The historic gardens of Villa Ciantar and Villa Frère, two oases in the Pietà urban sprawl, are facing a serious threat as plans are unveiled for a new 10-storey retirement home.

The 200-year-old Villa Ciantar (or Zamittello) garden would be demolished, according to the proposal by Land Gate Ltd, retaining only certain architectural features, while the adjoining government-owned Villa Frère would be “severely compromised” by the towering structure, according to heritage experts.

Villa Frère is renowned for its architectural and historical legacy, having served as a meeting place for some of the most important artists and thinkers in Malta in the 19th century.

The proposed building will tower over its surroundings. Photo: Facebook/Edward SaidThe proposed building will tower over its surroundings. Photo: Facebook/Edward Said

The extensive gardens, once internationally known, have fallen into disrepair, but painstaking restoration efforts have been carried out in recent years by the voluntary organisation Friends of Villa Frère, which plans to nominate the site for public domain status.

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“Though we are still examining the development proposal in detail, we are immediately very concerned about the extent of planned demolition of the site, which largely consists of an exquisite late-18th-century garden once belonging to Uditore Giuseppe Nicola Zamitt, [also known as] Zamittello, whose grand monument stands in the Upper Barracca Gardens,” architect Edward Said from Friends of Villa Frère told the Times of Malta.

“Such great loss together with the projected height of 30 metres (10 storeys) of the new retirement home structure will completely finish off this well-preserved remnant of the picturesque Pietà seafront and severely compromise the historic Villa Frère gardens, which are Grade II listed, boasting Grade I architectural finery.”

Mr Said added that the two gardens enjoyed a number of historic belvederes, which retained their original viewpoints towards Msida and Valletta.

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These views would be cut off by the “disproportionate height” of the new retirement home.

Furthermore both sets of gardens, which after more than 200 years of growth and maturity embrace one another, provide a last remaining ecological haven to numerous endemic species in this busy part of Malta.

“As many historians would agree, this is without exaggeration a unique site in Malta, which can be confidently defined as one of the cradles of our country’s national identity,” Dr Said said.

“That this therefore warrants the full protection and highly sensitive adaptive reuse of Villa Frère and its setting, together with the Zamittello garden, should be without question.”

The development plans, which include an underground multi-level car park and ancillary facilities, are still being assessed by the Planning Authority and are currently open to representations from the public.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has so far noted that the development is in “a large and complex property that includes a scheduled building and historic gardens”, but has requested further information before commenting on the proposal.

Villa Frère: Sir Walter Scott to Mikiel Anton Vassalli

Edward Said: “It was inside Villa Frère itself that the magnanimous John Hookham Frère [1769-1846] entertained throngs of famous personalities including artists, poets, men of letters, antiquarians and thinkers. Some were visitors to Malta – like Walter Scott, Gabriele Rossetti and John Davy – but many were Maltese, including Luigi Rigord, Serafino Marmarà, Saver Caruana, Vincent Borg Brared and Giorgio Grognet.

“It was however Frère’s close bond with Mikiel Anton Vassalli, with whom he strolled for days on end around the gardens planning how to give our beloved Maltese language the status it enjoys today, which is the culmination of possibly all of Pietà’s history. It has in fact been suggested that for a while Vassalli may have even resided at the villa as well as in a house (as yet unlocated) nearby.

“Many academics also flocked to Pietà to engage in stimulating conversations and consult Hookham Frère’s rich library, making it a satellite to the University of Malta. Occasionally, when the governor was abroad Frère was asked to act as de facto head of state, which duty he carried out from his Pietà home.

“Over time the gardens and their surroundings became a mecca for artists the likes of Edward Lear, Nicolas Krasnoff and the Caruana Dingli brothers.

“Pietà’s Villa Frère also acquired international acclaim, featuring in world-leading landscaping periodical Country Life Magazine in 1930. Between 1846 and 1924 the gardens were honoured with no less than three royal visits. During this period, Villa Frère served as the seat of the Malta Horticultural Society.

“In more recent times Maltese literature and history pioneers such as Dun Karm Sant, Ninu Cremona, Paul Cassar and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici pleaded passionately for its salvage.”

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