The Vatican Gardens have been a place of quiet and meditation for the popes since 1279 when Nicholas III (Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, 1277-1280) moved his residence back to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace. Within the new walls, which he had built to protect his residence, he planted an orchard (pomerium), a lawn (pratellum) and a garden (viridarium). The event is recorded among other places on a stone plaque which can be viewed in the “Sala dei Capitani” of the “Palazzo dei Conservatori” on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Created around the hill of Saint Egidio (where the “Palazzetto del Belvedere” is located today) and the courtyards of the Vatican Museums, this was to be the first garden in the Vatican. However, should you visit the Vatican Gardens today you would begin by viewing a totally different area from that first orchard, one located in a more recent addition to what is now Vatican City State. It is there that larger and more recent gardens have been planted, covering together with the original garden about half of the 44 hectares of Vatican City.
Piazza Santa Marta
The tour of these Gardens begins when you reach Piazza Santa Marta, built under Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti, 1922-1939) where you soon get a sense of the splendid architectural landscape while enjoying the view of the central courtyard, its large fountain and its two great oak trees (Quercus ilex L.) perfectly clipped into dome shapes. Proceeding from this point you undertake the ascent of the Vatican hill, a natural formation filled out with the massive amount of earth which was once excavated to make way for the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Papal Coat of Arms
As you wind your way up this hill you will soon see the “Palazzo del Governatorato”, the building which houses the central administration of Vatican City State. But first you must climb the cobbled stairway which leads up to the façade of this building where a trim example of topiary figurative art in the shape of the papal coat of arms takes pride of place. Significantly, the permanent section of this coat of arms representing symbols such as the tiara and the keys of Saint Peter, symbol of apostolic authority, is planted with perennials such as box shrub (Buxus sempervirens L. “Suffruticosa”). The variable section dedicated to symbols relating to each new pontificate is planted with annual plants. In the case of Pope Benedict XVI, the figures or heraldic arms include three symbols: the moor of Freising, symbol of the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, of which the Holy Father was Archbishop; the bear of St. Corbinian with pack-saddle to indicate the Pope’s link with the Patron of Freising, the pack symbolizing the burden of apostolic ministry; finally, the pilgrim’s shell with its triple symbolic value: the immersion in the “indeterminate abyss of the divinity” as preached by St. Augustine, the pilgrim people of God and the coat of arms of the ancient monastery of Schotten near Regensburg in Germany.Both the perennial and annual plants of this figurative coat of arms are selected with the purpose of reflecting the colour scheme of the papal coat of arms, yellow-gold, magenta and red. The yellow backgrounds are planted with Japanese spindle tree (Euonymus japonicus L. “Microphyllus Aureovariegatum”), including: the right key, part of the moor’s face, the pilgrim’s shell as well as areas surrounding the moor and the bear. The face of the moor, the bear’s fur and the areas surrounding the shell are of red copper leaf (Alternanthera amabilis Lem. “Amoena”) and black dragon (Ophiopogon japonicus Ker.”). The left key, the background and the frame of the coat of arms are planted with the silvery hue of the dusty miller (“Senecio cineraria” DC).
Vatican Train Station
After viewing the papal coat of arms, the tour of the Gardens then follows further up the hill to the left of the Vatican Railway Station. There you can enjoy a view of the magnificent landscape surrounding the “Fontana della Conchiglia” (fountain of the shell) at the centre of an arabesque of box hedges surrounded by magnolias (“Magnolia grandiflora L.) and oleanders (Nerium oleander L.) which flower throughout spring and summer.
At this point the visit continues up the “Via dell’Osservatorio” or Observatory Road. After passing under imposing Australian bunya-bunya trees (Auracaria bidwillii Hook) and their characteristic large pinecones with a diametre that can reach up to 30 centimetres, one arrives at an artificial cliff. Two hundred metres long it was created after the Lateran Pacts to contain the terrain of the increasingly steep slope. A rock garden has since been created there, offering a variety of succulent xerophiles. Flowering brightly in spring and summer, it offers an explosive show of different hues in stark contrast with the bare rock. Among the many plants in this rock bank are a wide variety of Echinocactus Link & Otto sp., Ferocactus Britton & Rose sp., Aloe Toum. sp., Echeveria DC. sp., Agave L. sp., Astrophytum ornatum (DC) Weber and Notocactus magnificus Krainz., with their characteristic bold golden yellow flowers. Also growing there are the Mesembryanthemum Dill. sp. and Sempervivum L. sp., which tend to take root even in the nooks and crannies of the bare rock face.
Monument to Saint Peter
Beyond this cliff, higher up the slope, is the geographical centre of the Vatican State. Close by in the shadow of the Basilica stands a monument to Saint Peter. As a matter of interest this monument previously stood in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums and was originally destined to end up on Rome’s Janiculum hill in commemoration of the First Vatican Council.
Next to this statue is one of the very few buildings allotted to civil housing still existing in the Vatican. Known as the “Casina del Giardiniere” or gardener’s lodge it now houses the residence of the head gardener. His job is to oversee the work of some twenty seven gardeners who daily take care of this natural park.
Mater Ecclesiae Convent
Still further up the Vatican hill, by the walls built by Leo IV (847 -855) in 847 to protect the Basilica of Saint Peter’s from Saracen incursions , we come across the “Mater Ecclesiae Monastery”. At the request of the late Pope John Paul II, cloistered nuns moved in there and offer up prayers daily for the ministry of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.
Continuing the gentle climb to the highest level of the Gardens one discovers the Ethiopian College. Surrounded by magnolias and araucaria trees, the building was designed by Italian architect Giuseppe Momo and commissioned by Pope Pius XI who built it with the aim of providing seminarians from Ethiopia a place in Rome where they could further their ecclesiastical studies. Attached to the College is a tiny garden which takes its name from the “Fontana dei Delfini” (fountain of the dolphins) charmingly set among oleanders, pomegranates (Punica granatum L.) and banana trees (Musa x paradisiaca L.). The wealth of flowers and the foliage there helps create an intimate corner in sharp contrast with the sloping lawns of this area of the Gardens.
Strolling further along under some ilex trees one arrives at the highest point of the Vatican Gardens. At 71 metres above sea level it coincides with the spiritual heart of the park, the Lourdes Grotto. An exact replica of the one at Massabielle, it was donated by the French in 1902 to Pope Leo XIII (Vincenzo Gioacchino dei Conti Pecci, 1878- 1903). A statue of Our Lady is framed by a bright green mantle of American ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata Planch.) above the original altar of the grotto donated to Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, 1958-1963). It is a place where traditionally at the end of May each year the pope comes to pray and greet the faithful who have made their way up the hill in a torch-light procession.
From here one takes the “Viale Pio XI”, the road dedicated to this twentieth century pope where looking out from a small terrace under majestic date palms (Phoenix dactylifera L.), one can admire the great Italian Garden with its box hedges, clipped at regular intervals into rounded shapes and as dictated by Renaissance topiary art without the presence of a single flower.
Colony of Monk Parrots
Moving on along gravel paths, amid a labyrinth of hedges, one encounters a colony of monk parrots (Myopsitta monachus Boddaert) which have happily nested there amid the branches of the cedar trees surrounding this area of the Gardens. These colourful birds have been nesting there a long time, having met with a favourable breeding ground thanks also to the abundance of food. Every now and then their screeching breaks the silence of the park.
Marconi Broadcast Centre
Next door to this Italian Garden is the transmission centre dedicated to the figure of Marconi. It was from here that this eminent scientist broadcast his first radio message from the Vatican thanks to Pope Pius XI who encouraged this experiment, never doubting the importance of this revolutionary invention.
Shrine to Saint Teresa of Lisieux
Proceeding along the Leonine walls one encounters a little shrine dedicated to the Patron Saint of the Vatican Gardens, Saint Teresa of Lisieux, in the midst of a palm grove with a wide variety of species . Among these are a palm named cocos (Butia capitata Becc.), with scented sweet orange fruits, the elegant Washington palm (Waschingtoniafilifera H. Wendl.) and the great Saint Peter palm bushes (Chamaerops humilis L.), the only indigenous palm trees present on Italian soil.
Jubilee 2000 Bell
Further on is a clearing called “capanna cinese”, meaning Chinese hut, where one can admire a bell which is a memento of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
St. John's Tower
At this point one reaches the avenue where Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli, 1939 – 1958) used to enjoy taking his daily walk. Four olive trees (Olea Europaea L), centuries old, were donated to John Paul II during the Jubilee Year 2000 and were planted there. This avenue leads up to Saint John’s tower restored by John XXIII and now used on occasion to receive special guests visiting the Holy Father.
Along the ilex avenue that leads on from here to the French Garden you will be struck by the strong scent of the flowers and wood of the majestic camphor tree (Cinnamomum glanduliferum Meissn.). Beyond this Garden lies the heliport built under Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini, 1963-1978) which Roman Pontiffs now regularly use when going on their numerous pastoral journeys. The heliport has been placed under the protection of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa depicted here in bronze. From here one can admire the great open space of the French Garden, by strolling along the red rock paths lined with ancient terracotta pots adorned with the papal coat of arms and filled with stunning azaleas (Rhododendron L. sp.). Placed here is a dug-in water cistern which can hold up to eight million litres of water necessary for irrigation, filling up the fountains and for fire prevention in the Gardens. Surrounding this area are some rare trees. Among these are: an Australian silk-oak (Grevillea robusta A.Cunn.), two very tall examples of dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng.), an olive tree donated by the State of Israel to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and a wide variety of other trees donated over the years by different delegations visiting the Holy Father
Gardens of the 'Palazzina di Leone XIII'
Retracing one’s steps towards the Lourdes grotto, the visit proceeds towards the building known as “Palazzina Leone XIII” built in honour of the last pope of the 19th century, Leo XIII. There two great fountains known as “Delle Sirene” play amid strongly scented star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides C. Lemaire ) in the centre of a garden filled with hedges of yew (Taxus baccata L.). Here, amid arches and espaliers of rambling blooming roses (Rosa L. sp.), stands the last tree of a garden of exotic plants that Pope Leo created towards the end of the his pontificate. It is the coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli L.), which still today when in flower offers a stunning appearance of scarlet red.
Shrine of the 'Madonna della Guardia'
At this point it is time to go downhill via the shrine of the “Madonna della Guardia”, which was donated to the inhabitants of Genoa by their fellow countryman Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa, 1914-1922). Here one enters the wood, which covers up to two hectares of grounds almost all of which are of spontaneous vegetation. Among the trees, which offer visitors some shady relief during the summer and spectacularly bright colours in the autumn, are the pedunculate oak (Quercus robur L.), the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris L.), the downy oak (Quercus pubescens Willd.), the hornbeam (Carpinus betulus L.) and the northern red oak (Quercus rubra L.).
Fountain of the Sacrament
The visit to the Vatican Gardens ends with the view of three fountains: “Peschiera” (fish-pond), “Giardino Quadrato” (square garden) and “ Sacramento” (sacrament).
La Casina di Pio IV
Once out of the wood, the tour is almost over, but the most ancient part of the Vatican Gardens is yet to be admired. It is the original area created back in 1279 by Pope Nicholas III. Here to be viewed is the stunning “Casina Pio IV”, a building which takes its name from the pope who finished in 1558 what another had begun. Created in fact by Pope Paul IV (Gian Pietro Carafa, 1555-1559), work on it only ended in 1558 during the pontificate of Pope Pius IV (Giovanni Angelo De’ Medici, 1559-1565) who then used it both as a summer residence and as a hunting lodge at a time when wildlife was still rife in the Vatican. Interestingly, the original area of the Vatican Gardens situated in front of the Casina Pio IV gave birth in 1288 to the first considerations of a systematic botanical project in Italy. We owe this development to the physician of Pope Nicholas IV (Girolamo Masci, 1288-1292), Simone da Genova, who not only created an herbal garden for the Pope, dedicated to plants that might have healing properties, but also systematically classified names and properties of these various essences.
Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Today the herbal garden no longer exists; in its place stand centuries old atlas cedar trees (Cedrus atlantica Manetti) and great coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens End1.). Meanwhile, the Casina Pio IV houses the meetings of the Pontifical Academies of Science and of Social Sciences.
Fountain of the Eagles
Here one can meander down a myriad of paths leading to dozens of fountains: which include the Fountains: “del Laghetto” (of the little lake), “della Vela” (of the sail), “delle Aquile” (of the eagles), “della Croce Greca” (of the Greek Cross), “del Candelabro” (of the candlestick), “della Capanna cinese” (of the Chinese hut), “dei Rospi” (of the toads), “dei cinque Zampilli” (of the five spurts). The fountains number 97 in all, including that majestic age-old Fountain “dell’Aquilone” (of the eagle) designed by Vasanzio at the request of Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese, 1605-1621). With its great mass of water gushing forth during the summer, it offers visitors a light respite from heat.