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The powerhouses at the Palazzo

Meet the decorative art rebels whose vision worked out

The current and former curators of Palazzo Falson – Caroline Tonna and Francesca Balzan – grab a coffee with Iggy Fenech to discuss friendship, history, and the past and present of one of the brightest gems on Malta’s heritage crown.

It’s a sunny Friday morning and I’m making my way through Mdina’s medieval roads. Funnily enough, though, while I know both Francesca and Caroline well, I’m still feeling a bit anxious… The history-loving geek in me still gets star struck on every encounter!

Francesca is one of Malta’s leading jewellery historians, the author of Jewellery in Malta: Treasures from the Island of the Knights (1530-1798) and curated some of the island’s landmark jewellery exhibitions including the 2013 Vanity, Profanity and Worship – Jewellery from the Maltese Islands to name just one. She’s recently helped out with the coordination of the Picasso and Miró: The Flesh & The Spirit exhibition on behalf of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti (FPM), too, and, of course, has been the curator of Palazzo Falson for the past 11 years.

Caroline, meanwhile, has been the Lace and Costume Curator at Casa Rocca Piccola since 2011; is the co-producer of TVM’s MaltArti; was on the board of the Arts Council Malta for four years; and was the editor of Malta’s first fashion magazine, Elegance, which ran between 1983 and 1996. She recently completed her Masters in History of Art, focusing on 19th century dress history in Malta and, now, she’s taken over the reins of the historic house.

They are powerhouses in the industry they work in, but they have never been orthodox in their approach to history, curatorship or work in general. They are the rebels whose vision worked out.

So as we sit down to start our interview, I have a million questions to ask them, but it doesn’t all go as planned.

“Sorry, let me just take this,” Francesca tells me as her phone rings mid-ordering a cappuccino.

“Of course, go ahead!” I reply as Caroline’s phone also rings.

They hurriedly have their conversations before they put away their phones and start chatting.

“This is so exciting! I’m so happy we’re all here,” Francesca tells Caroline and me. “Car, I still remember when we first met, you were wearing an orange dress held together with a curb chain, which was popularised in the 18th and 19th century.”

“I remember that dress!” Caroline exclaims.

“I guess, in a way, that dress was symbolic of our relationship. Bringing our interest in jewellery and fashion together!”

Francesca and Caroline’s chemistry is very obvious even as we chat away about the past and seemingly inconsequential things. And that comes as no surprise. After all, they have worked together many times, including volunteering on heritage-related projects, and lecturing at the University of Malta.

“It’s not easy to get recognition within these fields, you know,” Caroline tells me. “The History of Art department is more geared towards pushing students to research architecture, sculpture and painting… The finer arts, if you will. But Francesca broke the mould by looking at the decorative arts, which we both see on par with fine art as they involve talent and craftsmanship.”

This belief in each other’s work and their similar vision when it comes to heritage has proven invaluable over these past six months, during which they have worked together on the handover.

As Francesca leaves her post as the curator of Palazzo Falson to take up the role of senior executive at FPM, Caroline has to take on all the roles that come with being the curator here – ranging from actual curatorial work to PR and greeting dignitaries to ensuring the historic home’s continued growth. And it’s no easy transition either, as Francesca has been here since before the historic house opened to the public in May 2007.

“It’s like my baby,” Francesca reminisces. “But I’m not moving away entirely and will still be part of FPM, which is in charge of running the Palazzo.

“Thankfully, we were given a good amount of time to work together, which has meant that the museum and its staff – whom I love tremendously – didn’t get a jolt with a sudden change in curatorship. Caroline’s work ethic has been incredibly helpful psychologically, though, and I genuinely believe it’s fate that the baton is being passed on to her.” “Although, I have to admit that when I was approached by Michael Lowell, the CEO of FPM, I was both pleased and shocked,”Caroline interjects. “Francesca, to me, equals Palazzo Falson; she’s in every stone and artefact to be found here!”

Caroline’s sentiment is shared by many, particularly as the former home of Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher OBE (1889-1962) houses one of the most important collections of historical objects and objets d’art on the island, and includes silver, furniture, costumes, jewellery, maps, books, tools, crockery, dinnerware, watches, religious artefacts, rugs and textiles. That is notwithstanding the Palazzo itself, a stunning medieval building that has many historically important architectural features. And Francesca has been one of the main driving forces behind it becoming one of the best-loved museums on the Islands.

“It’s a magnificent collection because it’s an insight into our history and also because it appeals to everyone, no matter their interest,” says Francesca. “The 10-hour watch, for example, is a record of timekeeping from the French Revolution, when the day was divided into 10 hours made up of 100 minutes, which were in turn made up of 100 seconds each.”

The collection also includes Capt. Gollcher’s diary from World War II, gossipy letters about people in Malta at a time when the country was divided between supporters of the British Colonialists and the Italian Factions. Other documents reveal striking information about places that weren’t as well travelled by Westerners as they are now, including Japan and South America, which Capt. Gollcher visited during his lifetime.

“Each object tells a story, which is why the way things are displayed has to tell a story,” Caroline continues. “This is important not just for the people who visit, but also for the historical records we need to leave for the next generation.”

“In fact, we often get people walking through the door who know more about particular objects than we do. A few years back, we even had a woman who had emigrated decades before come through our door to tell us she used to work here as a maid. It was incredible to be able to take her round and take notes of what certain things meant to Capt. Gollcher and what happened in the rooms we see on a day-to-day basis,” Francesca adds.

What’s made Palazzo Falson so beloved by the people who visit it, however, is that it is not static. And I don’t just mean that they have specific exhibitions and workshops and lectures for adults and children – which they do – but because it is open to the public for more than just visiting. Small civil weddings take place here, as do intimate gatherings, meaning that the Palazzo still plays an active part in people’s lives.

“I believe the recipe is there and the ingredients are good so, as my father used to say, don’t change a good thing,” Caroline answers when I ask her what she’s planning on doing differently. “Of course, we can add on to it, and the museum has the potential to be used for many other activities. But it’s not about reinventing the wheel, just about growing its legacy.”

“As from my end, all I have to say is that it’s nice to have somebody who can bring new input and a new lease of life to this gem… Caroline has a teenager on her hands, and I do believe she will make us all proud!” Francesca concludes.

What the future holds for Palazzo Falson is yet to be seen, of course, but it does look bright. And that’s also part of the beauty of the Palazzo, because no matter how old it is, there’s always a new chapter ahead of it. As for Caroline and Francesca? Well, no doubt you’ll be hearing about them soon with regards to some other major undertaking!

This article first appeared in Pink Magazine. Get your copy with The Sunday Times of Malta. 

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