Malta Diary Malta’s Gobelin Tapestries – beautiful and priceless
A leading economic consultant recently pronounced that if all else fails in the Maltese economy the Gobelin Tapestries adorning The Palace and St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta would be sufficient to cover the country’s National Debt (currently standing at five billion euros), over and above the fact that they are unique and priceless.
A distinction has to be made between the two sets in different buildings with The Palace containing the real McCoy because its tapestries are a set and from the original weaving looms of the Gobelin factory in Paris, whilst the set at the Co-Cathedral are from the Flanders factory which was established later.
Their designs also differ. The Palace set are a collection of highly exotic depictions whilst the Cathedral set glorify the ascendency of the Roman Catholic faith over the counter-Reformation era.
The Palace in central Valletta was originally constructed by the Knights of St John when Valletta was built post the Great Siege of 1565 and for almost 250 years served as the Grandmaster’s Palace and housed the Great Council, Malta and Gozo’s administrative nerve centre. When Britain incorporated Malta (at Malta’s request) into the British
Empire, The Palace housed the office of the Westminster appointed Governor General and then the President of Malta’s central office when Malta became a Republic in 1974. Since 1922, the main room served as the country’s House of Representatives before for space reasons this was transferred to replace The Armoury (also in The Palace) and again transferred at the end of April to a new building at Valletta’s entrance.
Founded in a Paris suburb by Jean Gobelin in 1450 as a dyeing factory, it became a tapestry weaving factory when the French king at the time Henry IV commissioned two Flemish weavers Marc de Comans and Francois de la Planche in 1601 to work in his court. A year later, Henry’s Minister for Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert assumed responsibility for the Gobelin Factory and declared the Gobelin Dye Factory be converted to a tapestry weaving factory and a Centre of Excellence.
The factory soon became Europe’s leading tapestry manufacturer with expert weavers working from drawn cartoons and intricately weaving the depictions into tapestry paintings of the finest quality enhanced by the excellent dye qualities which gave them colour and light.
Those in Malta’s Tapestry Chamber were adapted from a set of paintings at the request of Louis XIV and were purchased by the Malta Grandmaster Ramon Perellos y Roccaful in 1708, the fifth of eight sets of ten tapestries and is the only complete set still in existence today. Some of the original cartoons they were taken from are in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The cartoons were the designs of two Dutch artists who accompanied a Dutch mission exploring Brazil between 1637 and 1644, a group of scientists and artists who were overwhelmed by the exotic plant and animal life and strove zealously to draw, paint and record all they saw, including fish and birds.
This gave rise to the “Tenture des Indes” on which the eight sets of tapestries were based.
The Palace set has certain peculiar differences that distinguish it from the other seven sets because two of the tapestries had to be split into two because of the room dimensions. The practice was to order the tapestries from the factory according to dimensions required to fit room walls but because of various miscalculations, two of the set would have had to be fitted into corners and it was thus more expedient to split them. These were the tapestries of “L-Elephant” and “Le Chasseur Indien”.
The ten subjects depicted and the tapestry dimensions are: Le Combat d’Animaux (470 by 458cm); L’Indien à Cheval (470 by 350cm); Les Deux Taureaux (470 by 511cm); Le Cheval Rayé (470 by 504cm); Le Roi Porté (470 by 450cm); Le Chasseur Indien (470 by 430cm); Les Pêcheurs (470 by 400cm); Les Autruches (470 by 313cm); Le Cheval Isabelle (470 by 298cm) and L’Éléphant (470 by 408cm).
A lot of research work on the tapestries has been carried out by Claire Bonavia who is a textile conservator and is also attached to Heritage Malta after spending 20 years with the Malta Museums Department. Claire has extensive experience in cloth and tapestries and worked and researched in Florence. Among other items, she studied Napoleon Bonaparte’s cape, trousers, waistcoat, socks and gloves. On returning to Malta she took charge of the Maltese National Costume Collection depicting costumes down through the ages.
Originally, the tapestries were in peril of not reaching Malta at all. When finished, they were sent from Paris to Marseilles by mule train and loaded onto a Malta-bound brigantine. Unfortunately, the crew realised the value of their cargo and the set were in danger of becoming victims of piracy. However, the “Commandeur” charged with bringing them safely to Malta forked out a double price for the passage and saved the day.
Nowadays, careful documentation is maintained and microscope inspections are frequent. Although the Tapestry Chamber is kept in near darkness, there has been some colour loss. Cleaning methods in the past to remove dust accumulation have also inflicted some small abrasions.
The Tapestries have only left Malta once at the end of the 19th century when they were once more transported across the Mediterranean to return to Paris to be restored at the Gobelin Factory. Work on them lasted several years and they were returned in 1910.
With the Tapestry Room serving to house Malta’s parliament for many years they undoubtedly stood witness to many stormy debate sessions. During one particular session one irate member threw an inkpot at an opposing member and some ink splashed onto one of the tapestries! However, it seems this was instantly cleaned up and there are no remaining ink stains today.