The Inquisitor’s Palace, sited in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving examples of a style of palace that would have been found all over Europe and South America in the early modern period. Many such buildings succumbed to the ravages of time or became victims of the reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution against the ancien regime and all it represented. The fact that Malta’s palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main ruling powers on the Island helped ensure its survival.
The palace also survived the Second World War and the threat of modern development. Although its successive occupants changed much in the structure of the building, the Inquisitor’s Palace remains an architectural gem, representative of the chequered history and European heritage of the Islands.
The palace was not built purposely as a residence for the Inquisitor. It was erected in the 1530s as the civil law courts of the Order of St John soon after the Knights arrived in Malta. It continued to serve as law courts until 1571, when the Order transferred its headquarters to Valletta after the siege of 1565.
The palace then remained empty, but not for long. Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion. They all shared the same cultural values of clerical baroque Roman society, and by the mid-18th century they had managed successfully to transform the building into a typical Roman palace.
The Inquisitor’s Palace is now home to the museum of Ethnography. It focuses on the popular devotions and religious values latent in Maltese ethnic identity and culture up to the present day. The palace was the ideal place to emphasise such a concept since the raison d’être of the Inquisition was to model popular devotions and religious culture and make them conform to the official doctrines sanctioned by the Church and imposed by the Council of Trent (1545-63). The Council dictates moulded Catholic faith and practice until the mid-20th century and influenced all major Catholic ceremonies, including the most important - rites of passage of birth, marriage and death.
Today, the Inquisitor’s Palace is being given a new lease of life. Careful historical reconstruction of the palace is under way based on extensive research of documents in the Inquisition archives in Malta and at the Vatican. In addition to the display areas in the tribunal room, the prison complex, and the kitchen which are already restored, there is a permanent exhibition on the impact of the Inquisition on Maltese society. The exhibition studies themes such as the Eucharist, the Holy Family confession, preaching, and the cult of saints.