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Francis Sultana's palace in Malta perfectly balances classic with contemporary

The Property Addict / Architecture & Design

/ Malta

Mar 25 2018

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When the United Kingdom’s future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli visited Valletta, Malta’s capital (and one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture), in 1830, he described it as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen.” And it is one of these palaces that Francis Sultana bought 12 years ago to create his own Maltese sanctuary.

“From the moment my partner, David [Gill], and I saw the house, I knew exactly what had to be done, restored, replaced, and added,” says the London-based AD100 decorator. “The house hadn’t been lived in since World War II, when the city had been heavily bombed and most people left for the countryside. 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.”

Soon the designer started submitting planning applications (Valletta has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980), consulting with architects, and recruiting local artisans to help restore the palace to its former glory. But he worked in a few contemporary flourishes as well, such as an elevator and a lap pool in the basement.

A native of Gozo, one of the three islands that constitute the Maltese archipelago, he has a deep appreciation of the vernacular traditions. “When I was growing up, Valletta was like a ghost town—nobody wanted to live here. The houses have too many stairs, and the streets are too narrow,” he says with a smile. “But I was always fascinated by its limestone palaces with their wonderful façades and green balconies.”

So, with Venice and Hydra in mind, Sultana started to envision the house’s style. With low banquette seating in most rooms and a mix of high and low fabrics (lots of ikats and damasks), he introduced a dash of Orientalism into the Baroque setting. The couple’s wide-ranging art collection brings in the contemporary world.

The main entrance opens into the courtyard, with a newly designed marble floor, a solitary palm tree, and the original well (crowned, Sultana points out, with the family coat of arms of Francesco de Torres, the knight who built the palace). What were once ground-floor staff areas are now an Orientalist sitting room, with an inviting L-shaped sofa covered in a Dedar fabric, and a square pale-blue breakfast room. The latter—furnished with a round table, 19th-century Venetian chairs updated by Mattia Bonetti, and two Sultana-designed scagliola consoles—“epitomizes the style of the entire house,” says the designer. “A mix of antique, contemporary, new, and commissioned.”

At the rear of the courtyard, an elegant Maltese garigor staircase spirals up to the three guest suites. “These palaces were the most extraordinary bachelor pads, built for one knight and his staff—up to 22 in some cases!” Sultana explains. “This one even had a concubine room, totally hidden, with secret access to the knight’s bedroom and its own door to the streets.” (The concubine room is now the mezzanine-level guest suite.)

The main rooms, with windows overlooking the street, are reached by the grand staircase carved of local limestone, which Sultana has covered with a Madeleine Castaing tiger-print carpet. One flight up lies the airy library, often used as an office for meetings (Sultana serves as an adviser to the contemporary-art museum—scheduled to open in 2021—and was just named the country’s cultural ambassador). On top of the large bookcase stands a collection of colorful vases by Andrew Lord bought in New York for the house, and several Cocteau plates are displayed among the books (and throughout the house).

The third-floor landing, adorned with a giant wall piece of Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Paul McCarthy and a hanging light sculpture by Olafur Eliasson, opens to the main living room on the right and the dining room on the left. Once the banqueting salon, the living room is flooded with light from the traditional Maltese balconies that puncture the room’s 26-feet-high walls, and the original ceiling beams have been transformed into a site-specific installation by conceptual artist Daniel Buren. In the dining room, the carved limestone architrave (formerly the entrance to the knight’s bedroom) reminded Sultana of the city’s Co-Cathedral of St. John, so that historic space inspired its decor, especially the dark-blue walls embellished with gilded Maltese crosses and towers.

The staircase swirls up one more floor, around a neon-light installation by Jason Rhoades, leading to Sultana and Gill’s private quarters. A sleek, all-white space, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the house, a minimalist sanctuary perfectly suiting a new generation of Maltese gentlemen.

SOURCE: Architectural Digest


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