The Malta Society of Arts wraps up restoration works on Palazzo de La Salle’s 18th-century hall, the Sala dei Cavalieri
Valletta is full of reminders of Malta’s incredible past and most of its buildings have a story that sheds light on the city’s importance throughout history. Palazzo de La Salle is one such building.
Situated just a few metres down from The Grandmaster’s Palace, the palazzo has been the seat of the Malta Society of Arts (MSA) since 1923 and is home to the Sala dei Cavalieri. This magnificent hall has recently been restored to its former glory, a process which was carried out during the pandemic. Keith Sciberras, head of the University of Malta’s Department of Art and Art History, was the director of the project.
“The sala dates back to the mid-18th century and it is important because it is one of the few salon rooms still retaining the original decoration that covered the walls and ceiling,” Sciberras explains.
“The decoration speaks a late baroque language and its iconography celebrates the Order of Malta and a series of Grand Masters.”
The story behind the Sala dei Cavalieri offers a glimpse into the life of the palazzo’s inhabitants.
“Not much is known about the brothers Guglielmo and Enrico de La Salle, whose name is associated with the palazzo, other than that they jointly held the post of bailiff,” architect Adrian Mamo, the MSA’s president, notes.
We were pleasantly surprised by the large extent of original material that there was beneath the layers of dirt
“The palazzo was their home at the time, which is why it was also referred to as ‘il Palazzo dei Due Balli’. Indeed, this lower part of Valletta was and is still known as ‘id-Due Balli’. Although the Sala dei Cavalieri, or the Grandmasters’ Hall, as it is also referred to, was added to the building over 100 years after its construction, it remains, without a doubt, the jewel of the palazzo. No room is more elaborately adorned and painted than the sala, which was clearly intended to impress any visitor. The brothers’ pride in the Order of St John is evident in the gilded busts depicting prominent grandmasters from the early history of the Order until the early 18th century,” he adds.
The Sala dei Cavalieri was originally an open terrace and was converted into a hall by the two brothers in 1732. Prior to the restoration works, it was thought to have been decorated in the 19th century but Sciberras is of a different opinion.
“A major outcome of this project is that now we’re convinced that the entire decorative ensemble dates to the 18th century and not to the 19th as previously thought,” he says. “We had a suspicion that it was the original scheme upon close inspection before the onset of the works. The works then confirmed this. The neo-baroque feel was due to the discolouration of varnish and embedded dirt. The process was a delicate one in parts where the wall decoration had deteriorated.”
He continues: “The embedded layers of dirt and discolouration of the superficial layers meant that the work had lost its aesthetic cohesion, so it looked fragmented. The methodologies involved were rather standard and we were pleasantly surprised by the large extent of original material that there was beneath the layers of dirt.”
Recoop, the restoration team contracted to carry out the works, was headed by restorer Veronica Regazzo, who worked with Militza Ganeva and Milica Bedik under the supervision of conservators Paul Muscat and Roderick Abela.
The works began in January 2020 and were meant to last nine months. However, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown halted everything for five months and created unforeseen complications due to social distancing regulations. However, all’s well that ends well, and the Sala dei Cavalieri is expected to be a crowd-puller once people are allowed to gather again.
Sciberras is very satisfied with the outcome of the project, saying that “the works have also managed to recuperate the original aesthetic aura of the room” and, thus, making it hard to believe that it was recently restored.
As successful as the sala’s restoration was, other rooms of the palazzo that were originally extensively decorated are now covered in many layers of whitewash and cannot be so easily restored.
“It would be very delicate to accomplish and requires an inordinate number of work hours, not to mention being extremely expensive,” Sciberras notes. “We also don’t know exactly what’s beneath those layers. In the case of the sala, it was easier because it wasn’t painted over.”
According to Mamo, records show that the MSA had always taken an interest in the state of the art and decorations in the sala, so having it restored to its original splendour is a long-held dream of the society.
“I am sure that the sala will take pride of place when the MSA celebrates its 100 years of residence at the palazzo in a couple of years’ time,” Mamo says.
The Sala dei Cavalieri will open to the public later this year. For more information, follow the Malta Society of Arts’ Facebook page or subscribe to its e-mails by registering interest on email@example.com.