Built around 1580 during the construction of Valletta, the palazzo became the residence of the Knights of the Langue D’Italie in c. 1633. In 1805, it passed on to the family of the present owner, Count Alfred Manduca. Fast forward some eight generations, the impressive building was inherited by Count Manduca’s father, and eventually passed on to his brother and himself, although at this stage, it was rather the worse for wear. “When my father inherited it, the house hadn’t been lived in since the 1950s, and all the entrances were rented out and utilised as shops. This included the main entrance, which meant that we didn’t have direct access to the upper floors, so it became neglected and deteriorated to a dilapidated state,” he explains.
But it wasn’t until two decades later that they could do anything about it, says the Count. “To cut a long story short, some 22 years after my brother and I inherited it, we finally managed to start evicting the shop owners, and it was only then that I could start developing some idea of what we could do with the place,” he maintains, revealing that his original permits were for – believe it or not – a shopping arcade and offices. Eventually, the strong-willed owner decided to “bite the bullet”, as he calls it, and bought out the tenancy from the last tenant, which occupied the main entrance, changing his plans for the palazzo considerably from shopping mall to a luxury accommodation.
Count Manduca was passionate about restoring the building back to its former glory and bringing out its soul once again. “In these two rooms,” he explains, motioning around us – we are sitting in the fantastic Sala Del Conte, which lies alongside the Sala Nobile – “this ceiling was falling down, most of it was on the ground.” The coat of arms which now proudly adorns the ceiling of this room, he continues, was half visible, and the silk damask covering the walls was rotten. In the adjoining Sala Nobile, where the hotel’s guests now take their breakfast, the frescoes from the curtain pelmets upwards didn’t exist, and the ceiling was collapsing.
“These two rooms alone were a two-year job, with two people working on them non-stop to restore every nook and cranny. This included the coffered ceiling in the Sala Nobile, as well as the frescos, which were painted over, and the ceiling of the Sala Del Conte. The ceiling in this room is a replica of what there was originally – other than the frame in the middle featuring the coat of arms of the five families that owned the place over the generations – which is the restored original.” The central coat of arms, he explains, “is my personal coat of arms as the Count of Mont’Alto which is my title, and the surname is related to Manduca Piscopo Macedonia Zamit.”
Enjoying lively past lives as a sitting room and elegant ballroom, these rooms are rife with history, and Count Manduca was adamant in keeping true to their original style. The rest of the building, sadly, was in such a dilapidated state that it needed to be rebuilt, starting from scratch. With permits for a shopping centre still in hand, the ceilings were replaced with concrete slabs as opposed to traditional beams, which, in hindsight, worked in their favour – providing more open space and better areas to maximise as guest rooms. The hotel concept came about after works had actually started. “I saw so much potential in the rest of the building that we changed the concept into a hotel,” says Count Manduca.
The plans were to shift considerably throughout the process, he maintains, and at one point, they even considered converting the luxurious Sala Nobile and Sala Del Conte into suites for guests. Eventually, after gaining permits from MEPA to add another three rooms at roof level, they were able to utilise the fantastic spaces as common areas. “Although they would have been exceptional suites, it would have been a great pity to use them as bedrooms,” he attests.
Describing the guest rooms, Count Manduca explains that the 21 rooms include five suites which are named after the five families that lived here, each featuring the coat of arms of the respective family. The rooms here either overlook South Street and the open-air theatre, Republic Street, or the central courtyard lobby lounge, which has been given a retractable glass roof.
Each room is different, and the design of the furniture, as well as the beautifully hand-painted details on the doors and wardrobes, are very in keeping with the early-19th century baroque designs favoured by the family generations ago.
“We wanted to bring back everything that was here and maximise the history of the place,” he maintains. And they certainly did, though not without luxurious modern comforts like underfloor heating! Still, getting there was far from straightforward, he reveals. Apart from the challenge of working in Valletta, with works only permitted to take place between 7pm and 11pm in the evening – a factor which understandably slowed down the process and increased the cost – finding the right team to carry out his vision proved difficult.
Eventually, it fell to the Italian restorers who were working on the aforementioned Sala Del Conte and Sala Nobile. “I really needed someone who could understand the history of the place, and to begin with, sadly, they still didn’t get it right,” he confides, adding that he was about to draw the line when they invited him to visit a factory in Italy, where they would eventually manufacture the furniture. “When I got there, I knew that they had finally got it – and the understanding was there.”
The design team was thus headed by this Italian company, with the help of a Maltese project manager who could understand the local context. “My wife was also instrumental in helping me figure out what I wanted,” he adds with a twinkle, going on to describe the style achieved as classic, and “very much the style of the building itself.”
As for defining features, he points to the two amazing knockers that adorn the front door as particularly noteworthy. “They’re very intricate, depicting two coats of arms with two ladies supported by two lions. That alone is already part of the story – the main door is the original main door which I found in storage – it hadn’t been here for 60 years, and we managed to restore it,” he explains, adding that the beautiful statues in the main area and the grand courtyard are also characteristic. Apart from that, the Sala Del Conte and Sala Nobile “make the building”, and the terrace is also a major plus – “we’re right in the centre of the entrance to Valletta, with the backdrop of the Triton Fountain.”
As the hotel continues to cement itself as the city’s number one reviewed accommodation, Count Manduca reveals that a restaurant with a separate entrance is next on the agenda, and will open its doors soon, as well as future plans for an underground spa with a gym and swimming pool which will be built within the well and which he reveals has “wonderful vaulted ceilings”.
And while the restoration and transformation of Domus Zamittello was a lengthy and at times trying one, the beauty of the building today is testament to a job well done. “There were times when I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘you’re mad’, because there were so many obstacles and it was such a nightmare at times, but today we’re very proud of what we achieved,” Count Manduca says. “Will I do it again? I doubt it!” he chuckles good-naturedly, though between you and me, I don’t quite believe him.
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier