The Palace of the Grand Masters is a large rather plain building on St George’s square.
It was one of the first buildings in the new city and was the Knights’ administrative centre and military headquarters. The upper floor housed the Supreme Council Chamber, the household apartments of the Grand Master and the Armoury. The ground floor housed the Palace guard, servants’ quarters, kitchens and stables. Once the Knights left Malta it became the seat of government and the residence of the British Governor. It is now the President’s Office and Parliament House.
It is built round two courtyards. Entry through a passageway takes you into the first courtyard with a fountain, trees and flowers. There is a small ticket office in a corner.
An archway leads into the smaller Neptune courtyard with a statue of Neptune and more trees and flowers. There is a covered colonnade round the courtyard which is roped off. A spiral staircase in the corner leads up to the State Rooms. The shallow steps were designed for Knights in armour, or elderly Grand Masters. They were wide enough for a sedan chair.
The Painted Gallery runs round three sides of the courtyard. Steps lead to the grand doorway of the House of Representatives (closed) on the fourth wall. This was originally the armoury. The walls are painted grey with mock wall pillars with brown, white and grey decoration. Suits of armour stand in front of the pillars and there are paintings of the Grand Masters between them. Above the pillars are semi-circular arches which have paintings of scenery. The ceiling has a series of pictures in decorative panels. The marble floor has a series of coats of arms along it.
The Council Chamber is hung with Goblin tapestries woven between 1708-10 with exotic scenes of Africa, India, the Caribbean and Brazil. The room has its original coffered ceiling and paintings of naval battles against the Ottoman Turks. In the centre is a large table surrounded by chairs. It is kept dark to protect the tapestries and no photographs are allowed in here. Parliament met here until after independence when it outgrew the room and moved to the Knight’s Armoury.
Next door is the dining room with yellow damask hangings. This part of the Palace had to be rebuilt after a bomb hit it. There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth II and Malta’s Heads of State since Independence. Beyond it is the Grand Masters’ Ceremonial chamber, hung with red damask. There is a single chair, the throne at one end and a minstrels gallery at the other, which was moved here from the Palace Chapel. The painted ceiling is the original and the wall paintings show scenes from the Great Siege. This room is still used by the President on State occasions.
Round the corner from it is the Pages’ Room with green carpets and decoration. Originally this would have linked the linked Grand Master’s private quarters with the Throne Room. Young pages would await orders. Round the top of the walls are scenes from the history of the Order before it arrived in Malta. This now serves as a conference room for the President and the walls are lined with chairs. It leads into the Ambassador’s Room, lined with red damask and pictures, used for meeting visiting ambassadors and other dignitaries.
The Armoury was a working armoury with enough arms to equip an army of 18,000 men. When a Knight died, his armour became the property of the Order. Originally it held over 25,000 suits of armour but depredations by Napoleon and the French reduced this to 5000. It was originally housed in a magnificent hall on the first floor at the at rear of building but was moved into the stables in basement when this room was needed for the House of Representatives.
The collection is spread across two large rooms and covers 300 years of arms and armour development from 15thC until the Knights left Malta. One room is dominated by armour, mainly European but with some examples of Ottoman armour. There is everything from simple iron chain mail to a suit belonging to Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt which was covered in patterns of gold and silver damascening. His horse had armour to match. The Knight's wealth was reflected in the decoration of his armour. There were helmets with eye shades to keep off the sun (Darth Vader 1600-30 style). There were examples of breastplates with a lever that could be pulled out to act as an arm rest.
The second room concentrates on weapons from huge cannon to spears, swords, muskets, crossbows and thin guns that could be poked through defensive walls.
This was a very well worthwhile visit. Entry is covered by the Heritage Malta Pass and this means you can by-pass the queues at the ticket office. We timed our visit for lunchtime, so it was reasonably quiet with no group tours. There are a few chairs in the Painted Gallery and a couple of bench seats by the entrance to the armoury – a welcome sight for tired feet.
There is a small rather disappointing shop selling a few books and souvenirs.