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Title: Eighteenth and nineteenth century silver from the Casa Rocca Piccola Collection, Valletta
Authors: Berenz, Sarah
Keywords: Casa Rocca Piccola (Valletta, Malta)
Historic buildings -- Malta -- Valletta
Issue Date: 2015
Abstract: On the initiative of the present owners, a historical house located at 74 Republic Street in Valletta was opened to the public in 1990 (Plate 1). The Palazzo itself dates back to the 1580s and has over fifty individual rooms. Christened ‘Casa Rocca Piccola’, the house was named after the property’s original owner, an Italian admiral of the Order of St John by the name Don Pietro la Rocca. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the palazzo was purchased by a Maltese nobleman and has since been under the ownership of the Maltese aristocracy. As the house has welcomed visitors for the past 25 years, Casa Rocca Piccola has become synonymous with Valletta’s artistic past. Within the walls of this home, the visitor finds an eclectic collection belonging to the noble de Piro family, including personal heirlooms, archival documentation, and an assemblage of different artistic artefacts. The overall collection is further enriched by the de Piro family’s personal and active interest in the history of these objects. The current owner of the house, 9th Baron of Budaq and Marquis Nicholas de Piro ((b.1941) (Plate 2), is ‘the first member of the Maltese aristocracy to open his house to the public’ in this manner. An acknowledged author on various themes including the fine and decorative arts, his publications such as Costume in Malta (1998; edited with Vicki Ann Cremona), The International Dictionary of Artists who Painted Malta (2002), and Quality of Malta (2003) have shed light on subjects which had been previously much neglected. It is through such active interest that the doors have been opened, albeit in relatively recent years, onto the study of domestic silver in Maltese collections. Casa Rocca Piccola was chosen as a case study for this essay both for its collection’s permanence and accessibility. That being said, it should be emphasised that the de Piro family’s silver holdings are but one of a handful of such collections on the Maltese Islands. Substantial collections of Maltese and other European silver can be found at Palazzo Falson in Mdina, Casa Bernard in Rabat, and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, to name a few additional locations. Ecclesiastical silver, another fascinating subject somewhat out of the scope of this study, can be found in the Cathedral Museum in Victoria (Gozo), the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, and in many of Malta’s splendid churches. A major collection of both domestic and ecclesiastical silver is also found at the Cathedral Museum in Mdina. Silver items which were deemed interesting due to their social or political subtexts, particular styles, or silversmiths have found a place in the pages of this paper. It must be stated that the selected silver is but a survey of the entire collection and anything outside of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is largely excluded, save for an occasional selection used for the sake of comparison. Thus, Casa Rocca Piccola and its silver collection are henceforth to be utilized for further emphasis on the tradition of silversmithing and silver collecting within the Maltese context, as well as in Britain and Continental Europe. Chapter 1 of this study will provide an introduction to the genesis of the silver collection at Casa Rocca Piccola. It will further explicate the duality of this silver’s place within a museum environment and, at the same time, within a private family home. The chapter will also include sections on the historical and present-day importance of silver within Malta, a synopsis of some European and Maltese protagonists of silver during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a brief overview of silver collecting in Malta. Chapter 2 will shed light upon the social and political history of Malta during these two centuries, as it directly affected the production of Maltese silver. Specific Maltese specimens from the Casa Rocca Piccola collection will be then be discussed within this environment. Chapter 3 will have a similar composition to that of Chapter 2, but will give a broader discourse on European socio-political history and decorative arts production during this same period. The specimens from the museum discussed in this chapter will be of British or Continental European extraction. Chapter 4 will better acquaint the reader with different European hallmarking systems, new modes of technology in metal, and stylistic variants in the decorative arts of the time. It must be habitually retained that the items explained are related and linked to one another by their home shared within this historical house museum. To re-establish this connection in each chapter will promote the reader’s overall comprehension of a truly unique and eclectic collection of domestic silver, one that has been collected over time by a noble Maltese family still in possession of the holdings today. In this way, one might come to terms with how silver has been and continues to be collected, preserved, maintained, presented, and studied in this very specific Maltese context. Gleaning through references of silver has been one of many delights in creating this thesis. Writings were occasionally found with ease, such as on the subjects of English and French silver. However, for the study of Maltese silver, a short, but critical, list of publications were essential to consult, beginning with Victor F. Denaro’s 1972 The Goldsmiths of Malta and Their Marks, a seminal work on the subject. Denaro’s research was followed by other important works such as Jimmy Farrugia’s Antique Maltese Domestic Silver (1992) and Antique Maltese Ecclesiastical Silver (2001), and Alaine Apap Bologna’s The Silver of Malta (1995). The latter publication accompanied Malta’s first ever exhibition on Maltese domestic silver organized by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti in 1995. Through this pivotal event, a marriage of in-depth research and physical silver specimens brought the subject into the public’s realm for a deeper consideration. Another publication from Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti that adds to the study of Maltese silver is Francesca Balzan’s Jewellery in Malta: Treasures from the Island of the Knights (1530-1798). Recently, information on the ecclesiastical decorative arts in Malta has been made available through the academic works of Dr. Mark Sagona, with special emphasis on the nineteenth century. His PhD work The Ecclesiastical Decorative Arts in Malta 1850-1900: Style and Ornament (2014) has been a rich resource for the writing of this paper. For the section of this study in which concerns foreign silver specimens within the Casa Rocca Piccola collection, much reference is made to the enormously valuable museums and cultural institutions around Europe and beyond. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris are just a few of the major sources referenced. Auction houses with their online databases to past and upcoming lots have also been advantageous in consultation. In particular, Sotheby’s and Christie’s databases have been useful. Equally interesting was the consideration of antique Maltese silver and its place in today’s art world and ever-expanding global market. The Victoria and Albert Museum houses some small Maltese silver items including buttons and jewellery. For example, at least a single brooch and a ring were purchased at the International Exhibition in London in 1872 by the South Kensington Museum (now Victoria and Albert Museum). These transactions were made to showcase in England as examples of traditional Maltese silver already in the nineteenth century.
Description: B.A.(HONS)HIST.OF ART
Appears in Collections:Dissertations - FacArtHa - 2015

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