Malta Diary A noble house for the nobility – Casa Rocca Piccola
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Visitors to Malta and Gozo ranging back over many centuries have never stopped to wonder at the extent of beautiful buildings and palaces to be found on such small islands.
A prolific concentration is to be found in the noble and baroque 16th Century-built capital city of Valletta. However, they are to be found in most towns and villages throughout the islands, with further proliferations in the old capital Mdina and the Three Cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea.
One of these is the Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta, the long-time residence of one of Malta’s noble families and now open to visitors enabling them to see all its wonderful splendours that underline the riches and privileges that enable the comforts of wealthy living.
To appreciate the whole basis of Valletta one has to go back to the date of its founding in 1568, which compared to most other European capital cities, makes it a “newcomer” to the fold of European capital cities.
It was built in an era of triumph when the islands had withstood a horrendous three-month siege by the invading fleet of Ottoman forces and finally defeated the siege and the fleet in September of 1565.
The Ottomans had two principle plans. One was to capture the two islands to provide a gateway to Europe’s “soft” underbelly through Sicily and the Italian peninsula and thence northwards into the main body of Europe, and the other was to vanquish once and for all the threat of the Hospitalier Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem which Order they had already expelled out of the Greek island of Rhodes, an Order that had meanwhile changed from being strictly Hospitaliers into a powerful military force.
Despite their being a strictly Roman Catholic Order of the Nobility, this victory caused the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of the United Kingdom to write to the Knights to thank them for “saving Christendom in Europe”.
The main inspiration for the victory was the French Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette who then ordered Valletta to be built as greater security in case of further Ottoman invasions. Sadly, he died before Valletta was inaugurated in 1568.
The city was not built haphazardly. It was fortified all around with high bastions and built on a parallel grid plan for greater access and security. Above all, de la Valette had ordered it be built with magnificence to ensure it matched the splendour of other European capital cities.
Thus emerged a city of architectural baroque splendour, which much later (during the reign of Queen Victoria), caused Benjamin Disraeli to remark that Valletta “is a city for gentlemen built by gentlemen”. He later became Britain’s Prime Minister representing the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Among the many palaces, Casa Rocca Piccola was built in 1580 and was one of two houses built by the Admiral of the Fleet, Don Pietro la Rocca (literally Peter the Rock – alluding to the description of St Peter being the Rock of the Church, Pietro meaning rock).
The house also had a rare feature in that it had a garden (because of space restrictions, private houses in Valetta were normally not permitted to have gardens). Hence, in maps of the time it was referred to as “la casa con giardino” – the house with a garden). In the 18th Century it was divided into two houses and further changes continued to be made, including air raid shelters built during the Second World War, the second air-raid shelter to be built in Malta at the time.
The house has a number of interconnecting rooms on the first floor, the ground floor having been designed for kitchens and stables and in all consists of no less than 50 rooms with two libraries, two dining rooms (one for winter and one for summer), a number of drawing rooms and of course the statutory private family chapel.
The rooms contain a fabulous collection of antique furniture as well as paintings and silverware from all over Europe, especially of Maltese silver which has always been much prized. The archives contain a veritable record of the de Piro family (the current occupants) down through the centuries.
It also contains the largest collection of antique costumes as well as the largest collection of Maltese lace, another much prized and traditional Maltese handcraft.
The list of occupants throughout the centuries is a veritable Who’s Who, originating with Admiral Don Pietro La Rocca – the founder and builder who was Admiral of the Order’s powerful marine fleet; between 1722 and 1728 it was the home of Monsignor Fra Gaspare Gori Mancini of Siena, Malta’s Bishop; noble occupants from various families including the Sant Cassia, Cassar-Torreggiani and the de Piro d’Amico Inguanez families (these forming the backbone of Maltese nobility) then followed.
The current occupant and person responsible for opening it to the public is Nicholas de Piro d’Amico Inguanez who is 9th Baron of Budach and the 9th Marquis de Piro who made public entry possible in the early 1990s and then reunited the two houses to the main building in 2000.
Surely a “must visit” for all Malta visitors.
“Each family tree has its dirty dish cloth”
A reference to the ‘black sheep’ member in every family tree that has brought dishonour on the family.