Palazzo Vilhena - Photo by Mark Spiteri

Palazzo Vilhena

The site of the Magisterial Palace has been occupied since prehistoric times when a bronze-age settlement existed here. In the 6th century BC the site formed part of a large walled Carthaginian town which was Romanized and known as Melite after 218BC. A Byzantine military establishment or Kastron, a Muslim fort and a Sicilian Chiaramonte castle existed here in Medieval times, with their ruins being converted to an elaborate crooked entrance designed to impede the entry of enemies into the old capital. Grand Master Villiers de L’Isle Adam had also built a small palace here soon after the arrival of the Knights in Malta in 1530, however it remained very incomplete.

The Magisterial Palace at Mdina, is more commonly known as Palazzo Vilhena after Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) who commissioned its building as part of his plan to restructure Medieval Mdina, ravaged by 1693 earthquake, rebuilding much of the Medieval former capital in the image of the Knights of St John who ruled the island at the time. The original building had served as the seat of the Universita', or local Government. In the early 18th century, a new entrance to the city was constructed and the adjacent Magisterial Palace of Justice built just within the medieval walled city of Mdina at personal expense of the Portuguese Grand Master de Vilhena represents one of the most important and unique Baroque buildings in Malta. A bronze bust of the Grandmaster of the Order sits proudly above the main door and Vilhena's coat-of-arms are sculptured on the main gateway and inside the portico. 

The Palace was designed in 1725 by the Parisian military engineer Charles Francois de Guion de Mondion who had been trained by the great Vauban and who had first came to Malta in 1715 as deputy head of a French military mission sent out by King Louis XIV to help the Knights upgrade their fortifications. Mondion’s plan of the palace is based on an outer forecourt, which replaced the Mediaeval crooked entrance to the town, and an inner courtyard, which was inspired by the presence on the same site of an older courtyard forming part of the residence built by L’Isle Adam. Mondion’s design for the palace’s street facade based on a wall interrupted by an impressive portal and giant pilasters was inspired by late seventeenth century French palace architecture designed in the classical style of  Versailles. The elliptical (flattened) arches that surround the courtyard on the two upper floors give the building a dramatic and theatrical quality, making this superb example of Baroque architecture, similar to other buildings designed by de Mondion in Malta such as Fort Manoel, the Calcara magazines and the Manoel theatre. Mondion’s main problem was the sandwiched deep foundations of these earlier buildings, remains of which can still be seen in the palace courtyard, and weak bedrock which had repeatedly caused damage to the Mediaeval fortifications and continues to do so to this day.
 
Vilhena Palace also once housed the Mdina law courts, which explains why a number of cells can still be found inside. The palace’s side façade, facing Xara Palace, is decorated with a statue portraying ‘Justice’ which was not blindfolded, to give the message that justice is all-seeing and all-knowing.  

During a cholera outbreak in 1837 the palace was turned into a temporary hospital and later used as a sanatorium for British troops. It was still being used as a tuberculosis hospital in the early 20th century. The palace suffered serious bomb damage during WWII and so even though it had been intended to be used as a museum as early as the 1960s, it only opened as a National Museum of Natural History in 1973.
 
Vilhena Palace is now contains several historically important collections, including more than 10,000 rock and mineral samples, 200 mammals and 200 fish species, 3,500 birds, birds’ eggs and nests, as well as thousands of local and exotic shells and insects and a very impressive fossil collection.


The facade of what once was the Magisterial Palace of Justice also known as the Corte Capitanale or Mdina Law Courts
The facade of what once was the Magisterial Palace of Justice also known as the Corte Capitanale or Mdina Law Courts
Today houses the Mdina Local Council. Photo by Mark Spiteri
The decorations of the main gateway and the main door
The decorations of the main gateway and the main door
A bronze bust of  Grand Master de Vilhena stand on the main door while Vilhena's coat-of-arms are sculptured both on the main gateway and inside the portico.
The elliptical (flattened) arches that surround the courtyard
The elliptical (flattened) arches that surround the courtyard
The inner courtyard
The inner courtyard
The Facade of the Vilhena Palace
The Facade of the Vilhena Palace
Once also known as the Magestrial Palace of Justice and today it houses the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mark Spiteri

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