Secret Garden

by Danilo Brunetti

Rome’s Vatican Gardens have recently reopened to the public, their years in exile making them even more mysterious and fascinating. The Gardens are, after all, one of the city’s most beautiful and secluded spots, and have been for centuries.

The green refuge was first conceived as a place of meditation and rest by the ponti in 1279, when Pope Nicholas II moved the papal seat from St. John’s in Lateran back to St. Peter’s. Within the newly constructed Vatican walls, the Pope commissioned an orchard and garden replete with fruits and herbs. The site received a major re-landscaping at the start of the 16th century under the masterful eye of artist Donato Bramante who transformed it into a peaceful oasis where nature, art, and faith converged. Today, the Gardens cover half of the roughly 44 hectares of the Vatican City’s grounds. They are composed of both Italian- and English-style pastures, grottos, fountains, grassy avenues, and various architectural gems begging to be discovered (guided walking tours or buses equipped with audio guides in your language of choice are the way to do it). The must-see stops of the Gardens, already rich in countless architectural and natural marvels, surely include the spiritual heart of the park, the Grotto of Lourdes, a faithful replica of the Massabielle Grotto in Lourdes, France. A man made cave fringed by a brilliant green mantle of ivy is the backdrop for a statue of the Madonna. A day after his appointment as the new ponti , Pope Francis visited the Grotto to reflect and pray. Along the medieval Leonine
Walls stands the shrine dedicated to the patron saint of the Vatican Gardens, Saint Teresa di Lisieux, immersed in a grove where  various species of palms thrive. Present are the cocos, distinguished by their sweet aromatic orange fruits, the elegant Washington palms, and the striking St. Peter’s palm bushes, the only indigenous palm trees present on Italian soil. The Gardens are also home to numerous statues, like a white marble sculpture of the Madonna of Guadalupe and the bronze relief of the Madonna of Fatima; there is also a bronze statue of St. Peter the Apostle in the Pinecone Courtyard. Spectacular water features abound, such as the Fountain of the Frogs, the Fountain of the Eagle, the Fountain of the Sacrament, and the Fountain of the “Galera” in the shape of a ship, shooting water from its cannons. A true botanical treasure is the sprawling Italian-style garden, stylistically based on symmetry and geometry, with order reigning over nature. Tidy hedges and boxwoods are trimmed into spheres, without flowers, very similar to Renaissance topiary art: pines, cedars, chestnuts, cypresses, magnolias, holm oaks, African banana trees, Australian araucarias, and Japanese gingkos make up this stunning “exhibition” that charms visitors with its beauty and precision. Next to this section of the Gardens looms the Centrale Trasmittente Marconi, from which the great scientist transmitted, for the very first time, a radio message in the presence of Pope Pio XI, the first to have believed in the validity of Marconi’s revolutionary discovery.

Equally beautiful is the refined baroque French-style garden, ornate with camellias, bougainvillea, oleanders, agaves, and roses. Continuing along Via dell’Osservatorio, past the imposing araucaria trees from Australia (whose pine cones can reach a diameter of up to 30 centimeters!) is the rocky Stein Garden, rich with a variety of succulent and xenophilius species. During the warmer months, the cli bursts to life with colorful blooms.

In front of Palazzo del Governatorato you’ll stumble across a papal crest completely composed of boxwoods and flowers that originate from all over the world. The jaw-dropping marvels continue at every corner with the Boschetto Waterfalls, an area left in its natural state to recreate the illusion of the countryside, and a labyrinth of hedges (part of the previously mentioned Italian garden) where a colony of parakeets have built their nests amongst the cedars that border the garden.
Next to the statue of St. Peter is one of the very few civilian homes that still exists in Vatican City, called Casina del Giardiniere, the residence of the head of the 46-member gardening sta that carefully tends to this extraordinary corner of nature each day. Along the path that leads to the highest part of the Gardens is the Ethiopian College, surrounded by magnolias and araucaria trees. After admiring the bell of the Great Jubilee of 2000, passing the avenue where four- century-old olive trees stand guard, you’ll arrive at the San Giovanni Tower, once a defense stronghold, which now hosts illustrious guests of the pope.