San Anton and its Gardens owe their origin and early development to the Knight Fra Antoine de Paule, a Frenchman from Provence, who was elected Grand Master of the Order of St. John in 1623. His detractors accused him of debauched habits and contested his election as contrived and simoniac. These charges, however, had little effect in Rome. In fact, Pope Urban VIII, in a brief dated 14 March, 1626, praised his piety and prudence. His Holiness also conferred on him the title of "Eminenza" thus placing him on an equal footing with the Cardinals and the other Ecclesiastical Electors of the Empire. On the base of de Paule's mausoleum in St. John's Co-Cathedral, a Latin inscription describes him as a "Prince very dear and liberal who, when alive, was dearly loved for his qualities and, after death, was no less revered".
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that de Paule's lifestyle was lavish. While still a Knight of the Order, he had acquired a large plot of land near the village of Attard on which he built a country villa. This locality was nearer Valletta than Verdala Palace and therefore made it easier for his many friends to join him when he could get away from official duties.
The villa was planned on generous proportions so as to provide accommodation for a number of guests, apart from the domestic staff which included cooks, pantry-boys, food tasters, torch bearers, wig makers, a winder of clocks, doctors, as well as a baker engaged especially to bake black bread for the hunting dogs! Yet de Paule, after his election as Grand Master, decided to forgo the construction of a trireme galley in favour of enlarging the villa into a Palace which he named ‘San Anton’ after his patron saint, St Anthony of Padua.
A conspicuous feature of the additional works was the tower which commanded a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. Its square shape was attenuated by a cornice, a parapet of balustrades and a carved gargoyle at each corner. The two top floors were dismantled after they had been severely damaged by lightning.
Successive Grand Masters continued to use this Palace as their country-residence. Grand Master de Rohan, on the 12th September 1776, on the first anniversary of his election, dispensed with the usual ceremony of kissing-hands and gave instead a large dinner party, at which the guests were also entertained to jousts and a performance by a French Comedy Company.
During the turbulent days of the Maltese uprising against the French, San Anton Palace became the seat of the National Assembly from February 1799 to the capitulation of Valletta by the French in September 1800. Captain (later Sir) Alexander Ball resided at the Palace, first as Chief of the Maltese Congress and subsequently as Chief Commissioner. During the latter period, he built the loggias round the Drawing Room and an impressive balustrade-walk round the outer courtyard. The Palace charmed Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Alexander’s Private Secretary at the time, so much so that he wrote: "I live when in the country, which I am nine days out of ten, at the Palace of San Antonio. If living in lofty and splendid rooms be a pleasure, I have it".
Thereafter the Palace was used as the residence of the Governor and of the Governor-General of Malta during the British period. Since 1974 it became the Official residence of the President of Malta.
Worthy of note is the private chapel, dating back to de Paule. It is dedicated to the Madonna del Pilar and its vault is decorated with the coats-of-arms of Grandmasters Antoine Manoel de Vilhena, Manoel Pinto de Fonseca and Emanuel de Rohan-Polduc. Stylistically, the chapel is similar to the contemporary churches of the first half of the 17th century to be found in towns and villages. It consists of a rectangular barrel-vaulted nave with arched ribs which divide the ceiling into six bays. The altar is set in a deep chancel separated from the nave by two pilasters which carry the last arched rib of the vault.
A large part of the original gardens, designed on a symmetrical plan, was opened to the public in the 19th century. Large parts of the gardens consist of orange groves. At the time of Grandmaster Antoine de Paule, these oranges were sent with his compliments to those he desired to honour or propitiate, in addition to the more conventional presentation of diamond crosses.
Over the years the Palace has been through various structural changes. The visible modifications, the furnishings and even the paintings provide us with an interesting insight into the tastes and exigencies of the dignitaries and their families who have resided in the Palace. History has changed the country Villa into an intriguing Palace with the different characteristics one can admire today.
The most relevant embellishments have been those initiated by the Presidents who have not only upgraded the amenities at the Palace but also restored most of the building and its adjoining gardens to their former glory.
Lately, in 2006, the large space taken up by the pantry was turned into a grand Dining Room. Though a banqueting hall already existed it was surprisingly smaller than the pantry. Although it contained a large table, the dining room was also used as a reception hall. It was thus decided to move the pantry to an adjacent room and to develop the pantry into a dining room where local and foreign dignitaries and distinguished guests could be hosted by the Head of State.