The Art of Living Nature

by Danilo Brunetti

Exploring Rome’s flora and fauna in Rome’s art filled parks and gardens

There’s nothing like a walk in the verdant lushness of a Roman garden to welcome spring. Carefully designed by the landscape architects of yore, or left in a wild state by today’s environmentalists, the city’s public parks are blooming this month, and they’re a pleasant change from the usual indoor exhibits, providing a dip into the Mediterranean flora and fauna, as well as a look–from the outside–at some of the most important architectural and artistic jewels of the city.

Villa Borghese

Cycling in the Green Heart of Rome – A combination of nature and art, one of the largest parks in the city is best enjoyed on two wheels. Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1605, Villa Borghese was at first entirely surrounded by Italian gardens, most of which were later turned into a picturesque English-style landscape. The remaining Italian gardens can be admired around the Casino Borghese, the Casino della Meridiana, and the Uccelliera, while many more natural and outdoor attractions bejewel the park, including a small lake and an island featuring a romantic neoclassical temple, Rome’s Bioparco Zoo, a hippodrome, and many natural monuments like the large holm-oak by the lake with a 5m trunk circumference. Lucky animal lovers may encounter toads, squirrels, and woodpeckers, while hedgehogs and foxes are rarely seen, but known to inhabit the Villa Borghese woods. Rent a bike from one of the bike rental stations located in the villa. Enter from Piazzale Flaminio or Piazzale Brasile. Average stay: 3-4 hours.

Villa Pamphili

Birdwatching in Villa Pamphilj – Independent birdwatchers, grab your binoculars and discover the 100 or more species populating the grasslands and woods of Villa Pamphilj. Commissioned in the 1630s by nobleman Panfilo Pamphilj on an extensive vineyard, the baroque villa and Algrardi’s Casino del Bel Respiro are surrounded by Italian gardens and by a 10 hectare English-style garden featuring numerous exotic plants, combined with much wilder areas with Mediterranean shrub, oak forest, and stone pines. The two artificial lakes are home to ducks, turtles, and cormorants, while the trees host woodpeckers, owls, two parakeet species who recently colonized the city, and Italy’s signature bird, the hoopoe, with its trisyllabic “oop-oop-oop” song. If you look closely, you may also spot newts in the lakes, as well as toads and nutrias (a beaver-like mammal). The park is also home to foxes and moles. Piazza di Porta San Pancrazio. Average stay: 3 hours.

Jogging in Villa Ada – Considered by many to be the best park for sports in the city, Villa Ada is the former hunting reserve of King Vittorio Emanuele II and features well-marked work-out itineraries. Its pleasant pathways dipped in nature provide the perfect backdrop for a jog in the woods. The villa itself, which now houses the Egyptian Embassy, was built in the 1600s and belonged to the Irish Colegium. Later renovated by the Pallavicini family, it then became property of the Italian royal family, who passed it on to a Swiss count and his wife Ada, hence the name, in the late 1800s. In July 1943, Mussolini was arrested in Villa Ada by Marshal Badoglio. Every summer, the area by the lake stages a world music festival, while the woods are inhabited by foxes, local and Japanese squirrels, lizards, wild rabbits, weasels, nutrias, and about 60 species of birds. Via Salaria. Average stay: 2 hours.

Villa Torlonia

Exploring History in Villa Torlonia – No Roman villa is as rich with important historical evidence as Villa Torlonia. The elegant main building was designed for the Torlonia family in 1806 by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Valadier. During the Fascist regime, Mussolini rented it from the family for the symbolic price of one lira per year, and turned it into his state residence. The gardens were designed in English style with thirteen pavilions representing exotic areas in the world, including a bamboo forest. A small guesthouse, the Casina delle Civette, is one of the finest examples of Roman Art Nouveau, and currently houses temporary exhibits. The villa’s gardens became a public park in 1978, while the three buildings became a city museum. Around this time, archaeologists also discovered the entrance to Jewish catacombs dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The villa’s most recent attraction is the children’s museum Technotown, a hands-on exhibit of technology and science.  Via Nomentana, 70. Average stay: 2-3 hours.

Villa Celimontana

Picnic in the Secret Garden – The best-kept secret villa in Rome, Villa Celimontana, is hidden behind the Chiesa della Navicella, just five minutes from the Colosseum. The English-style landscape surrounds a 1553 villa built on what was once a large vineyard. The flat area on the left of the villa is perfect for soccer and badminton, while a protected, much greener hillside area, sprinkled with century-old trees, ancient marble sculptures, bas-reliefs, and an obelisk, allows for relaxing hours in the sun or shade. Children will appreciate the extensive playground and the palm trees and the lively parakeets chasing each other at any time of day give this park a somewhat exotic feel. Via della Navicella. Average stay: 1 hour.

A Break with a View – Take a break from Roman traffic and admire the city from above, amid a plethora of oranges. Charming Parco Savello on the Aventine hill provides a beautiful view of the city and was renamed Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges) for the presence of numerous ornamental bitter-oranges trees. The garden dates back to the 1200s, and is adjacent to the medieval church of Santa Sabina, and stands on top of a 10th century fortress. Piazza Pietro d’Illiria. Average stay: half hour.

Holy Celery – Borromini’s architectural gem, the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, hides a small vegetable garden that belongs to the adjacent convent of La Santissima Trinità. The garden can be accessed from the church during opening hours and is a good example of the medieval concept of hortus conclusus (enclosed garden). A sign on one of the flowerbeds says: “This is the spot where celery was first planted in Italy,” making the garden a sacred temple for celery fans. Via del Quirinale, 23. Average stay: 15 minutes.

Municipal Rose Garden

May Is for Roses! – You don’t have to be a rose fanatic to enjoy a walk in Rome’s Municipal Rose Garden: the scents and colors pervading the air in the hillside park are inebriating for every living creature, especially in combination with the breathtaking archaeological backdrop of the Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus. The many species of roses grow on top of an old Jewish cemetery, and the garden’s layout pays a tribute to the site’s history, with paths forming Jewish symbols. May is the best month to pay a visit, so don’t miss your chance! Viale del Circo Massimo. Average stay: 1 hour.

The Holiest Place in Rome – Literary types will enjoy an afternoon cheek to cheek with Shelley, Keats, Goethe’s son, as well as many other famous foreigners who lived and died in the Eternal City and were fortunate enough to have the exquisite Non-Catholic Cemetery as their final resting place. The well-kept lawn surrounding the monumental graves, their distinctly romantic feel, and the imposing presence of the marble Pyramid of Cestius towering over it all, has brought many to elect this as the most beautiful cemetery in the world. Piazzale Ostiense. Average stay: 1 hour.

Botanical Gardens

Classifying Flora – Unveil the hidden scientist within you at the marvelous Botanical Gardens in Trastevere. Housed in the grounds of Palazzo Corsini, once the residence of 17th-century art patron Queen Christina of Sweden, the gardens were established in 1883 after the Italian State acquired the estate. The 3000 plant species include noteworthy specimens of carnivorous plants, orchids, and euphorbias, organized in different environments. There’s a Japanese garden, a fern valley, a rose park, bamboo groves, and a Giardino dei Semplici for medicinal plants. The water nourishing the pretty streams comes from the Acqua Paola aqueduct, which also flows in the large Janiculum fountain at the top of the hill. Largo Cristina di Svezia, 24. Average stay: 2 hours.

Archaeological Vegetables – One of the most spectacular green areas in Italy, the Orto Monastico of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, belongs to the Cistercensi monks, who have turned it into an organic vegetable cultivation. Zucchini, tomatoes, artichokes, and herbs grow inside the remains of an ancient amphitheater which, archaeologists say, is just as important a monument as the Colosseum, however less visible. The garden was laid out by Italy’s most celebrated landscape architect, Paolo Pejrone, and its fresh produce is sold in the monks’ little shop, including strawberries, eggplant, cabbage, alcoholic herbal drinks, and preserves. Via di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Average stay: 1 hour.