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Noble stones

Fiona Vella reads chapters from the history of Palazzo Castelletti.

Edward Pullicino still remembers moments when as a young boy, while walking along one of the most prominent streets of Rabat, his late father Mario would point out to him that Palazzo Castelletti belonged to their family. However, during that period, this historical building had been requisitioned by the government, and therefore the family could not enjoy its possession.

Many of those who used this property made their own alterations to this old palace, at times even damaging it in the process, and Edward longed for the opportunity to reclaim it in order to restore it back to its glory.

This aspiration became reality during these last years and today, a major part of this ancient gem has regained its splendour. Yet once again, Palazzo Castelletti was not destined to become a family residence. Instead, it has opened its doors to the public in order to serve as a stylish venue where one can relish this palace’s long and great legacy in Maltese history.

This palace was built in the 17th century as a private residence for the Theuma Castelletti family. Its distinct and prominent facade displaying the family’s intricate coat of arms reflected the importance of its owners who formed part of the Maltese nobility. By the early 19th century, this building was extended further and included the servants’ quarters. Apparently, some years later, this property was acquired by Baron Benedict Pisani Mompalao Cuzker, and the new residents of this palace were none other than the Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani and her mother. The last landlord to live on the premises was Mgr. Prof. Carmelo Grima, an ancestor of the Pullicino family. He died in 1940 and from then on the function of this building alternated frequently as it passed from one hand to another.

The new residents of this palace were none other than the Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani and her mother

In 1941, this property was rented to the nuns of St Joseph School, when they had to leave their premises in Paola, since it was taken over by the British forces to be used as a hospital. When World War II broke out, the nuns decided to dig a shelter beneath the basement, with a separate exit on St Paul’s Street. The nuns and the students, together with some neighbours, used to take refuge in these shelters during air raids.

Once the war was over, the nuns returned to Paola, and between 1948 and 1958 Palazzo Castelletti was rented L’Isle Adam Band Club, who turned it into a social club. When the band club decided to move to the opposite side of the street, in Palazzo Xara, the Government requisitioned the building from its owners and divided it into two properties, namely 62, St Paul’s Street and 1, Old Doni Street. Part of the property was turned into government offices for the Social Services Department, while the other section was rented out as a private residence.

In 1974, the Social Services Department left the palace and the government seemed to be considering returning it to its owners. Edward’s parents, who were a freshly-wedded couple, had in mind to occupy the palace as their private residence but had to change their plans when the Government decided to split that part of the building into another two residences which were used for social housing. It was only in 2002 that the Pullicino family managed to recuperate part of Palazzo Castelletti, with the remaining section acquired at a later stage, after the families that lived there were given alternative accommodation.

One would have imagined that after so many years during which the Pullicino family was negated the use of this palace, they would have opted to keep the premises for themselves. Yet both because of the building’s spacious proportions and also due to the present trend where these historical places are being turned into commercial areas, the decision to turn this palace into a commercial space was taken almost naturally.

Restoring the palace back to its original grandeur was not an easy task. Numerous alterations had taken place during the period when the property was used by third parties, including the building of further rooms in the courtyard, the division of large rooms into smaller ones and the dismantling of some structures, including that of an old altar which was constructed during the years when Mgr Carmelo Grima had lived there. Luckily, the latter was restored after it was found in pieces, together with a huge volume of rubbish and broken furniture, inside its old cellars. Originally intended as a space to store and ferment wine for the Castelletti family, the cellars had been turned into a dumping site. The laborious work to remove this accumulation of trash eventually filled 50 skips.

Meanwhile, the additional structures were removed, while the authentic parts were restored, including the 20th century fountain stone statue of St Andrew which was sculpted by Luigi Muscat for Mgr Carmelo Grima in order to replace a pagan figure of Bacchus.

Great care was invested in identifying the original character of the palace in order to respect its authenticity. Indeed, most of the rooms were repainted according to the colours which were retraced under the several layers of previous coatings. A fresco which was painted by artist Mikiel Fsadni in the 1950s was restored by Fr Charles Vella, revealing once again rustic views of Maltese countryside and significant buildings that were adorned with intricate floral motifs and elaborate designs.

Interestingly, this restoration served to recover more than the original status of the palace itself, as during some structural works, it was discovered that the building rested on the remains of an ancient Roman village. After two years of archaeological excavations, this particular site revealed a section of a road from the Roman period, large ashlar blocks, cisterns and canals, and a pottery, coins and jewellery. Most of the latter have been recovered by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, but a very small selection of remains is available for public viewing, like this archaeological site itself.

The history of this era is vastly explained in a detailed exhibition which has been set up in the magnificently restored cellars that display an impressive series of interconnecting vaults which lie below the stately rooms of the palace. This exhibition is the work of Richard Azzopardi, a history enthusiast, who has researched in great detail the Roman era in Malta. Information panels provide interesting details related to Mdina and Rabat during this period, whereas a number of models portray his theories of how these places might have looked during this time.

Moreover, this work also reveals an interesting finding by this researcher who has accessed various cellars in Mdina and Rabat, which areas have indicated that the original road in this area during the Roman period lay 12 feet below the present road level. Indeed, this theory is supported by the archaeological site of the palace itself which shows that the excavated Roman road was situated within this calculated depth. This exhibition will remain open for viewing until September 2014.

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