were purchased by the late Professor Vittore Stilon de Piro and in 1989 it was purchased by the German-Maltese Circle with the financial assistance of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989 from the heirs of the Noble Liliana Stilon DePiro. Today, Messina Palace houses the administration and the activities of the German-Maltese Circle.


No. 143 remained owned by the Noble Sant Fournier family as evidenced by Denaro. The Sant Fournier family is a junior male branch of the Count Sant'Oro/sant1.htmland enjoys the foreign titles of Count Fournier and Baron de Pausier .


Denaro notes that “No. 74 was acquired by the late Comm. A. Cassar Torregiani about the year 1919, and have now passed to his daughter, the Baroness De Piro D’Amico Inguanez.”



The Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta


Today this house at No. 74, possibly previously owned by Admiral Rocca, has been restored and is run as a museum. According to the official website the building “is still privately owned and is a much loved family home. The value of Casa Rocca Piccola lies in its ability to provide unique historical evidence into the customs and traditions of the Maltese nobility over the last 400 years.”


Needless to say there is very little to account for the claim that this building had any association with the Maltese Nobility before it was first acquired by Count Sant in 1788. Denaro lists all the tenants of the house before that year. None of the Maltese families, known to be noble at the time, feature in this list. 


Titles of nobility were abolished by Napoleon in 1798. In 1975 legislation was enacted saying that they were no longer recognized. The period in between is confusing because in the late 19th century the British Government decided to grant recognition to those titles which were previously “granted or recognized by the Government of the Order of St. John, (1530-1798)” . In 1878 the British Government allowed recognition of the title of Baron (Malta, 1716) and Marquis (Spain, 1742 to two branches of the Depiro family). 


Further research into the history of the Depiro family shows that they were not listed amongst the 121 noble families of Malta and were only first ennobled in 1716 by a grant of the title of Barone di Budach . No land was attached to this title but this family had given it such importance that rather than having the title follow the family entail (as was the case in other titles such as Gomerino, Catena, Bahria and Buleben), they established an entail to follow the title as results from the deed received by Notary Chircop on the 30 April 1717, with the proviso that should Gio. Pio’s descendants no longer enjoy that title, then the properties would be erected into a majorat stemming from the same Gio Pio giving preference to agnatic descendants rather than the rule of primogeniture'Oro/depiro2.html . 


It appears that the titles granted by the Grand Masters prior to 1725 were not well received abroad and could then have possibly been given as much value as today’s private orders.  On the other hand, we find in 1727 a formal legislation giving this family the right to the titles of “Most Illustrious and Noble”. Without doubt, the Depiro family was regarded as a Noble family of Malta at least by 1727. Some items on display precede this date.


Another claim by the website is that “The Counts Sant Cassia lived here for most of the 18th Century” . This is not supported by the fact that the Count Sant first acquired the property only in 1788. Moreover, we found that the Francesco’s marriage to the heiress only took place in 1777'Oro/sant1.html . 


The website also says that Sant Cassia then “sold it to Antonio Cassar Torregiani an ancestor of the present owner the 9th Marquis de Piro. Today it is possible to visit this privately owned, 50 -roomed Palace and get an insight into Maltese aristocratic tradition and heritage”.