Palazzo De La Salle: Historic architecture, modern art

To celebrate its centenary at Palazzo de La Salle, the Malta Society of Arts commissioned studies to discover the origins of this important heritage building. Laura Bonnici speaks with MSA President Adrian Mamo, to find out more

Grandmaster’s Hall
Grandmaster’s Hall

For a palace built at the same time as Valletta, surprisingly little was known about the 400-year history of Palazzo de La Salle – until recently.

“When I joined the Malta Society of Arts eight years ago, the huge gap in the Palace’s recorded history was taken for granted,” recalls the MSA President, Architect Adrian Mamo. “When the Society’s centenary at the Palace approached, we decided it was high time to establish its origins and explore its rich and varied past.”

The MSA commissioned extensive studies into the history of the Palace, carried out by experts in their respective fields including writers, researchers, academics and photographers. The research team delved into the vast collection of documents archived in the building itself, as well as the Notarial archives, the government drawing office and other sources.


The studies built upon the scattered pre-existing knowledge, while revealing some surprises. Established in the late 16th century, the Palazzo’s following 300 years saw it used as a private residence for families related to the Grandmasters of the Knights of the Order of St John: Valletta’s original architects. These early residents included the brothers Enrico and Guglielmo de La Salle, after whom the Palace is named.

“We discovered that the Palace underwent a lavish embellishment around 1732 – a prolific year for architecture and art in Malta, with many other buildings and artworks produced around that time,” Mamo explains. “The La Salle brothers added the most ornate room in the Palace, which had previously been an open terrace overlooking the sea.”

The Palace also features one of the earliest known private chapels in Valletta, with a decorated altar surround dated to the 17th century and a top frieze from the 18th century. Most significantly, the studies concluded that Palazzo de La Salle originally consisted of two separate buildings joined together, as indicated by a thick wall in the centre of the property and the presence of two courtyards.

One of the art galleries
One of the art galleries

In 1923 – exactly 100 years ago – the newly formed Maltese government gave the Palace to the Malta Society of Arts, so that the Society could continue to fulfil its mission of promoting the arts on the island. “Palazzo de La Salle was the greatest gift anyone could have given to the Society,” Mamo goes on. “The MSA was formed 170 years ago, when the British government encouraged all its then-colonies to form their own societies to mirror its own Royal Society of Arts in London. Other than the RSA, the only one that still exists today is in Malta.”

Having the Palace as its seat has been an important contributor to the Society’s longevity, he highlights. “The building gives prestige to the MSA – as buildings always do – and has allowed the MSA to offer its courses and solidify its identity as a centre for the arts. Palazzo de La Salle has enabled the MSA to survive.”

The past decade has seen the Palazzo rehabilitated into a state-of-the-art venue to serve the MSA’s mission to support excellence in visual, performing and applied arts through providing space, education and outreach opportunities.

To mark its 100 years at Palazzo de La Salle, Malta’s oldest art institution has published a book, Palazzo de La Salle, Genesis & Evolution, featuring essays about the Palace and the MSA. Likewise, an ongoing year-long programme of events includes workshops, activities, lectures on the history of the Palace and two exclusive exhibitions exploring the Society’s identity, memory and legacy. The unique celebration also features a monthly programme of musical concerts and masterclasses curated by Karl Fiorini, with performances of music from newly discovered manuscripts from the Society’s archives.

“Our programme tells a 100-year-old story through art,” concludes Mamo. “The MSA’s centenary at Palazzo de La Salle epitomises how we can bring a modern use to historic buildings; how we can successfully and respectfully merge the old with the new. The MSA believes that art in all its forms and expressions can lead to a better society, and we feel an obligation to all those who have run the Society for the past 170 years to uphold this mission, offering encouragement to artists and providing a space where the public can appreciate this artistic expression. My admiration and thanks go to all the thousands of people who have given their time to keep the Society alive.”

For more details about the Malta Society of Arts and its 100 years at Palazzo de La Salle celebrations, visit