The Inquisitor’s Palace is located in Citta’ Vittoriosa or Birgu, one of Malta’s medieval fortified cities, to be found on the South side of the Grand Harbour in the South Eastern region of Malta. Birgu is a very old locality and has a long history associated with maritime, mercantile, and military activities. In fact, it served as a base for the Order of the Knights of Saint John, prior to the building of the capital city of Valletta, that is, from 1530 to 1571.
The Inquisitor’s Palace itself is to be found in the heart of Vittoriosa. Also known as the ‘Sacred Palace’, although this building was originally constructed as a court house known as the Castellania, it later became the seat of the Maltese inquisition from 1574 to 1798, and it was at that time that it held the name of ‘Palazzo del Sant’ Officio’.
Built in the 1530s, this Palace’s design is attributed either to the architect Diego Perez de Malfreire or Nicolò Flavari. Later it served as both the headquarters of the Inquisition, first under Inquisitor Pietro Dusina, and later under many more Italian Inquisitors, as well as housing the tribunal and prisons. During the next two centuries, the relevant inquisitors who lived and worked in this Palace made a number of alterations to the building, which was gradually transformed into a typical Roman Palazzo with Baroque influences.
In 1693, during a major earthquake in Sicily, the reverberations caused the Inquisitor’s Palace to be damaged. The upper floor had to be rebuilt, as well as alterations being made to parts of the interiors and the main staircase.
The inquisition was on the island for over 200 years, often acting as a mediator between Bishops and Knights, until Napoleon’s arrival on the island ended the Order’s reign in 1798. During the French occupation in fact, the inquisition was abolished, and the building was instead used as the French headquarters within the Cottonera district. Later on, Malta was taken over by the British, and the Palace was once again passed on to the relevant military authorities, which first used it to house a military hospital, and later a mess-hall for officers stationed nearby.
In 1926, the Inquisitor’s Palace was taken over by the Museums Department, which restored it extensively. Later, after the Second World War, it was converted to a temporary Dominican Convent for some years, but was then once again taken under the responsibility of the Museums Department. It was restored once more, and opened to the public as a museum for the first time in 1966. Apart from housing exhibits relating to the inquisition, the museum also includes some models of destroyed landmarks, as well as Heritage Malta’s ethnography section, which focuses on religious beliefs in Maltese culture.
Today, the Inquisitor’s Palace is only one of a few such surviving Palaces of its kind in the world and the only one accessible to the general public. It offers a unique experience including historic reconstructions of the domestic kitchen area, the sophisticated ambience of the piano nobile and private quarters, the prison complex and the torture chamber. One must also be sure not to miss the ‘Camera Segreta’ (tribunal room) where Caravaggio was called as a witness in the case against a Greek painter accused of bigamy, the peaceful garden at the centre of the palace, and the dark and poignant prison cells bearing the original graffiti of their former occupants.
The Inquisitor’s Palace is located only 200 metres away from the ferry terminal in Birgu, just down the road from Annunciation Church.
On March the 31st, which will be a Public Holiday, the Inquisitor’s Palace will be hosting an ‘Open Day’, that is, be available to the general public on free admission. Guided tours will be taking place at 10.00am and 14.00 and opening hours are from 9.00am to 17.00. For more information, please visit http://heritagemalta.org/museums-sites/the-inquisitors-palace/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/184182128978431/