Argotti Botanic Garden
Argotti Botanical Gardens, endearingly known as il-Gotti, is the legacy of Fra Martino de Sarria Navarro, Don Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca and Bailiff Ignatius de Argote de Guzman.
The Knights of the Hospitaller and Military Order of St John first attempted to set up a medical garden in the fortress of St Elmo in Valletta as far back as 1647. Giuseppe Zammit, a priest physician and chaplain of the Order and a teacher of medical sciences, forked out money to nurse a botanical garden. He grew medicinal plants in stone containers with which he hoped to further the knowledge of his students.
When in 1676, Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner funded the lectureship of anatomy and surgery in the Order’s infirmary (now the Mediterranean Conference Centre) the first appointment was that of Zammit. In 1800, the garden was transferred to Floriana, partly to the Sarria Garden and partly to the Mall Garden.
Malta’s British rulers developed the idea of a botanical garden. In 1805, Alexander Ball, the first British commissioner in Malta, appointed a Carmelite monk, Carolus Hyacinthus, as professor of natural history, and the garden fell under the University of Malta’s jurisdiction. He chose the Maglio as the University’s new botanical garden. However, in 1855, S. Zerafa amalgamated and transferred the botanical gardens of the Maglio to the garden of Villa Sarria and then moved both to the Argotti Garden.
The origin of Villa Sarria dates back to 1585 when Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle was Grand Master (1582-1595). The limits of the villa encompassed all the space now bordered by St Publius Street, St Thomas Street and Fosse Street, now called E.S. Tonna Square. No building cluttered the esplanade except for the extensive Villa Sarria.
Eventually the villa was pulled down to make way for the building of Sarria church and Floriana primary school. A huge block of social housing opposite the Boy Scouts Headquarters was several storeys high. Incidentally, I was born in 1930 in one of these residences. Besides this construction, the building of residential homes extended to St Publius Street. These buildings practically eliminated Sarria Garden.
The gardens of Villa Sarria used to be a treasure. It existed on the Floriana promontory before the birth of the city itself. Up to 1761 the Floriana fortifications were still in the process of being built. The garden area was an ideal place to relax. Garden fountains enhanced the beauty of Villa Sarria. It offered a restful pleasure for the many knights who temporarily lived in it for periods of time. Trouble brewed for a while when some knights wanted to make it their permanent residence.
The villa that Argote built in 1741 had been partly destroyed but the section that is still standing has been rehabilitated. The section that previously housed the stables is newly constructed to house the offices of the administration.
A small horticultural museum contains artifacts consisting of route maps, plant pressing equipment and seed collection. They have been salvaged from the rigors of time and war. Another spacious room is reserved for talks and lectures for students attending the medical course at University.
Naturalists, botanists and medical doctors doing research work consider the Argotti a treasure throve. The cellar is being cleaned to be set up as a visitors’ centre. Many extant stuffed animals are still being doctored to save them from being lost. Many now embellish the Natural History Museum in Mdina.