The National Museum of Archaeology, managed by Heritage Malta, is housed in the Auberge de Provence and holds exceptional artefacts from the prehistoric and early Phoenician periods. The Auberge is one of the most important buildings that were built in Malta’s capital following the great siege of 1565. An example of early Maltese Baroque architecture, the Auberge was built in 1571 and followed a plan by Maltese architect Ġlormu Cassar. Several architectural changes were carried out over the centuries; nonetheless, the Auberge de Provence remains one of the best preserved residences of the Knights of St John. One of its most beautiful rooms is the Grand Salon in the upper floor, with richly painted walls and a wooden beamed ceiling.
The building was the main residence of Provençal knights of the Order of St John. Following the knights’ departure, the building was first administered by the French during their brief occupation of the islands and was later taken over by the British government. Before being inaugurated as The National Museum in 1958, it served as a military barracks, a hotel, Union Club and an auction house. Initially, the museum held both the archaeology and fine arts collections. Eventually, the fine arts section was moved elsewhere and the museum became the National Museum of Archaeology in 1974.
The Palace and Gardens of San Anton owe their origin and early development to the Knight Fra Antoine de Paule, a Frenchman from Provence, who was elected Grandmaster of the Order of St. John in 1623. While still in the lower ranks of the Order, he had acquired a large plot of land near the village of Attard on which he built a country house or villa. This locality was nearer Valletta than Verdala and made it easier for his many friends to join him when he and they could get away from official duties. The villa was planned on generous proportions so as to provide accommodation for a number of house-guests, apart from the domestic staff which included pantry-boys and cooks, food tasters, torch bearers, wig makers, a winder of clocks, doctors, as well as a baker engaged especially to bake black bread for the hunting dogs! Yet de Paule, after his election as Grandmaster, decided to for go the construction of a trireme in favour of enlarging the villa into a Palace which he named “San Anton” after his patron saint, St Anthony of Padua. De Paule’s coat-of-arms – azure, on a garb, a peacock in his pride, or on a chief gules three mullets argent – adorned the ceilings and the staircase. Successive Grandmasters continued to use the Palace as their country residence. During the turbulent days of the Maltese uprising against the French, San Anton Palace became the seat of the National Assembly from February, 1799 to the capitulation of Valletta by the French in September, 1800. Captain (later Sir) Alexander Ball resided at the Palace, first as Chief of the Maltese Congress and, subsequently, as Chief Commissioner. During the latter period, he built the loggias round the Drawing Room and an impressive balustrade walk round the outer courtyard. Since then, the Palace has been used as the residence of the Governor, during the British period, and of the Governor-General of Malta since Independence and of the President of Malta since the proclamation of the Republic. A large part of the original gardens was turned into a public garden. Large parts of the gardens consist of orange groves, the fruit of which rank among the best in the world. The private gardens also include the Kitchen Garden situated on the far side of St Anthony Street, Attard, constructed at the time of the Order of St John during the 18th century, to serve as a kitchen garden for the needs of the Grandmasters’ cuisine. In June 2011 the Kitchen Garden was opened for the enjoyment of the public after an eighteen-month project launched by The President Ameritus Dr George Abela and Mrs Abela. This garden still serves its original purpose. Restoration works includes modern paving, new furniture, artistic lighting, a playing area and animal pens. It also has a cafeteria, the profits from which are directed towards the Malta Community Chest Fund. In April 2012 major restoration and renovation works were also carried out in the hall where today’s concert is taking place transforming this hall into a beautifully decorated and sophisticated ambience. The Hall is now referred to as the Grandmasters’ Hall as it also houses a number of resorted portraits of Grandmasters. Recent restoration works and embellishment in San Anton Palace were that of The Russian Chapel inaugurated in May 2013 and also the Drawing Room.
The site of this Palace was formerly occupied by a small hunting lodge built by Grandmaster Jean de Valette between 1557 and 1568. The present structure was erected by Grandmaster Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle in 1586. The ‘Boschetto’ area was chosen for its lush vegitation, 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 Grandmaster Verdalle’s reign (1582-1595) planned a fortified structure to provide a minimal form of defence against the Turkish raids which 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 Paul de Lascaris-Castellar (1636-1657) and later Grandmaster Antonio 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 again as King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra , King George VI in April 1943, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia in 1909 and 1919, and Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1904. It is also worth mentioning that, for the first time, in December 2011 the Palace hosted the annual fund-raising programme “L-Istrina”. In the recent years several projects have been carried out in Verdala Palace, one of which being that of the conservation project of the Vault painting in the Main Hall. The vault was entirely whitewashed after being covered with varnish in the 1930s. In 2008 the removal of the whitewash was completed and the paintings on the vault can now be viewed in its entirety. Another project of significant importance is the extensive restoration work on four painted wooden ceilings that has been carried out on the initiative of H.E. President George Abela. The restoration works on the wooden ceilings consisted mostly of designs and emblems, and adorning rooms on the piano nobile, and have once again been carried out by Heritage Malta. The project to salvage the paintings dating back to the 1700’s was sponsored by Bank of Valletta. Various areas within Verdala Palace grounds have recently been upgraded or refurbished. These include the resurfacing of the main approaches and car park, the new pavement at the “August Moon Ball” area and the paving of the passageways that surround the Palace. In 2011 a new GH212 Kayserburg grand piano was donated by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to H.E. Dr George Abela, President of Malta.