The small town of Attard in Malta has a beautiful garden filled with exotic trees, old pathways, and romantic fountains. Home to proud peacocks, a few chickens, lots of pigeons, several turtles, some cats, and two swans – one black, one white – the garden belongs to a palace of the same name. The name contains the irony of its story.
The palace with its garden was built in the 17th century for the private use of Antoine de Paule, who would become one of the grand masters of the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Saint John, also known as the Order of Malta). The small island in the middle of the Meditteranean was under the rule of this order for more than 260 years, between the 16th and 18th centuries.
The irony of its name comes from the character of the man for whom it was built. De Paule named his palace and gardens San Anton after his patron saint – Anthony of Padua (in Italian: Antonio di Padova). While the 13th-century saint was known for his “undying love and devotion to the poor and the sick”, historical evidence suggests that De Paule was devoted to a different lifestyle.
His knights claimed he was corrupt and had bribed his way to the post of the Grand Master. Later, Pope Alexander VII wrote that even during his last days, De Paul did not alter his “irreverence, his sensuality, his duplicity, his selling of favours, his twisting of justice after his own fashion” (from Joseph Attard’s book The Knights of Malta). San Anton palace and garden are said to testify to their founder’s vanity. And yet, they transcend him, too.
The palace housed many rulers of Malta, and today it remains the residence of the President of Malta. San Anton garden has served as a green oasis for many guests, travellers, and residents. Some of the happiest childhood memories of an 11-years young girl live in this garden. Writing much later in a book about her life (The Story of My life, 1934), Princess Marie, later Queen of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, remembers her first mornings at the palace and the garden:
San Anton is a garden open to the public today. Every day, people from all walks of life add something of their own to its ongoing story. A story that contains all its visitors and is bigger than each of them. It is a place whose story began with an irony of a name some 400 years ago and turned into a fantasy fairyland in the heart of a young princess several centuries later.
If we influence our surroundings by giving them meaning, they shape us, too. What for us remains just one story – that of our life – flows into a sea of stories that forms a place beyond any individual stream and, nonetheless, contains all of them. If we wish, we can dip our feet in the streams of fellow human beings and let the same place influence us in a new way. Could this be the fairyland the young princess saw?