Mdina is the place to go if you are interested in walking amongst narrow alleys & noble houses.
But what if you could enter an actual palace?
Let me introduce you to Palazzo Falson, known as the Norman House due to its Siculo-Norman architecture.
It is a typical two-storey palace fashioned by the Spanish and Sicilian nobility in Mdina. A series of rooms around an internal courtyard with a picturesque fountain.
With 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 aristocratic residence, built during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is the second oldest building in Mdina, beaten only by Palazzo Santa Sofia by 10 years. However, the latter is not open to the public.
Did you know?
Palazzo Falson is similar to a traditional Moroccan Riad. Its clever design keeps the air inside the palazzo cool and comfortable, during the hot Maltese summers.
It is believed that the oldest parts of the residence date back to 1240. Since then, the building changed casually, adopting features & styles from subsequent historical eras.
Let’s have a look into the interesting history of the palazzo.
Initially, the building was a courtyard house with one floor. It was much larger than today and had two entrances. The first was 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, the façade on Villegaignon Street received a facelift and the building’s orientation changed.
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 why Palazzo Falson is named “The Norman House”.
When Malta was donated to the Knights of the Order of St. John, in 1530, further architectural changes were made to the palazzo, in preparation for the visit of Grand Master Philippe Villiers L’Isle-Adam.
Late 16th century
The palace was inherited by the notorious Matteo Falson. In 1574, he fled Malta, 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” agreed 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
Frederick Gollcher was the son of a wealthy shipping merchant of Swedish descent.
He served in both World Wars and received many honours, including the O.B.E. (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
With an interest in history and Maltese heritage and a passion for antiques and historical items, he renovated the building and 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. He collected everything; archaeology artifacts, carpets, furniture, books, pipes, jewellery, paintings and weapons.
Moreover, he produced fine works of art with some of them being exhibited in his studio.
After his death in 1962, his foundation took over the ownership of the palazzo, to preserve his collections for 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 valuable collections. Some of them date back to the 17th century.
All collections are in themes; paintings, furniture, valuable books, smoking pipes, scent bottles, oriental rugs, weaponry, jewellery, silverware, watches, coins and medals.
And you get to explore around for as long as you want.
There is a rare watch made by Robert Robin in Paris, in 1797. It’s a 10-hour pocket watch, with 10 hours per day, each hour divided into 100 minutes and each minute also divided into 100 seconds.
Did you know?
The French Revolutionary Time was introduced by the French in 1793. It was a new clock system, with few benefits that proved unpopular. However, several watches were manufactured until 1795 when the decimal time became non-mandatory.
The clock is part of Olof Gollcher’s 27 fob watches collection and it’s one out of three that still exists.
Another, 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 more than 80 oriental rugs from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.
Look for a Persian double-edged curved dagger with an eight-pointed star motif; it was used for both fighting and ritual ceremonies.
There’s also a Victorian double-ended scent bottle, with perfume on the one end and smelling salts on the other. It looks so classy that it became a decorative item itself.
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 signed route keeps you on track while the audio guide uncovers the backstory of everything.
Access to the house museum is made from the ground floor and it goes all the way to the rooftop terrace for a panoramic view over the surrounding countryside.
Everything is thoroughly set to resemble how life was in a traditional Maltese palazzo.
Can you find the secret room?
Where did Olof keep his most prized treasures? During his long trips, he locked up his precious items in a vault under the staircase.
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 magenta bougainvillea makes a great contrast to the aged mellow stones while the sound of medieval instrumental music adds wonderfully to the experience.
The cradle of knowledge
A rather fascinating room and a personal favourite, the library, boasts over 4.500 books.
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.
Did you know?
It took a long time to restore the books; 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.
However, it’s still a mystery how it passed into the private collection of Olof Gollcher.
Another famous book is “Baedeker’s Northern France”, a travel guidebook published in 1894. The Baedekers, published over 1.000 different editions for travellers, setting the standards for accuracy and clarity in maps.
Next, you’ll find one of Olof’s passports. 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. The leather-bound 9th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (1875), a 70-volume set presenting the complete works of Voltaire (1785), the collectible History of the Knights of Malta (1728) and a prominent Melitensia collection about the Maltese Islands.
Interested in those rare volumes?
Check the palazzo’s online catalogue and book an appointment at the official website.
Olof Gollcher not only collected art but also studied and performed it.
An art critic and painter himself, he 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.
But what are all those pipes in the 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
You can find more than 200 works in the Palazzo.
Family and self-portraits, paintings from Olof’s travels, biblical, mythological and nautical scenes.
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 many others.
The Armoury Vault
One of Olof’s greatest passions was weaponry.
When you visit the Armoury, you will know why!
Walls decorated with weapons from different periods and regions – polearms, swords, rapiers, stilettos and yataghans of Persian origin, shields, chain mail shirts and many others.
You can even find a helmet dating back to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Pretty impressive, right?
As soon as you enter this room you will notice that everything is maritime-related.
Paintings, ship models, globes and also a painting depicting the ship of Olof’s grandfather, known as “Swalan”, entering Malta back in the 19th century.
Did you know?
Olof was into the shipping business and his company, Gollcher Group, still exists.
The kitchen was one of Capt. Olof’s favourite entertaining places.
Here you’ll see a fireplace decorated with folklore Maltese characters and colourful maiolica tiles, a traditional white & blue firewood oven and a 17th-century refectory oak table.
The stories that must have been told in this room!
Out of wine?
In Olof’s mansion wine shortage was out of question. That’s why he installed a wooden trap door leading down to the underground cellar.
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 Olof welcomed his most prominent guests were diligently decorated.
The Sitting Room contained pieces of extraordinary value like Capodimonte porcelain figurines and Staffordshire pottery, 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 massive hood bearing the coat of arms of the 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. It was a custom for noble houses of this size to have one.
Over time, Olof 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.
More interesting rooms to visit
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.
Great, but what’s its use?
As weird as it sounds, nefs were used to hold spices, and during dining, they were rolled from 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. You can find 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 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.
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 Museum worth a visit?
Palazzo Falson, with its diverse collections and elegant architecture, is one of the most interesting museums in Mdina.
Visiting this 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