Crowning a tall hill in the middle of Malta, with narrow alleys and sublime noble houses sits Mdina. Built in Medieval times, still confined by ancient city walls, it enchants visitors with its baroque architecture and well-preserved palazzi.
Palazzo Falson, also known as the Norman House due to its architectural features of Siculo-Norman origin, is one of them. It is a typical two-storey palace fashioned by the Spanish and Sicilian nobility in Mdina; a series of rooms wrapped around an internal courtyard with a picturesque fountain.
One can easily notice that Palazzo Falson is structured in a similar manner with a traditional Moroccan Riad. Its clever design keeps the air inside the palazzo cool and comfortable, during the hot Maltese summers. Having witnessed over 700 years of history, Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum is one of the most interesting medieval palaces in Malta and a wonderful place to dive into Mdina’s historic atmosphere.
The magnificent history of Palazzo Falson
This majestic aristocratic residence, built during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is the second oldest building in Mdina, beaten only by Palazzo Santa Sofia which is 10 years older; however, the latter is not open to the public.
It is believed that the oldest parts of the residence date back to 1240. Since then, the building underwent many changes, adopting features and styles from subsequent historical eras. Let’s have a look into the interesting history of the palazzo.
Initially, the building was a one-storey courtyard house, much larger than today’s size, with two entrances; the first built as a covered passageway whereas the second served both as a church and a back entrance. The mansion was built upon the remains of an earlier structure known as La Rocca and was associated with the Jewish community of the city.
A second storey was added to Palazzo Falson and architectural modifications were made; a new façade on Villegaignon Street was made along with a swift in the building’s orientation.
Early 16th century
The first documented residents of the house were Ambrosio de Falsone, Head of the Town Council and vice-admiral Michele Falsone who inherited it from his cousin. Sometime during 1524, the three windows on the first floor were designed by the Maltese master mason Jacobo Dimeg; that’s the reason Palazzo Falson was also named “The Norman House”.
When Malta was donated to the Knights of the Order of St. John, in 1530, further architectural changes were applied to the palazzo, in preparation for the visit of Grand Master Philippe Villiers L’Isle-Adam, as part of his visit to Mdina.
Late 16th century
The palace was inherited by the notorious Matteo Falson who fled Malta in 1574 after being hunted down by the Inquisition due to his Lutheran sympathies. Ultimately, the residence ended up to the Cumbo-Navarra family.
Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher, the last resident and owner of the Palazzo, bought it in parts for £ 1230, starting in 1927. A traveller, scholar, painter and collector of objets d’art, Captain Olof wished the Norman House to be preserved as a museum of decorative arts for the generations to come.
“This fine old house with its Gothic windows has the most fascinating exterior in Malta”
In 2001, the “Maltese Heritage Foundation” entered a management agreement with “Capt. O. F. Gollcher O.B.E. Art & Archaeological Foundation” to restore Palazzo Falson to its former glory and open it to the public as a historic house museum.
Captain Gollcher – the last noble owner of Palazzo Falson
Frederick Gollcher was the son of a wealthy shipping merchant of Swedish descent. Having served in both World Wars, he was a distinguished man who received many honours, including the O.B.E. (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). With a keen interest in history and Maltese heritage, a solid education and a passion for antiques and historical items he renovated the building and repetitively organised activities for the elderly and the needy.
A keen traveller, he visited numerous destinations in Europe and the east from where he obtained his fascinating collections ranging from archaeology artifacts, carpets, furniture, books and pipes to silver, jewellery, paintings and weapons.
Moreover, he produced fine works of art with some of them being exhibited in his studio. He left the palazzo to a foundation he had set up before his death to preserve his collections for the enjoyment of the public. However, it wasn’t until May 2007 that his wish was fulfilled.
The extraordinary collections of Palazzo Falson
Nowadays, the historic house museum holds 45 peculiar and highly valuable collections. Paintings, furniture, books and valuable manuscripts, smoking pipes, scent bottles, oriental rugs, weaponry, jewellery, silverware, watches, coins and medals; those are only some of the items exhibited in the palazzo. They are arranged in themes after being painstakingly collected over the decades by their former owner.
It’s marvellous how Palazzo Falson is able to capture a vast horizon of world history and cultural heritage. Everything within the mansion reflects the life of its last owner’s daily routine and interests, the things he owned, collected or inherited.
The set-up is not of a typical museum, with nothing being locked up in showcases. It’s an authentic Maltese mansion along with any distinctive decorative and architectural elements it comes with. And you get to explore around for as long as you want.
Palazzo Falson holds unique artifacts and intriguing collections, with some of them dating back to the 17th century. Amongst them, is a rare watch made by Robert Robin in Paris, around 1797; a 10-hour pocket watch, with each hour divided in 100 minutes and each minute also divided into 100 seconds. Being the only one out of three that still exist, this bizarre timepiece is part of Olof Gollcher’s 27 fob watches collection.
Another one, produced by the Dutch watch-maker Isaac Haas in 1685 is distinctive for its tortoiseshell on the outer cases, typical of 17th century watches.
The silver collection includes over 800 significant pieces of Maltese, British and Continental origin and the carpet gallery consists of more than 80 oriental rugs from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. I was greatly impressed by a Persian double-edged curved dagger; it was decorated with an eight-pointed star motif and mainly used during fighting and ritual ceremonies.
Look for the Victorian double ended scent bottle, containing perfume on the one end and smelling salts at the other. This one looks so classy that it eventually became a decorative item itself.
But where did Olof kept his most prized treasures? During his long trips, he locked up his precious items on a secret vault he created under the staircase. Can you find it?
Exploring the palazzo
The self-guided tour lasts 45 minutes but visitors are not limited by time – you can explore around freely at your own pace. A clear signed route keeps you on track while the audio guide uncovers the backstory of everything you are watching. Access to the house museum is made from the medieval rooms on the ground floor and it goes all the way up to the rooftop terrace for a panoramic view over the surrounding countryside. Along the way, everything is thoroughly set to resemble how life was in a traditional Maltese palazzo.
The central courtyard
Your journey starts in the picturesque courtyard with a beautiful Renaissance-style staircase, arched doorways and a sculpted stone fountain installed by Gollcher himself. A cascading magenta bougainvillea makes a great contrast to the aged mellow stones while the sound of medieval instrumental music adds wonderfully to the whole experience.
The cradle of knowledge
A rather fascinating room and a personal favourite, the library, boasts over 4.500 books. As it’s considerably large for a private collection, it must have taken decades of collecting. It includes some highly valuable manuscripts and rare tomes in various languages ranging from medieval history and ancient warfare to biographies, art history and mineralogy. It took a long time to restore the books to their former glory; each volume was individually dusted and sprayed with special substances for protection.
The collection includes a rather obscure volume that has been initially stolen centuries ago from Biblioteca Universitaria Alessandrina in Rome. Rumour has it that it was confiscated from a heretic and that’s how it ended up at Rome. However, it’s still a mystery how it passed into the private collection of Olof Gollcher.
Another famous book of the collection is a travel guidebook titled “Baedeker’s Northern France” that was published in 1894. The Baedekers, at their peak, published over 1.000 different editions for travellers setting the standards for accuracy and clarity in maps.
Next to it, you’ll find one of Olof’s passports; don’t forget that travel was in his blood from a young age. He was an experience-collector, travelling extensively in pursuit of his artistic interests and all the books he collected reflected his hobbies.
The library includes more prestigious volumes like the leather-bound 9th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (1875), a 70-volume set presenting the complete works of Voltaire (1785), the collectable History of the Knights of Malta (1728) and a prominent Melitensia collection about the Maltese Islands. In case you are interested in studying the rare editions of the library, you can check the online catalogue and book an appointment at the official website.
Olof Gollcher not only collected art but he also studied and performed it. Being an art critic and a painter himself, he greatly contributed to the local art scene by organising exhibitions and art classes. Visiting his studio on the ground floor you can admire some of his finest works amongst a display of other art supplies.
But what are all those pipes decorating its walls? Well, Olof Gollcher was a member of the Italian brotherhood known as “La Confraternita della Pipa”. The secretive group, based in Rome, had its own costumes and emblem and was using underground premises to meet and perform its rites. The number of pipes Olof was using was around 20 and you can find them around the studio.
The paintings collection
More than 200 works can be seen within the Palazzo; family and self-portraits, paintings from Olof’s travels, biblical, mythological and numerous nautical scenes, since his family’s business background was in shipping. Amongst them, there is also a great number of notable 17th century paintings attributed to Mattia Preti, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, David Teniers the Younger, Nicolas Poussin and others.
The Armoury Vault
One of Olof’s greatest passions was weaponry. This is evident through his huge collection in the Armoury; walls decorated with weapons from different periods and areas of the world – polearms, swords, rapiers, stilettos and yataghans of Persian origin, shields, chain mail shirts and many others. Amongst his great collection one can even find a helmet dating back to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Pretty impressive, right?
What’ll you immediately notice in this room is that everything is maritime related – paintings, ship models, globes etc. Specifically, a painting depicts the ship of Olof’s grandfather, known as “Swalan”, entering Malta back in the 19th century. He was into the shipping business and taking into account that the company still exists (Gollcher Group), he must have been good at it.
The kitchen was one of Capt. Olof’s favourite entertaining places. Here you’ll see a remarkable fireplace decorated with folklore Maltese characters and colourful maiolica tiles, a traditional white and blue firewood oven and a 17th century refectory oak table. The stories that must have been told in this room must have been amazing! To make sure that there would never be a shortage of wine, a wooden trap door leading down to the underground cellar was added.
Try locating a couple of funnily shaped objects standing on four squat legs resembling the shape of a cow. Those ceramic pots, known in Maltese as il-baqra (the cow), were used for cooking rabbit stew. One would pour the ingredients from the top, place it in the oven and wait for the magic to happen!
The Formal Rooms
The rooms where the prominent guests would be welcomed were far more diligently decorated. The Sitting Room contained pieces of extraordinary value like Capodimonte porcelain figurines and Staffordshire pottery, acclaimed paintings, elegant chairs, table cabinets with painted glass panels and an ornately carved fireplace.
An equally impressive chamber is the formal Dining room. With exquisite Venetian glassware, a beautifully set table, a massive hood bearing the coat of arms of the former Grand Master of Knights Hospitaller and a marble bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, this room definitely wasn’t intended for everyday use.
Even if Olof wasn’t a man of any religion, Palazzo Falson had its private family chapel. Research showed that it was a custom for noble houses of this size to have one. Being a passionate collector, Olof didn’t really care what he was collecting so over the time he has accumulated items from various religious – silver reliquaries, decorated ecclesiastical objects, holy water fonts, relics, hanging brass oil lamps; even the painted altar of the chapel belonged to him.
The rest of the rooms of Palazzo Falson
Situated on the stairway leading to the first floor, the Strongroom holds only a fraction of the vast silver collection of Palazzo Falson. It is here that you can admire the silver nef ship model. As weird as it sounds, nefs were used to hold spices and during dining they were rolled from the one end of the table to the other (this one has wheels beneath it).
Another room that is worth a visit is Gollcher’s study with its numerous engravings by notable figures such as the German printmaker Albrecht Dürer, the Baroque artist Salvator Rosa and the Flemish painters David and Abraham Teniers.
But what are those stairs next to the Study? Go on, follow them! They are leading straight to the Butler’s room, a small but quite stylish place!
Did you know that Captain Gollcher was one of the first ones to start underwater archaeology in Malta? In order to exhibit his discoveries, Olof had set up the Archaeology and Documents Collection Room. He also used this room to store important documents e.g. official stamped Vatican documents; even if they had nothing to do with the Palazzo he still enjoyed collecting them.
The Master Bedroom is where Olof kept his most personal collections, several 18th century paintings and portraits; all surrounded by heavy dark furniture.
Is Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum worth a visit?
Palazzo Falson, with its diverse collections and elegant architecture, is one of the most interesting museums in Mdina. Visiting this magnificently restored medieval house will allow you to get a peek into the daily life of a noble Maltese family. Captain Olof Gollcher did a fine job on filling the house with his travel collections, historical pieces and objets d’art.
He spent many happy years, along with his wife, constantly rearranging and expanding his collections and ultimately transforming his home into an extraordinary cultural attraction and a unique treasure-trove. Don’t forget that a visit to the palazzo will also give you the opportunity to enter one of the oldest structures still standing in Mdina.
So I would say yes, the palace is definitely worth a visit!
Know before you go
You can visit Palazzo Falson every day, except Monday, between 10.00 AM to 17:00, with the last entrance allowed to be at 16.00. The museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The coffee shop is open during museum hours and offers a selection of homemade delicious cakes, hot and cold beverages. The views from up there are breathtaking; enjoy the countryside beyond Mdina or simply peek into the inner courtyard.
Yes, audio guides are provided free of charge on admission in English, Maltese, Italian, French, Spanish and German.
The basic ticket costs 10 EUR with discounts being provided to students, senior citizens and children.
Date Visited: August 2017
Type: Museum Tour
Official Website: Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum
Cost: € 10
Recommended Time: 1,5 hours
Great for: Culture & History Enthusiasts
A rare glimpse behind Mdina’s aristocratic walls, a peek into the daily life of Maltese nobility and a veritable treasure trove.
Image courtesy of Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum