While in Malta, I visited the old capital, Mdina – a gem of a small walled town, all honey-coloured stone palaces and alleys. One of those palaces happens to be Palazzo Falson, or the Norman House, as its last owner, Captain Olof Gollcher liked to call it.
The place is a wonder, a 13th century residence housing the good Captain’s very diverse collections – paintings, carpets, glassware, weapons, jewelry, books and manuscripts, kitchen utensils and whatnot… The many rooms are still fully furnished, and feel busy and alive with Gollcher’s spirit – a lively, curious, eclectic spirit. A soldier, an artist, a knight of St. John, a collector and an archeologist, there seem to have been no bounds to his interests, and from the portraits hanging from the walls, as well as from the house itself, Gollcher comes across as a very pleasant person, with a keen mind and quite an imagination.
That the Captain was a man of imagination struck me particularly as we admired the internal yard, a lovely space that Gollcher himself reshaped quite consistently in the late Thirties. The yard itself had been there from the very beginning, of course – but the Captain had an external staircase added in the Siculo-Renaissance style, and a Byzantine-Romanesque sort of turret, complete with a stone bench. And then, because no such place is complete without a water feature, he added a Siculo-Normanish fountain.
And do tell me: doesn’t this list put you in mind of things like opera librettos, silent films, and Pre-Raphaelite paintings? Of a certain way to reimagine and romanticize history? I can’t help seeing Captain Gollcher planning his additions with an eye to a time when Frederick and Manfred’s Sicily was a cultural hub, where music, poetry, statecraft, falconry, art, law and medicine were pursued with equal enthusiasm and curiosity.
To his courtyard he added features that weren’t original but might have been – very much the rationale of historical fiction, come to think of it – as if to make history something that could not only be studied, researched, and collected, but recreated and inhabited. Perhaps in better colours, in an architectural equivalent of, say, an opera libretto – but still.
And yes, I know – I’m very likely being fanciful about this, but I like to imagine Captain Gollcher, sitting in the shadow of his Byzantine-Romanesque turret, with a few cushions, a book and maybe a glass of almond milk, as he reads and studies – and,now and then,stops to daydream about his luminous Mediterranean Middle Ages.