Palazzino Zarzana

Residential (Late 17th - early 18th century)
Palazzino Zarzana



This palazzino on the corner between Saint Paul Street and Saint Christopher Street today houses the Notarial Archives, an important repository of historical documents ranging from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century.The architecture of the Palazzino suggests a date from the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries. At the end of the eighteenth century, it belonged to the Bailiff Fra Giovanni Zarzana, a knight from the langue of Castile and Leon. Fra Giovanni Zarzana was the brother of the Grand Chancellor of the Order of St John, Fra Anacleto Zarzana, an office responsible for the keeping of the State’s archives. In a document dating to after the 1820s found at the Notarial Archives in Valletta, it is pointed out that the Bailiff Fra Giovanni Zarzana acquired this building from the Venerable Assembly of the Conventual Chaplains in about 1785. Its ownership belonged however to the Order itself and not to the Spanish family of Zarzana. Since 1789, these accounts list that the Zarzana owed to the Order’s treasury 10 tarì yearly probably as a kind of ‘fee’ for their use of the property. Denaro erroneously attributed the ownership of this property to Fra Anacleto Zarzana. The possession of this palazzino by the Spanish family of Zarzana is also known from the records of property assets of foreign families compiled by the French government. The accounts of the Common Treasury for the late eighteenth century listed this building under their other properties and noted that currently this building was held by the Zarzana family.

Several structural changes occurred in this building since its foundation in the late 16th century similar to other occasions of repeated reconstructions occurring in Valletta since at least the second half of the 17th century (Spiteri 2018, 83-107). These changes included: This building eventually comprised a number of separate properties – Nos. 21-26, 215, 216 – which are the result of segmentation of the edifice into separate spaces at different points in time. To this very day, this building includes five floor levels that include extensive underground spaces and mezzanines built throughout different phases.Level 2The adaptation of larger edifices into separate and confined properties continued into the British period as a standard practice in the case of holdings pertaining to the government (Spiteri 2019, 37-48). By the second half of the 19th century, it is recorded to have comprised three houses and four shops (botteghe). The Signori England, Naudi and Parnis are registered to have lived within these houses. It seems that the same persons also held the shops at ground level of this building. Of interest would be to know the occupations of England, Naudi and Parnis, especially if they were linked to the carpentry workshops that occupied St Christopher Street as colourfully painted in a 19th century lithograph attributed to Charles Frederich von Brocktorff.Prior 1861, the Zarzana palazzino was segregated into three separate properties (Based on a plan dated 1861 from the Office of the Chief Draughtsman, Project House Floriana, Pullicino 32). The first was a main house comprising the palazzino’s courtyard area at ground level, few rooms at mezzanine level including a closed timber balcony and the entire floor across the piano nobile with its large closed timber balcony at the building’s corner. The other two properties located at mezzanine level had closed timber balconies and their own direct access from the street. Their ground and cellar levels were often used for services, such as the kitchen at the basement level of mezzanine No. 21 which still has its own stone ovens (focolari) and cleaning basins (madia). Changes on the façade were created by the insertion of these new mezzanines. The 18th century style of the door to mezzanine No. 21 reflects other contemporary buildings as seen in the cabrei of the Order’s foundations, such as those of the Manoel Foundation (Spiteri 2019, 92). The door and stairs of the second mezzanine No. 26 occupied the space of a previous bottega resulting in a disruption of the façade’s original symmetrical composition characterized by four bottega doors. The architecture framing this mezzanine door is similar to that of the older botteghe found on the main façade of this palazzino rather than to that of the other mezzanine door (No. 21). It is clear that this mezzanine door was fitted in a later phase, as evidenced by the blocked parts of the older arched bottega-like opening to create a rectangular opening similar to door No. 21.Additionally, other alterations to this palazzino happened in the early twentieth century as recorded in other drawings (Office of the Chief Draughtsman, Project House Floriana, Roll 1F). It was altered to fit a number of different tenements, which as a result affected the palazzino’s older fabric as recorded in 20th century plans. These works included the building of another receded floor onto the piano nobile and the insertion of sanitary facilities bridging over the courtyard’s open space. Such structural changes were possibly linked to the use of the palazzino as a school during the Second World War.After the war, the spaces that once served to accommodate differently owned spaces were interlinked to serve the Notarial Archives. The stairs of the mezzanines are disused and most of the botteghe serve as storage for the numerous notarial deeds. Both street doors of the two mezzanines and those of the botteghe are today reminiscent of a dynamic past. Their spaces, historically inhabited by residents of different social status, witnessed the practice of specialized trades of which the still extant Darmanin gilder shop is a reminiscent example.

In 2019, this building underwent restoration by the Restoration Directorate and funded by the EU in relation to the rehabilitation of the Notarial Archives. These works include internal connections to link this edifice to an adjacent building in St Paul Street. Both buildings will form part of a state-of-the-art research and scientific centre of the Notarial Archives, as part of the EU funded rehabilitation works currently undergoing at the Notarial Archives.

The palazzino exhibits elements of 17th and 18th century architecture, and similar to other buildings erected during the Knights’ period, this building holds identical iconographies. Its plan is defined by a central doorway, which leads to a courtyard.On each side of the central doorways one notes at ground floor a number of botteghe (shops) that were accessed directly from the street. The stylistic elements of its main façade also suggest a date from the late 17th to the early 18th centuries. The elegantly and finely ornamented windows and doors, together with the segmental pediments that crown this architectural masterpiece, reflect coherent stylistic compositions typical of the 17th century (Cassar 2013, 6 quoting personal communication with Prof. Denis De Lucca, Prof. Keith Sciberras and Prof. Conrad Thake). This is seen in the peculiar ‘elephant earlobe decoration’ of this palazzino’s botteghe-like doors. Similar styles dating to the Knights’ period are used in the mouldings decorating the internal doors and windows, with two distinct types of mouldings noted within this palazzino. Several of these elements are indicative of different construction phases occurring through the Knights’ period.

  • Cassar, Glorianne, ‘The Notarial Archives Building in Valletta: Conditions assessment and conservation proposals’, B.E. & A. (Hons.) Dissertation, University of Malta 2013.
  • Denaro, Victor, ‘Still more houses in Valletta’, Melita Historica, 3, 3 (1962), 42-58.
  • Fiorini, Stanley, ‘Fel uardiae col sceber raba iesue vquiae: Sale of plots of land in Valletta, 1569’, in A Timeless Gentleman: Festschrift in honour of Maurice de Giorgio, Giovanni Bonello ed., Malta 2014, 259-270.
  • Romano, Michele, Siracusa e Malta: Frammenti di Architettura mediterranea, Syracuse 2000, 6.
  • Spiteri, Mevrick, ‘Reconstructing Urban Houses in Early Eighteenth Century Valletta: Some examples from the records of the Officio delle Case’, in Humillima Civitas Vallettae: From Mount Scebb-er-ras to European Capital of Culture, M. Abdilla Cunningham, M. Camilleri and G. Vella (eds.), Malta 2018, 83-107.
  • Spiteri, Mevrick, ‘The Economization of Built Property: Urban Houses of the Manoel Foundation in Eighteenth Century Valletta’, in The Military Orders Volume 7: Piety, Pugnacity and Property, Nicholas Morton, ed., Routledge 2019, 37-48.
  • Spiteri, Mevrick, ‘Antiquum Notariorum Archivium - Two historic palazzi in Valletta: an introductory note on their architecture and social development (16th - 20th century)’, Treasures of Malta, 25, 3 (2019), 48-55.