Villa Luginsland: Timeless beauty restored

After seven decades of neglect, Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, lover of art and guardian of historical buildings, including Villa Luginsland in Malta, and CEO of OmenaArt Foundation, is determined to breathe new life into this place, envisaging it as a space where business intersects with art. She explores the complexities involved in restoring the property and recounts the genesis of her affection for this Maltese relic

Villa Luginsland, Rabat. Photo credit: Ernest Vella
Villa Luginsland, Rabat. Photo credit: Ernest Vella

You have Polish roots and are half-African, yet you chose a historic venue in Malta. How does this resonate with your identity?

It all makes perfect sense! My father’s lineage is from the Asante – Ghana’s most eminent royal clan, with mediaeval origins. They’re a genuine business aristocracy, traditionally involved in gold mining. My father is 100% African, a cardiothoracic surgeon trained in Europe. I was raised and educated in Poland, where I manage my foundations and most businesses. Since I remember, I have always had profound admiration for historic edifices, and Malta boasts an extraordinary density of such buildings.

Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris
Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris

Villa Luginsland is situated near Rabat. How did you come across this place?

My husband and I sought a distinctive spot in the Mediterranean, one that would capture our imagination with its soul and potential. We explored numerous sites, but Villa Luginsland, now renamed LuginsLand of Art, simply checked all the boxes.

How did you uncover such a treasure amidst Malta’s urban landscape?

We arrived in Malta in 2020. Exhausted and slightly disillusioned after an extensive search, we were astonished to see so much new development in a country steeped in history and heritage while the old structures lay in neglect. Our estate agent suggested several locations, but Villa Luginsland at this time wasn’t initially on his agenda. The moment we saw the building, we knew it was ‘the one’.

What a tale! It sounds like you were meant for each other.

I was instantly smitten by the building once the agent unveiled the historic entrance, revealing a monumental structure. Its architectural grace, impeccably preserved internal frescoes, splendid views from the windows, and remarkable garden space truly captivated me.

My passion for art and historical settings found a home here. I was spellbound and felt compelled to restore this derelict structure into a vibrant residence, envisioning a future hub for business and remarkable art, hosting exceptional exhibitions and artists.

These objectives align perfectly with the name of the property. Are you aware of what Luginsland means?

Of course! In a loose translation, it means“gaze upon a beautiful country/land.” The linguisticroot, “Lug ins land” from the German “Schau insland,” suggests a dual interpretation. It denotesa high vantage point for either surveying thesurroundings for protection and surveillance or forrelishing a picturesque view. Likely, the name of Baron Von Tucher’s Maltese villa embodies bothaspects, reflecting the Tucher family’s history and Maximilian’s early years.

Boris Kudlička designer, architect and scenographer, Joanna Popiół Director of Luginsland Limited, Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris
Boris Kudlička designer, architect and scenographer, Joanna Popiół Director of Luginsland Limited, Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris

Did you meet the previous owners and learn the history of the building?

I only met one of the numerous heirs to the villa, but I know nearly everything about Baron Maximilian Tucher von Simmelsdorf and the villa itself. The Baron constructed it in 1887, during his tenure as the German consul in Malta, the building functioned as his official residence. He was an avid art collector and one of the most influential figures on the island. Tucher, in collaboration with the architect and engineer Francesco Zammit, designed the villa in a Neo-Renaissance style with Baroque elements. Notably, Villa Luginsland is Zammit’s only project in the Renaissance style, though it also features Neo-Classical influences. The building is distinguished not just by its geometric form. Its interiors are graced with Plychrome wall paintings by Giuseppe Cali in the Italian Renaissance style with French and German influences and numerous grotesques and arabesques. Original terracotta fireplaces in the main hall and Roman ruins from the 2nd century BCE have also been preserved. Currently, archaeological excavations on the property are expected to continue for many months.

In exploring the history of LuginsLand of Art, did you uncover any curiosities or secrets?

Our exploration into the history of the Tucher family, conducted in German libraries and archives, yielded fascinating findings. We discovered documents indicating that he was a British and Russian spy interested in new technologies. Hence, sculptures of Galileo and Volta are positioned in front of the building, symbolising the modernity of that era. Dominika Rostocka, a Polish architect and historical director of the estate, conducted two years of research with Maltese and Polish conservators, uncovering intriguing details. She scoured archives and spoke with individuals who shared insights about the place. It emerged that the villa conceals many remarkable stories and secrets, so compelling that we have decided to feature them in a documentary, which is currently in production.

Could you outline the LuginsLand of Art project?

The most significant value of the property lies in its prestigious location and splendid view, making it an ideal residence where business could blend with art. The extensive land area allows for artistic landscaping, including sculpture, which I am truly passionate about. This is undoubtedly our intended direction. A portion of the space will be reserved for private use. As mentioned earlier, the remaining space of the villa aspires to evolve into an artistic hub for exhibitions including sculpture and painting, and diverse artistic interventions, fostering international artistic exchange and open dialogue. Currently, OmenaArt Foundation, a participant in the Malta Biennale, is organising a themed Polish pavilion and artistic events at LuginsLand of Art as a collaborating venue.

Left: Joanna Popiół Director of Luginsland Limited, Right: Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris
Left: Joanna Popiół Director of Luginsland Limited, Right: Omenaa Mensah, philanthropist, guardian of historical monuments, including Villa Luginsland in Rabat, CEO of OmenaArt Foundation. Photo credits: Kurt Paris

So, you’re essentially preserving the cultural heritage of the Baron?

Absolutely! The Baron was a passionate patron of culture, art, and architecture, and we aspire to continue his legacy. Tucher commissioned sculptures of Galileo Galilei – a distinguished inventor, philosopher, and astronomer, and Alessandro Volta – an Italian scientist and aristocrat. These sculptures were strategically placed in the central points of the arcade. Why did he choose these particular figures? We surmised it was to honour individuals who inspired him and were forerunners of new ideas. We are currently investigating his ties to science, natural philosophy, astronomy, and philosophy, as well as the Baron’s connections with Freemasonry. We have uncovered that an extension to Villa Luginsland was not mere a coincidence. This story will also be featured in our documentary.

The villa had been abandoned for over seven decades. Weren’t you apprehensive about renovating such an aged and neglected building?

Not in the least, though, I recognise that reviving a building with a documented historical past and under conservation oversight is a challenging feat. Years of arduous work and dedication lie ahead, but I am well accustomed to such challenges. I’m currently involved in restoring original royal frescoes in Wilanow Palace – one of Poland’s most exquisite palaces. Each revelation of colour, painting, and narrative brings me immense joy. The LuginsLand of Art project is particularly dear to my heart, and I am committed to restoring the villa to its former glory.

You will participate in the first edition of the Malta art biennale 2024. What projects and attractions are you working on?

We are delighted to embrace this challenge. The OmenaArt Foundation is the artistic patron of the Grand Charity Auction – the most prestigious charitable event in Central and Eastern Europe and now the Malta Art Biennale. Our thematic pavilion, curated by Hanna Wróblewska, will feature Polish and international female artists. What’s more, for the first time in 70 years, we will open LuginsLand of Art to visitors, where we will launch an exhibition, curated by Boris Kudlička, featuring Maltese and Polish artists and a Croatian sculptor. We are very proud that Nikola Vudrag, whose work sold for over 700,000 euros during the Grand Charity Auction, and who is also participating in the Venice Biennale, will beshowcasing his work at our exhibition. During the Biennale, LuginsLand of Art will also hold an educational programme of lectures and workshops. These will tackle topics about art, archeology, legacy and restoration.

Organising such an event involves a tremendous amount of work. How many people are currently working in your team?

In a little over two years, I have assembled a team comprising ten dedicated individuals. My team is an exceptional, harmonious blend of international experts. Joanna Popiół, a person of vast experience, is the Managing Director of the project, ensuring that all operations are conducted seamlessly and without hitches. Bruno Moinard, a French artist, interior designer, and scenographer renowned for his work with Cartier boutiques, is in charge of the design of the first floor. Boris Kudlička, a Slovak architect, designer, and scenographer, distinguished by his award-winning contributions, is in charge of renovating the remaining levels. These esteemed professionals are instrumental in transforming my vision and aspirations into reality within the historic walls, masterfully intertwining our contemporary era with the past.

Elżbieta Lesiak-Kłysiak, an architect and technical director, leads the execution team, focusing on the technical aspects of the project. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the historical director of the estate is the accomplished Dominika Rostocka, who brings extensive expertise in the restoration of historical structures. United in purpose, our team is devoted to ushering LuginsLand of Art into the 21st century, adeptly integrating cutting-edge technologies with its rich historical legacy.

How would you describe the feeling you get when entering the villa?

As I traverse the villa, each detail captivates me – from the intricate metalwork to the evocative paintings, sculptures, and frescoes. My initial encounter with the property began at the main gate, where I was immediately struck by its architectural harmony and the preserved axial symmetry. At the heart of this symmetry lies the main building, the residence’s focal point. The optical concentration here is further intensified by the grand staircase that ascends from the courtyard to the villa’s first floor. Flanking the main structure, the buildings on either side create a tranquil buffer from the bustling main street, fostering a sense of peace and privacy.

The staircase, with its elegantly soft contours, is reminiscent of designs found in Renaissance and Baroque architecture, underlining the building’s distinguished presence. The stairs leading to Luginsland are celebrated as some of Malta’s most exquisite, having been featured in numerous publications. Moreover, the facade’s decorative elements are noteworthy. They exhibit a modest and restrained exterior, which contrasts starkly with the interior’s vibrant explosion of patterns and colours.

What techniques and methodologies have you employed to maintain the historical integrity of the building?

The villa holds the status of a Grade 1 building, subject to stringent conservation safeguards, necessitating any alterations to be sanctioned by the local Conservation Office. This establishment is one of only a few such buildings in private hands in Malta. The greatest challenge lies in harmonising its historical character with contemporary standards while furnishing the villa with modern functionality. For several months, an elite team of specialists has been meticulously planning the integration of electrical and sanitary systems to align the building with current regulations. We have also obtained approval to fit a lift within the structure.

During the renovation process, we made a discovery of concealed paintings on the staircase, veiled beneath successive layers of paint, alongside previously undiscovered ceiling artworks. Initial investigations suggested a misattribution; these were not the creations of Giuseppe Calì, but rather of an as-yet unidentified artist, whose identity we are trying to determine. The restoration of these artworks presents a formidable yet exciting challenge.

How did you manage to comply with local regulations and guidelines for conservation?

Right from the beginning, we allocated the responsibilities for this high-class object among a team of experts. Our collaboration with TBA Periti has been invaluable, as they have meticulously guided us throughout the renovation process. We have engaged in numerous consultations and conducted extensive studies to ensure that all our planned activities are in strict compliance with the guidelines set by the Conservation Office and the principles of historic preservation.

In terms of interior work, our current focus is on removing later layers of paint to uncover the original designs. This task is being undertaken in partnership with both Polish and Maltese universities, where extensive research has been conducted on various samples, including paints, plasters, and other materials found within the villa. Our aim is to determine the period of their application, analyse their chemical composition, and assess their original hues. This information is crucial for our designers to accurately align the interior decor with the existing murals. Additionally, we have examined the degradation processes of these materials to identify the most effective methods for their reinforcement and restoration.

Is it true that you’ve also hired the best renovation company in Malta, which is experienced in restoring Grade 1 buildings?

Yes, and their work has been most satisfactory. Prevarti, a local company, has dedicated six months to the reinforcement and protection of the wall paintings, effectively halting their deterioration. Additionally, we’ve partnered with a select Polish company, experts in crafting historical windows, for the reconstruction of the window joinery. To ensure accuracy in replication, we produced a prototype window, which, upon presentation to the conservator, received approval.

Protecting historical buildings often involves unique challenges. What difficulties have you encountered?

Our journey involved an exhaustive phase of research and conceptual development. We’ve compiled an extensive array of documents that faithfully reflect the Baron’s original vision. Our current focus is on integrating contemporary technologies, as we aim to blend a 19th-century edifice with modern solutions, demonstrating that this can be achieved without compromising the building’s historical integrity or heritage value. A prime example is the cutting-edge quantum dot technology, presently being developed in Poland. By incorporating this technology into glass, we can enable the surfaces to generate energy, thus enhancing the energetic efficiency of the building.

So, you’re implementing ecological solutions?

Environmental stewardship ranks high on our agenda. To this end, we’re establishing a greywater recycling system and a novel rainwater circulation system, acknowledging Malta’s need for new environmental technologies. Additionally, we’re experimenting with various techniques for cleaning and restoring Maltese stone, which exhibits a wide range in both colour and biological contamination. The renovation of tiles is another area where we’re engaging experts, maintaining stringent standards in our selection. Each step and study is thoroughly deliberated upon in consultations with me by our team of architects and the specialists contributing to the renovation of Villa Luginsland.

Who will you host at villa luginsland?

The residence is set to become an important hub inviting influential Polish and Maltese figures from a number of realms, arts sectors, and industries. They will share in the unique enchantment of this place. We are also considering reviving the local production of wine and olive oil, as was historically practised here. The limited quantities we will be able to manufacture will still possess a great sentimental value for us. Our doors will be open to philanthropists – individuals of generous spirit and open minds. LuginsLand of Art is conceived as a holistic exhibition, interweaving the worlds of architecture, design, and art.

You mentioned a documentary film about villa luginsland. is it in the process?

The documentary is intended to encapsulate all our endeavours at the villa. Given that the building was closed off to the public for nearly seven decades, we are presented with a unique chance to document its transformation – capturing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ to create a lasting legacy for future generations. We aspire for the story of Luginsland to endure for many more glorious years, becoming a noteworthy landmark on Malta’s cultural map. The aim is to demonstrate the value of investing both passion and financial resources in the restoration of historically and culturally significant sites. This documentary will not only be a cherished memento for us and for Malta but also serve as a practical guide for prospective buyers of historic properties. It will offer insights on how to approach such renovations, interwoven with the fascinating narrative of those who crafted the building. In our case, it’s a compelling tale of the revival of two historically interconnected sites: LuginsLand of Art in Malta and the Wilanów Palace in Poland.

What does the future of the Villa look like?

My ultimate aspiration is to establish an exemplary space for art. Looking ahead, we aim to set up an exquisite gallery in one of the buildings, potentially showcasing archaeological finds from our garden. In this space, art should both complement and narrate the building’s history, allowing every Maltese resident to view an exhibition chronicling the renovation journey. A key milestone in the near future is our participation in the Malta Art Biennale Art 2024, which I had mentioned earlier. I encourage everyone to keep abreast of our activities through the OmenaArt Foundation and Luginsland of Art web pages. We warmly invite you to our thematic pavilion and LuginsLand of Art, promising a plethora of attractions and exhilarating experiences!