Walking through Valletta, it’s inevitable that one finds oneself fantasising about the treasures and stories behind the many coloured timber doors of the Baroque city’s honey-coloured architecture. Aside from the public buildings or boutique hotels, one is rarely afforded the chance of peeking inside these late 16th or 17th century palazzi and townhouses. But on the rare occasion that one does see what lies inside, the contents of the space and the sheer size and volume are often beyond one’s wildest imagination.
This is very much the case with the home of designer Francis Sultana, and his partner, gallerist David Gill. Tucked away on one of the narrower roads of Valletta, the neutral-coloured front door belies the grandiose and complex space within, where the original 16th century architecture has been made even more magnificent by the lavish, colour-rich design that seamlessly flows from Oriental to Mediterranean, to contemporary Baroque, all the while recalling sumptuous Venetian interiors; and within these highly curated spaces, a mouth-watering art collection that includes pieces by some of world’s most exciting artists.
One of the world’s foremost designers, Francis grew up on Gozo, leaving for London when he was 19. His links with Malta, however, remained strong, and for many years he returned regularly to his childhood home to visit his mother. When she passed away, he realised he needed to create his own reason to stay in touch with the land of his birth. Today, although London-based, he is Cultural Ambassador for Malta and sits on the board of the Malta International Contemporary Art Space, a new museum set to open in 2021.
He and David bought this palazzo, originally the residence of the Knight, Francesco de Torres – bailiff of the Auberge de Castille – some 12 years ago, and the last six years have been dedicated to its complete renovation. ‘From the moment David and I saw the house, I knew exactly what had to be done, restored, replaced and added,’ says Francis. ‘As it had not been lived in since the end of the Second World War, it had retained some of its original Baroque details, and I was struck by the presence of a courtyard, a rare thing in a fortified city where land was always at a premium. I wanted to renovate it in a way that did not remove its original character. Yet it had to work as a house, today.’
The large internal courtyard can be seen as one enters and is dominated by an imposing 70-year old Brazilian palm tree. Almost statuesque, it reaches the mezzanine, where it tickles the ironwork of the internal balcony. Surrounding it are several rooms and doorways; wanting to be able to enjoy the yard throughout the seasons, Francis added a second, glass door to the original solid apertures – an antiporta – which allows light to seep into an otherwise dark entrance.
Towards the rear end of the courtyard, there is also a perfectly camouflaged elevator alongside a traditional spiral staircase which leads onto the mezzanine where the former concubine quarters were located and which have now been transformed into an all-inclusive guest suites. ‘All the internal doors and apertures are new; and all the joinery, including the cabinets in the kitchen and pantry, follow the design of a single, small mirrored door, located on the concubine’s floor,’ says Francis.
One of the ‘yard doors’ also leads to an ample basement, where Francis has managed to deftly install an indoor pool for use during the winter months. ‘A bit of madness to have a pool in the basement,’ he quips. Originally a stable – still detectable from the ramp cum staircase – save for the two rows of coloured masks by Djordje Ozbolt, the space has been left relatively bare. In addition to the stable and the concubine quarters, the house also incorporated a granary which was discovered during the renovation works.
The palazzo almost deserves to be appreciated for the apertures alone, of which there are hundreds. The many doors, windows and entryways are all linked chromatically and the choice of colour – a unique shade of dusty green, mixed by Francis himself – imparts a certain calmness, and harmonises all the distinct elements at play, as well as perfectly melding with the colour of the limestone.
Although clearly a functional, lived in home, the many cutting-edge design and contemporary art pieces are reminiscent of a vibrant gallery space. This is especially true of the in between spaces, such as landings and walk-throughs. On the second floor, the landing leading to the grand salon and dining room features a giant art piece by Paul McCarthy, a pendant light piece by Olafur Eliasson and a tall vertical sculpture by Eva Rothschild; whilst a whimsical text-based, neon installation by Jason Rhoades hangs against stark white-washed walls, dominating and climbing the height of the secondary internal staircase leading to the couple’s private sleeping quarters.
Despite the renovation and the alterations, Francis believes the house ‘still feels very Maltese. Too many people try modernising houses in Malta in a way which simply doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘I truly wanted to create a historical interior; one that breathes.’