The site of this Palace was formerly occupied by a small hunting lodge built by Grandmaster Jean de la Valette-Parisot between 1557 and 1568. The present structure was erected by Grandmaster Hughues Loubenx de Verdalle in 1586. The ‘Boschetto’ area was chosen for the lushness of its vegetation, an ideal foraging ground for the wild game introduced by the Order. The rivulet in the underlying valley provided a steady source of water throughout most of the year thus providing the much needed nourishment for the flora and fauna to flourish. Architect Gerolamo Cassar, the Order’s Maltese architect during Grand Master Verdalle’s reign (1582-1595) planned a fortified structure to provide a minimal form of defence against the Turkish razzias who struck Malta from time to time. The most prominent among the numerous features incorporated in its design was the dry ditch surrounding the Palace. The ashlar rock excavated from the ditch was used for its construction.
Grandmaster Jean de Lascaris-Castellar (1636-1657) and later Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) contributed most to its embellishment. Verdala Palace was used as a military prison in 1800 for Napoleon’s soldiers who had surrendered to the Anglo-Maltese forces. For some time the building also served as a silk factory after which it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Governor Sir Frederick Ponsonby (1827-1836) was the first to attempt to repair the building but it was in Governor Sir William Reid’s (1851-1858) time that the Palace was restored to its former glory.
Verdala Palace then became the Governor’s country residence and further improvements were made by subsequent governors. In 1939, at the beginning of hostilities which led to the Second World War, Verdala Palace was used as a repository for the National Musuem of Arts.
In 1982 Verdala Palace started to accommodate visiting Heads of State. A new electricity supply system was installed, the building’s external walls were re-pointed and facilities were improved. In 1987 Acting-President Paul Xuereb adopted Verdala Palace as his official residence.
The Palace hosted many distinguished dignitaries including King George V and Queen Mary in 1912, Prince Albert in 1913 and later King George VI in April 1943, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia in 1909 and 1919, Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1904, Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi, Leader of the First September Revolution of the Libyan Arab Jamahriya, Josip Broz Tito, Former President of Yugoslavia, Nicolae Andruta Ceausescu, Former President of Romania and Giovanni Leone, Former President of Italy.
Verdala Palace is now the official summer residence of the President of Malta. In the recent past, fund raising activities, including the annual August Moon Ball and concerts in aid of the Malta Community Chest Fund, were held at the Palace.
The conservation project of the Vault Painting in the Main Hall Verdala Palace
The vault painting in the Main Hall of Verdala Palace depicts eight mythological figures and two virtues, all framed within a fictive architectural and vegetal decoration. The painting is traditionally dated to the late 16th century and attributed to the Florentine artist Filippo Paladini. This attribution, however, still awaits confirmation through documentary evidence.
A close study of the painting shows that its history is indeed very complex, denoting a sequence of several extensive restoration interventions, most hitherto unidentified. The last extensive intervention was undertaken in 1910-1912 by a prominent Maltese artist, Giuseppe Calì (1846-1930). In the late 1930s, under the governorship of Sir Charles Bonham-Carter, the vault was entirely whitewashed after being covered with varnish. In the 1980s the Museums Department started uncovering and restoring parts of the vault painting, such as the figure of Pallas, and in 2003, a conservation team from the former Malta Centre for Restoration uncovered the entire first bay depicting Baccus and Mars.
Commenced in July 2006 by Heritage Malta, the conservation project, which has just been concluded, was intended to complete the uncovering of the vault painting and ensure the preservation of the more recent (1910-12) painting scheme. Besides the removal of the 1930s whitewash and the consolidation of the painting, the project entailed extensive historical and scientific research.
Laboratory studies and tests were also carried out on the possibility of removing the varnish which was applied prior to the whitewashing. Based on the current information, it was not possible to arrive at a safe method to remove the varnish without creating damage to the underlying painting. The final stage of the fieldwork consisted in toning down the paint losses and abrasions using watercolours. This final treatment was undertaken with the intention of preserving the traces of colours that belong to earlier painting phases (e.g. the Figure of Venus).
For the first time after 70 years, the vault of the Main Hall at Verdala Palace can be viewed in its entirety. The investigations carried out so far have clearly indicated that this painting has an incredibly rich history, part of which has been revealed during the current conservation project. Over the next few months, Heritage Malta intends to pursue further research in order to tackle a number of questions that remain unanswered. In addition it plans to start an environmental monitoring campaign which will be essential for the long-term preservation of such a complex painting scheme.
The project was set up on the initiative of the President of Malta Eddie Fenech Adami, and was financially supported with a sponsorship of €186,350 (Lm80,000) by Prof Joe Bannister and Messrs. George Fenech, Joe Gasan and Charles Polidano of the Malta Services Authority, Tumas Group, Gasan Group and Polidano Brothers respectively.