The Pope’s Garden

Whenever we’re talking about all there is to see in Rome – even, as we saw last week, its fountains – inevitably the name of a Pope, or two, comes up.  It was time to visit the garden of those Popes.


Just 871 steps and there you are.

To my lasting regret, after climbing 871 steps up to St. Peter’s Dome – you can lop off 321 of those steps by taking an elevator, but I was travelling with much younger people and didn’t want to look bad – I somehow neglected to take any photos of the Vatican Gardens while I was up there.


A gorgeous spiral staircase leads to the Vatican Museum. I would have loved to get a better angle, but I didn’t dare lean any further over the railing.

The Meeting Point for the garden visits is in the same part of the building as the entrance to the Vatican Museum.  To say that it was total pandemonium is an understatement.  But that was the easy part.

If Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2014) wins first prize for the difficulty of arranging a visit, the Vatican Gardens are a close second.  And that’s not even taking into account how difficult it is to tear yourself away from everything else there is to look at in Rome.


Trees outside the entrance to the garden, waiting to be planted.

Like Ninfa, the Vatican Gardens can only be visited by guided tour.  But unlike Ninfa, you can’t just opt to see the garden.  You have to buy a ticket that includes the Vatican Museum which, I was astonished to hear our guide observe toward the end of our tour, would be jam-packed with tourists by the time our tour of the garden ended and a thoroughly unpleasant experience, especially after the tranquillity of the garden.   Whether you choose to forego this unpleasantness or not, you still have to fork over a whopping 38 euros to see the garden.


As soon as the tour started, it was obvious that being a guide here involved more than the usual challenges.  She tried to keep us moving along, but there was a building on our left that was working against her efforts.

To take part in the guided tour you can’t just show up.  You have to make a reservation, preferably quite far in advance, for a tour held in a language you understand.  This of course is the easy part for English speakers.  So I was surprised when in reply to my request to book a tour, I received an email advising me that all visits were ‘Sospese fino a una data da destinarsi‘ (Suspended until a date whose destiny was yet to be determined.)  I had written in February – just around the time Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned. I tried again a few weeks after the current Pope Francis I was elected and got my reservation.


Beautiful mosaics proclaim the names of Rome’s greatest painters – all under the patronage of the Pope. Except for one  surprising omission – Michelangelo, who at the time was considered a sculptor, not a painter.



Eventually our guide got us moving and we set out along the Avenue of the Square Garden.  As I explained in ‘The Abbey of the Good Harvest…’ (Apr. 27, 2014), the square, symbol of the underlying, mathematical order of a divinely created universe, formed the basis of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden of the Middle Ages.



Unlike other gardens I have visited, with the dome of St. Peter’s always in view – as Michelangelo had designed it to be – and the occasional monk, you never forget where you are.


The ‘Italian’ Garden

The garden follows the contours of the hill behind St. Peter’s, a hill which is part natural, part man-made.  The man-made part is all the earth that was excavated to make room for the basilica and piled on top of the existing hill.


The trimmed boxwood and formal symmetry of the ‘classic’ Italian garden.

The description on the garden’s official website refers to the monochrome palette of this garden “as dictated by Renaissance topiary art without the presence of a single flower”.  Hopefully the website will soon be updated.  A researcher working in one of the Medici gardens of Tuscany has discovered records that show that the Renaissance gardens were not just about trimmed box and yew, but were filled with colour.  The common misconception comes from the fact that the plants that provided all the colour – roses were very popular – were much more fragile and simply died during centuries of neglect.  I KNEW it!  It never made any sense to me that the gardeners of the Renaissance, a time when man was bursting with confidence and exuberance, would limit themselves to just one colour.


Always present, the dome of St. Peter’s.

Further on we caught our first glimpse of one of the highlights of the garden – Casina Pio IV aka Villa Pia – one of the first papal pleasure pavilions.


It is easy to imagine the villa as a summer residence, a bit of a stretch to see it as a hunting lodge.  But in those days, wildlife roamed the area and popes enjoyed hunting.


In the small social circle that the Popes and the Cardinals inhabited, it wasn’t unusual to share designers and landscape architects. Villa Pia was designed by Pirro Ligorio, the same architect who had designed Villa d’Este.


Cybele – Mother goddess of the ancient Greeks and Romans

Unlike Cardinal Alessandro d’Este, who fifty years later would have the statue of a pagan goddess moved to a remote part of his garden, (A Cure for Road Rage…, March 1, 2015) Pope Pio IV apparently had no qualms about pagan goddesses being prominently displayed in his garden.


Were the grottoes of the ancient Romans any more beautiful?



Side view.

Our guide knows that gentle coaxing won’t work to pry us away from the Casina, so she doesn’t pull any punches.  The Vatican, pop. 840, is the world’s smallest sovereign state, half of which is occupied by the gardens.  That’s 57 acres.  We will only be seeing the highlights (whew!), but there is still a lot of ground to cover and – this is where she really gets our attention – our tour could be terminated at any moment and we would have to leave the garden.  No refunds.  No rain checks.


Beyond the most beautiful clump of European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humbles) I have ever seen, our guide leads the way.

It’s because of a fairly new feature in the garden – a heliport.  Before, whenever the Pope had to leave the Vatican, whole sections of Rome would be shut down for the Papal motorcade.  As fond as the Romans are of the Pope, they got fed up with the constant interruptions that made driving in Rome even more excruciating than normal, so they came up with an alternative.  They donated a helicopter to the Vatican.  Now, whenever the Pope is called away on business, it’s just a few, hapless tourists who are inconvenienced.


Now that we know they can kick us out at any moment, they don’t look so friendly. SCV on the licence plate stands for Stato della Città del Vaticano. State of the Vatican City.

Even if you ignore the monks and the views of St. Peter’s and the Gendarme, the garden still doesn’t fall into any of the standard garden styles.  (Calling ‘Eclectic’ a style always strikes me as somewhat oxymoronic.)  Part of this is simply due to the age of the garden.  Even private gardens change over the centuries as  owners come and go.  But when the ‘owner’ (technically Popes are not allowed to own land; more on this in a couple of posts) is the most powerful man in the western world, things get magnified.


The Fountain of the Eagle.  The gift of a Borghese Pope.

Few Popes have managed to resist the urge to leave their imprint on the garden.  When Sixtus V built the Vatican Library, a huge part of the garden and a beautifully designed perspective went by the wayside.  Some popes preferred to embellish the gardens with ‘gifts’, which invariably had a lot more to do with self-glorification than Christian generosity.  The surprisingly pagan Fountain of the Eagle was commissioned by a Borghese Pope to celebrate the restoration of Trajan’s aqueduct under his leadership.


Water flows from and around dragons and sirens.

Why the eagle?  It’s the emblem of the Borghese family.


Bizarre is the most positive thing I can come up with.

Dignitaries representing the devout from countries around the world also bring gifts –  a piece of the Berlin Wall, a Chinese Pavilion, rocks from a Polish mountain – all of which, etiquette demands, must be placed in the garden.  Trees and plants from the visitors’ native countries are an obvious choice.  I asked the guide what this tree with the gorgeous, red flowers was.  She wasn’t sure.   Possibly a gift from Brazil.  When I got back home, after wandering around the Internet for a while, I finally found it by googling ‘brazilian tree with red flowers’.  It is the Cockspur Coral Tree – the national tree of Argentina and Uruguay.


Cockspur Coral Tree. National tree of Argentina, Uruguay – and possibly Brazil.

It’s not just foreign countries that donate trees.  This centuries-old olive tree is a gift from Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy.


An ancient olive tree from Puglia.  Symbol of peace.

The inscription on the plaque reads:  Olivi di Puglia/ Radici in Pace/ il Messaggio di una terra generosa ed ospitale.  Olive Trees from Puglia/ Roots in Peace/ the Message from a generous and hospitable region.

In 1902 the government of France donated the most obviously spiritual gift in the garden – an exact replica of the Lourdes Grotto.  It was built on the highest point of the hill and is considered the spiritual heart of the garden.  At the end of May the Pope comes to pray and greet the faithful who climb the hill in a torch-lit procession.


An exact replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. Gift of the government of France.


Star Jasmine covers the arches in the French Garden. The scent in May was intoxicating.


It’s hard to tell where the French Garden ends and the English and Rose Gardens begin. Not to worry.  It is all lovely.



The Christmas card shot.

Up until now our guide had worked hard to keep the group together and moving along.  It wasn’t just a matter of security – there were lots of other groups in the garden and it would have been easy to get mixed up as we crossed paths.  Those who straggled behind in an effort to get photos free of heads and other body parts were a special challenge.  But when we got to this arch, she changed tack, almost insisting that we line up, and waited patiently as, one by one, we took this photo – the perfect image, she declared, for the Christmas cards we would be sending later in the year.  I wondered how many non-Christians visit the garden.


The Jubilee Bell of 2000. The devout rang the bell in celebration so frequently that after a while it was secured.

We continued along the Leonine Wall, named for Pope Leo IV who had it built after Saracens attacked the Basilica in the middle of the 9th century and took off with mounds of gold and silver.


The Pope must have been pretty upset.  The wall is 4o feet high, has 44 towers and is 3 km long, encircling the Vatican on three sides.  (The Tiber takes care of the fourth).


We were almost at the end of tour and since there wasn’t all that much of interest in this part,  our guide could finally relax, as we walked along companionably with her.   One of the group asked if she had ever had a tour interrupted.  Only once.  But she knew of other guides who had been less fortunate. We followed her down the slope, past the Polish ‘mountainside’ where she had frequently seen the previous pope in sweats, exercising. Before Pope Francis, who regularly gives the Vatican security conniptions, the garden was the only place where popes would go when they wanted to be outside on their own.


Back at the entrance to the museum there were a few rather tense minutes.  We were lined up and counted as, one by one, we re-entered the building.  Security is strict and the number of us going in with the guide had to match the number who had gone out with her an hour earlier.

Not your typical garden visit, but fascinating all the same.

Not your typical garden visit, but fascinating all the same.



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