Since re-opening to the public in 2007, after a major restoration intervention by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, Palazzo Falson has in addition to operating as a historic house museum regularly organized exhibitions dedicated to unusual and little-known aspects of the decorative arts. Previous Palazzo Falson exhibitions have focused on whistles, smoking pipes, scent bottles, the watercolours of Edward Lear, and antique watches.
This year sees Palazzo Falson’s latest offering in the form of an exhibition dedicated to the snuff box. The considerable collection of snuff boxes that Olof Frederick Gollcher (1889-1962), erstwhile owner of Palazzo Falson, amassed throughout his lifetime inspired the theme and a number of his snuff boxes are at the heart of this exhibition.
Snuff is made of dried tobacco leaves which are ground to powder and mixed with spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and inhaled through the nose. Snuff-taking commenced in the late 16th century, and was initially considered a great luxury. In order to hold such a precious powder, appropriate boxes had to be commissioned and this saw the emergence of the snuff box as a valuable container, made of precious metal and highly decorated as a visible accessory to complement the costume. As snuff boxes were mostly carried on the person they had to be portable and have tightly fitting lids which would not permit any of the powder to escape while protecting the snuff in an airtight container. Snuff boxes are in fact typically fitted with hinges to secure the lid to the body. Once the lid is snapped shut it will not open with the movement of the person carrying it.
In time the cultivation of tobacco became widespread and the habit of snuff-taking extended to all classes. Consequently, snuff boxes were made of cheaper material. The exhibition displays the various types, from the finest French gold boxes of the 18th century, to the functional boxes used in the early 20th century, when the habit of snuff-taking drew to an almost complete close. Due to their historic and artistic value, snuff boxes are now collected as precious objets d’art.
As is usual with Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti and Palazzo Falson exhibitions, private collections are mined for unusual and historic artefacts and these wonderful finds are brought out in public for the very first time thanks to these exhibitions. Many 18th and 19th century snuff boxes were found in several Maltese private and public collections. This made the research leading up to the exhibition exciting and the selection process for what would eventually be exhibited more challenging. The survival in such large quantities attests to the fact that the Maltese were enthusiastic snuff-takers – tobacco was in fact cultivated in Malta and was thus readily available. Moreover, a number of silver boxes were made in Malta during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular the oval shaped silver snuff box seems to have been a favoured shape in 18th century Malta as can be seen by surviving examples in the exhibition and in portraits of Maltese ladies holding the boxes. Though both men and women took snuff, curiously, we find snuff boxes featuring in more female than male portraits in Malta. This underlines the fact that snuff boxes were precious accessories which were made to be seen and to enhance the costume.
The more convenient cigarettes overtook the use of snuff during the course of the 20th century, and the days of snuff-taking are now well and truly over. The snuff box has consequently been shorn off any vestige of wearable accessory and has been relegated to display cases in dim dining rooms of careful collectors, never again to hold snuff, never again to be whisked out of the pocket in a graceful movement and held proudly in the hand as an expression of its owner’s good taste and refinement.