The Artistic Merits of the Piano Nobile

Grandmaster's Palace, Malta

Having been conceived and having evolved architecturally as the residence as well as the executive nerve centre from where consecutive rulers of the Maltese islands operated, the Palace became the scenario of many a state function to which the privileged, the elite and heads-of-state attended.

It constituted the public and reception area of the edifice so that guests could comprehend the wealth and status of the family or the administrative body occupying it.

By means of furnishings, works of art, objets d’art, furniture items and the overall interior decoration, the piano nobile served as a space where affluence could be flaunted and power manifested.

Function
Having been conceived and having evolved architecturally as the residence as well as the executive nerve centre from where the Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem operated, the Palace became the scenario of many a state function to which the privileged, the elite and heads-of-state attended.

The piano nobile of the former Grand Master’s Palace, later the Governor’s Palace during the British period (1800-1964), and today the Presidential Palace, does precisely that.

Impressing such exclusive audiences with the artistic treasures of the Order was mandatory as they served to reflect its high reputation and sophistication.

The British Governors, who became the new occupiers and occupants from the 19th century, too left their own mark on the piano nobile, through modifications and additions for reasons of posterity.

As the Presidential Palace today, this priceless cultural legacy, that materialised into many artistic merits.

Paintings, pieces of furniture, wall decoration, marble-inlaid flooring, tapestries, porcelain and other embellishments on the piano nobile, is a feast to the eyes and a constant reminder of the patronage of the rulers that were.

Artistic Merits
What are the artistic masterpieces that one finds inside this important seat of power?

The walls of the corridors, which are the principal walkways that link with the State Halls, are surmounted by lunette paintings showing victorious battles at sea by the Order’s navy.

A magnificent ceiling painting by the Italian artist, Nicolo Nasoni (1691-1773), spans the entire length of the corridors.

It is a display of architecture that elusively opens up to an imaginary sky, indeed an example of quadratura which was extremely sought for during the Baroque period.

These lavishly decorated ceilings and walls are completed by the colourful marble flooring, inlaid in the mid-19th century.

It is no wonder then that these corridors as a whole evoke the idea of grandiosity and glory.

Leading to the former Palace Armoury, the 18th-century scenographic portal, attributed to the renowned Italian architect, Romano Carapecchia (1674-1738) ...

... continues to speak the language of exuberance that resonated well with the Order.

Along the corridors, the various portraits of the Grand Masters

as well as those of the British Royalty commemorate the former rulers and monarchy of the Maltese Islands

It also serves as a gallery that epitomises awe-inspiring authority.

The various Presidents of Malta from 1964 also feature through their respective portraits found in the State Dining Hall. Hence they carry on this chronology of descendant heads.

Canvas and wall paintings representing the Order of St John’s early history (by Leonello Spada [1576-1622]) and the salient naval battles won by the Knights in the Ambassador’s, Pages’ and Tapestry Halls

In other halls not accessible to the public on the piano nobile are also emphatic statements of this military and monastic Order’s long existence and supremacy.

Undoubtedly the crème-de-la-crème of wall paintings on the piano nobile can be enjoyed in the Supreme Council Hall where one finds the famous cycle of 12 panels illustrating the main events of the Great Siege of 1565.

An undertaking entrusted to the Italian artist, Matteo Perez d’Aleccio (1547-1616), this cycle of paintings was (and still is) the Order’s way of flaunting its victory over the Ottoman Turks bearing in mind the various state and official audiences that would have entered the Supreme Council Hall.

For the Grand Master’s private chapel, Filippo Paladini (circa 1547-after 1600), another Italian contemporary, was entrusted with depicting the wall painting cycle of scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order.

Naturally it was in the major interest of the Order of St John’s to ensure that the very best artists, craftsmen and artisans of its time would be employed for the various commissions ...

...that concerned the continual embellishment of the piano nobile, propelled also by every Grand Master’s desire to indelibly leave a stamp of his once extant presence.

Diplomatic gifts of a large and lavish scale from foreign aristocracy and influential heads-of-state continued to enhance the piano nobile.

The Order too keenly invested in works of art and objets d’art with a view to enriching the Palace collection.

Some of the finest and most sought-after artists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries have permanently entered the Palace’s piano nobile in the form of religious, historical and portrait paintings.

Keeping up with the same high calibre, the official portraits of the kings and queens ordered during the British period of the Maltese Islands, were executed by no lesser artists such as James Gunn and Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950).

Apart from the many striking paintings, the pomp and circumstance of the piano nobile is even more telling through the ornate furniture pieces of the highest quality in terms of workmanship ...

... marquetry and materials, a collection of very fine Chinese porcelain vases, and mantelpiece and grandfather clocks manufactured by some of the topmost names.

While such accessories belong to that remote past in which the Order of St John’s functioned ...

... the sporadically placed marble plaques, installed during the British period, speak of another phase in the history of the Grand Master’s Palace: that which was marked by of 164 years of Protestant leadership from 1800.

These marble plaques, that either honour the long list of British Governors

... or remind about interventions physically introduced into the piano nobile ...

... are as effective as the escutcheons and insignia carpeting the marble flooring or the painted heraldic decoration covering some walls.

The fine Gobelins set of tapestries in the Supreme Council Chamber rank among the top artistic marvels held in Malta.

These tapestries became part of Malta’s cultural heritage in the early years of the eighteenth century as a result of the initiative of Grand Master Ramon de Perellos y Roccaful in 1697.

The two series of tapestries created by the Gobelins Manufactory are the Anciennes and the Nouvelles Indes tapestry series, generally referred to collectively as Tenture des Indes.

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