The recently restored Royal Gazebo of Villa Frere gardens in Pietà acted as an iconic background to the signing of a partnership and management agreement between Heritage Malta and NGO Friends of Villa Frere for the promotion, public availability, and the running and operation of the historical site. Such an agreement was the first of its sort, however Heritage Malta looks forward to a series of similar collaborations.

Mario Cutajar, Executive Director for Heritage Malta, emphasized the importance of such agreements taking place between the Government Agency Heritage Malta and other NGOs for the protection and promotion of local cultural heritage. He said that it is essential for Heritage Malta not only to act as an operator for our cultural heritage but also to take the role of a mentor for other entities which work in this sector. This agreement is a good example of this novel approach.

Noel Zammit, Acting CEO for Heritage Malta, welcomed this distinct co-operation wherein the Agency, which has the title for Villa Frere gardens, is agreeing with NGO Friends of Villa Frere to ensure the proper upkeep, maintenance and accessibility of the site. He explained that such collaborations are gladly received since it is not possible for Heritage Malta to run all the Islands’ cultural heritage sites by itself.

Architect Edward Said, who specializes in building conservation, is the founder of this NGO Friends of Villa Frere, which was set up in 2013. He was introduced to the historical villa’s upper gardens during his architectural studies, when the site was in a state of complete abandonment. Deeply captivated by the beauty of the place and intrigued by its history, he felt compelled to act and to increase awareness, saving it from utter destruction.

It was the British diplomat, poet, scholar and philanthropist John Hookham Frere who created the 12-acre estate, which comprised the construction of a series of architectural follies including a fine Doric tempietto. The demise of his wife in 1831 affected him strongly and the creation of this garden was a means of comfort for his sadness. From this garden which enjoyed wide open views spanning from Mdina right across to Valletta, he could also look out at the Msida Bastion Cemetery, where his wife reposed. Villa Frere became a sanctuary for numerous academics, poets and authors, most famously Mikiel Anton Vassalli who reportedly spent ample time in Pieta’ discussing with Hookham Frere on how to establish Maltese as a written and taught language. 

This romantic story and Villa Frere’s garden faded away with Hookham Frere’s death in 1846. The site fell into neglect until forty years later, when the villa became the residence of Captain Edward Price. A notable garden enthusiast, he gave life back to the property, introducing a selection of exotic plants from around the world and creating different planting sections. Earning it the title of a botanic garden, the place became a prominent attraction, both to locals and foreigners. Renowned artists, painters, scholars and even three monarchs have walked inside these lush grounds. In 1930, the gardens were featured in Country Life Magazine, a world-leading landscaping periodical, and attained international fame.

During the Second World War, Villa Frere sustained only minor bomb damage, however in the years afterwards, the construction of a primary school, a nursing school, a helipad for St Luke’s hospital, and a parking area, ate away at the once sprawling grounds. Today, just over a third of the original area survives (including the house), yet their mystique is still there. NGO Friends of Villa Frere has been working hard to protect what remains and to restore the gardens with life once again.

While architect Edward Said is dedicating himself to the restoration of the structures in the gardens, his colleague Fernando Mifsud, a landscaper and garden designer, is focusing on the regeneration of the gardens. A number of volunteers give them a hand in the vast work involved, while a variety of private, corporate and government entities help them out by sponsoring some of the material or services required. This collaboration with Heritage Malta is regarded as a further positive step towards the safeguarding, conservation, and restoration of the historic Villa Frere and its context.

Each first Saturday morning of the month, the gardens of Villa Frere are open to the public. Entrance is free.

More information about NGO Friends of Villa Frere is available on Facebook

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