Yes, I put my hands up. I admit it. I have an insatiable appetite for looking into other peoples homes.
No. I am not a “Peeping Tom”. When I looked up the definition of “Peeping Tom” in my Collins Concise Dictionary and Thesaurus I am told that Peeping Tom is a man who furtively observes women undressing. That is definitely not me. But, yes, I do confess to glancing furtively sideways when out walking to see how much I can see through any windows not shrouded with window nets. I prefer to think I am inquisitive, having a natural curiosity to find out what puts the soul into a home… what, inspires people and what treasures (or sometimes not) are hidden behind the front door.
Thankfully I can, legitimately, indulge my curiosity, because there are so many beautiful houses and gardens open to the public to visit both in this country and abroad.
On a recent summer trip to Gozo with my husband we decided to take the ferry back to Malta and drive into Valetta. There I found the Casa Rocca Piccola, at 74 Republic Street, the 16th century home of a Maltese nobleman. It is now the home of the 9th Marquis de Piro and his family. Frances, the Marchioness is English and it is her who greets you as you walk through the front door. The history of Casa Rocca Piccola goes back over 400 years to an era in which the Knights of St. John, having successfully fought off the invading Turks in 1565, decided to build themselves a prestigious city to rival European capitals. The house is named after the first owner, Don Pietro La Rocca, Admiral of the Order of St. John in the Langue of Italy. It was, in later years, let to a succession of Italian aristocratic knights and sold to a Maltese nobleman in the second half of the 18th century.
Casa Rocca Piccola is not a museum: it is, in a sense, more than that. It is a living relic of a past way of life burdened with the pretension and aspirations of Maltese lineage. There are numerous items of memorabilia to be seen, not only for their artistic merit, but also because they contribute reality to the overall scene.
Climbing the ornate marble staircase you will see, dominating the top landing a carved wood de Piro coat of arms. This was the last work of the Maltese artist Edward Pirotta. Hanging above is an enormously intricate chandelier from Bohemia. The first room to be visited on your tour is the Chapel in which the walls are painted to simulate damask. There are two crosses on the alter: an ivory crucifix that was granted two hundred days indulgence by Cardinal Godfrey in 1960. The second cross houses a particle of the True Cross behind a little red curtain. Its authenticity is confirmed by no less than seven Vatican seals on the reverse. As was the case with most European noble families it was the custom for the younger son to become a priest and for that reason in particular, many patrician families were given the privilege of keeping a chapel in the house. The Marquis’s grandfather represented George VI and his medals are kept here together with an exquisite pair of shoes known as Papal buskins and a pair of silver filigree earrings, a present from the Bishop of Gozo to Nicolina de Piro after her husband donated land to build the famous Ta’Pinu church in Gozo.
On next to the Green Room where the walls are indeed green! Here there is a magnificent marquetry bookcase that especially caught my eye. Made in about 1640 during the reign of the French Provencal Grand Master Lascaris it bears his arms on the door. The panels are inlayed inside and outside. A fascinating work of art. I was told that the veneer was a mix of olive and orange wood. There are many portraits hung on the walls and proudly placed is a photograph of the 8th Baron and Baroness who attended the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Moving on to the Four- Poster bedroom, the only room in the house not in use, the bed is a showpiece reputed to be great-grandmother Orsola’s matrimonial bed. Married in 1867 she produced 9 children: 7 boys and 2 girls. They all survived childhood and so the bed is considered lucky!
The next room is the Porphyr Room so called because the walls were at one time painted to imitate porphyry marble; then the Blue Room or petit salon with modern pictures collected by the family. Among them works by Annigoni, The Rathmells, Rowley-Smart and Durer. The style of the Dining Room that once had an open terrace overlooking the small garden contrasts with the rest of the house and is considered a “folly”. Built by the current family’s Grandfather in 1918 its white pillars and light aspect certainly make it very different to the rest of the house. It gives the impression of being a conservatory because of its lightness and airiness.A trompe l’oeil of a Spanish woman playing a harp on a black and white tiled floor produces an exaggerated perspective that gives the impression that the room is longer. The last room is the Carriage Room that was once a stable for a mule but, going back, perhaps my favourite room is the Library. Here I found what can only be described as the most outstanding piece of furniture imaginable. A portable chapel. When shut it looks for all the world like a large black lacquered bureau however, it opens up to become a fully functioning chapel with it own tabernacle, relics and the Way of the Cross. It is richly decorated with pictures of exotic birds and flora and panels depicting St. Francis Zavier in Japan and Goa. The idea was that you could have a Chapel in any room of your house and then it could be closed up to look like a secular piece of furniture. An absolutely breathtaking piece.
One of the treasures of the house I must not forget to mention though is a golden sedan chair made for the Knight of Malta, Fra Victor Nicolas de Vachon Belmont reputed to be a romantic figure who led his men personally, oh, and lastly “April” the family tortoise to be found in the small garden. Interestingly Casa Rocca Piccola was one of the few houses at the time of the knights to be allowed a garden. It was a great privilege for its owners as water was scarce and gardens were technically forbidden.
So, if you ever find yourself strolling down Republic Street in Valletta, Casa Rocca Piccola gives you a rare opportunity to see inside one of the last private unconverted Valletta palaces still lived in today. It comes highly recommended to anyone like myself, with a curiosity and inquisitive appetite to see inside other peoples homes.