A place of delight and repose, of spiritual meditation and contact with nature, the Vatican Gardens occupy almost half of the 44 acres that constitute the Vatican City State. Meandering through the gardens means passing through a history of almost eight centuries told via plants, shrubs, sculptures and fountains which bear testimony to the varying tastes of different Pontiffs who, over time, have added their own personal modifications and changes to the visage of “Vatican nature”. Although profoundly transformed after changes following the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Church and State, the Vatican Gardens’ history dates back to the time of Pope Nicolas II (1277-1280). On one of the Vatican hills, he planted a viridarium, a walled area of greenery styled according to medieval use. It was comprised of medicinal herbs, and could have very well been one of the first botanical gardens in Italy. From this primary nucleus, other foliage was eventually added to accompany the ornamental plants and citrus trees. The area developed into a larger garden enhanced by multiple architects, such as Donato Bramante, who also conceived the Belvedere Courtyard during the pontificate of Julius II.
Unfortunately the French invasion of 1798 severely destroyed a major part of the gardens. In the following century, after some first attempts at ruralizing the area, Gregory XVI reinstated the care of the gardens. He redesigned the secret garden of Paul III (currently the square courtyard of the Pinacoteca), established greenhouses and dispersed within the woods various sculptures and marble fixtures according the latest fashion of the English garden. One example was an area under the holm-oak woods defined in an antique document as “a spot, or rather, the English gardens” wherein lied a peculiarity – a “kind of temple constructed out of the ruins”. This capricious pastiche was created from pieces of other monuments, some of which have since disappeared. It actually consisted of a statue of Apollo strumming his lyre and resting on a pedestal, which subsequently leaned on a marble slab from a monument dating from the time of the first Vatican Council in 1885. In 1935, the conglomeration was dismantled and used as ornamentation in various zones of the garden. The 1929 Treaty brought radical transformations. The newly formed Vatican City State necessitated interior restructuring, including that of the garden area. Architect Giuseppe Momo alongside botanist Giovanni Nicolini managed in four years to overhaul the garden’s physiognomy into what is visible today. However, the changes are ongoing. There are almost 550 pieces of ancient monuments, gifts to the pontificate, Marian statues, and other sculptures being used to furnish and embellish the natural environment. The gardens continue to give testimony to a rich history as a capable team of gardeners, still adhering to the schema set by Momo and Nicolini, labor unceasingly to enrich the space materially and spiritually. Also thanks to the continual addition of Catholic devotional pieces gifted to the Pontificate, every embellishment helps the gardens to keep growing as one of the most striking areas of the Vatican.
The important initiative to restore the works that adorn the gardens started in the second half of 2014 with a pilot site (named Cascatelle, or small waterfalls). Accurate planning, in turn, warranted the subdivision of the entire garden’s vast lot of territory in order to better organize the operators and restorers. Over the course of time many pieces were restored such as the “temple” in ruin with the ancient statue of Apollo, which eventually resided in the area known as “the Holm Oaks”. This section, arranged and ornamented in the 1900’s according to the romantic style, was bejeweled with archeological finds from the Museums, dismembered monuments, antique sarcophagi, Roman statues, and caprices from the turn of the century sculpted in an antique style. Other examples such as this include the darling pastique now in the Madonna della Guardia (Madonna of the Guard), which displays an elegant female bust emerging from a seashell. An important advance in faith formation was the restoration of the Grotto of Lourdes. This section is an authentic representation of the famous French sanctuary of Massabielle where the Madonna appeared to the fourteen year-old Bernadette Soubirous. The grotto was a gift to Pope Leo XIII in 1902 from the Bishop of Tarbes with the original altar of the Grotto di Lourdes inside. Dear to the pontiffs who celebrate Mass here on special occasions, the pilgrimage destination is also a place where a compelling candlelit procession concludes at the end of the May. The faithful process through the gardens on a “Marian” pilgrimage route dotted along the way with images of Our Lady, and conclude at the Grotto in the presence of the Holy Father.
The demanding restoration of the gardens is estimated to last about another two years, a period in which work will commence in important zones such as Eliporto (the helicopter landing), Torre San Giovanni (The Tower of St. John XXIII), and the Fontana di Aquilone (Fountain of the Eagle). Also included in the projects is the Giardino Quadrato (Rectangular Garden) of antique origin. This section enlivens every visitor’s gaze spanning from the Pinacoteca, and then meeting up with the gardens of the Casina of Pius IV, a fascinating example of 16th century Roman architecture and now the seat of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. The gardens of the Casina were even once bedecked with medicinal herbs intended to help care for the pontiff. The pilot section of Cascatelle was paramount in developing innovative procedures and conservation methodologies. In particular, essential oil solutions were employed (i.e. oregano, rosemary, licorice) for biocide treatments with very low environmental impact. So much positive feedback was received for this new experimentation that it was decided to organize a study day regarding the technologies, wherein field experts were invited to share and learn about the important findings from the process.
Accessing Vatican City is possible by rail at a little station along a 300-meter line of track (the shortest in the world) that merges from outside a tunnel in the Gardens’ hillside. Completed by Giuseppe Momo in 1931, the railway links the Vatican Gardens with the enchanting flora of Castel Gandalfo, the summer papal residence. The marble bases and fragments of friezes in this darling area relay messages of both change and charm. They not only mark post-Lateran treaty transportation developments, but also denote where popes and dignitaries of the past and now special guests can depart for a revelatory escape. This area of the Vatican City State was completed as well by Giuseppe Momo in 1931. Here the train from the Vatican can access the Roman territory directly from the Vatican City State trough a giant gate. Several green areas around this location have marble bases and fragments of friezes and statues that need to be restored and preserved.
TOTAL COST € 67.300,00
Surrounded by beauty from all angles, this area of the Gardens is flanked by the Cascatelle, the Fountain of the Eagle, and watched over by the Madonna of the Guard. The charming section is situated in the English Style Garden area just at the edge of the French garden. It is dotted with several fountains, statues, and marble bases bearing a variety of representations such as the papal coat of arms, aquatic scenes, and allegorical imagery. This beautiful area of the Vatican Gardens is situated in the English Style Garden area just at the edge of the French area where the entrance of the aisle to the grotto of Lourdes id located. It is composed by several fountains with the coat of arm of the Popes, statues and marble bases.
TOTAL COST € 210.800,00
This area of the Vatican Gardens comprises the Vatican Governorate in which is the seat of the leader of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, the legislative body of Vatican City. The building built by Giuseppe Momo in the 1930’s is set amid a rainbow of cactuses along the back street, the St. Joseph Fountain, and surrounded by flowers that are even arranged into the current papal coat of arms at its entranceway. Among the pieces needing restoration in this section are other papal coats of arms in stone: those of Pius IX, Pius XI, John XXIII, as well as an inscription of Gregory XVI. This area of the Vatican Gardens comprises the Vatican Governorate Building which was built by Giuseppe Momo in the ‘30s and it is presently the see of the Office of His Eminence Cardinal Bertello. This area presents also a wonderful rocky wall with cactuses along the main back street.
TOTAL COST € 58.700,00
Giardino Quadrato – Adopted by the Belgium Chapter
The large quadratic section of the Gardens is rich in history, with the essence of its citrus trees leaving a vestige of times past. Its legacy told in flourishing vegetation greatly precedes that of its neighboring twentieth century painting gallery. Here was once the secret garden of Paul III, a Pope who saw the Church through changes during the Reformation, convened the Council of Trent, approved the religious order of the Jesuits, and significantly supported the arts during his pontificate. This historical Garden decorates the squared plaza in front of our painting gallery. A large fountain is located in its centre and millions of tourists walk among the orange trees displayed in the terracotta large vases every day. Here the guides explain the Sistine Chapel to the groups every morning. This garden was wonderfully decorated under Pope Paul III with flowers and orange and lemon trees all over its space. Its historical relevance is momentous.
TOTAL COST € 54.600,00
Continuing the gentle climb to the highest level of the Gardens one discovers the flower-filled Ethiopian College. Surrounded by magnolias and araucaria trees, the building was commissioned by Pope Pius XI in order to provide Ethiopian seminarians a place to further their studies. In this section various marble fragments need restoration, including a travertine kiosk with a statue of St. Teresa, the coat of arms of Pius XI, and the exquisite Triton and Mermaid fountains in the rose garden, from where an intimate and stunning view of the city is possible.
TOTAL COST € 93.800,00
The most majestic fountain in the gardens is the 17th century Fountain of the Eagle, responsible for the namesake of this section. Its impressive hydraulic devices delight visitors as they shoot in an improvisational way, and its “water music” ranging from a light sprinkle to a roar of thunder offers a harmonious respite from the heat. There are over 40 stone pieces and fragments that need attention here. The most notable is the monument to St. Peter that previously stood in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums and was originally destined to reside on Rome’s Janiculum hill to commemoratethe First Vatican Council.
TOTAL COST € 386.500,00
Casina Pius IV – Adopted by The Ohio Chapter
In the most ancient part of the Gardens lies the stunning “Casina Pio IV,” taking its name from Pope Pius IV, who saw its building to completion. This garden area was originally dedicated to herbal plantswith healing properties for the Pope. There are many architectural fragments in need of restoration residing in this space used as a splendid retreat spot on a given midsummer afternoon. Although it served as a papal hunting lodge when wildlife still roamed the Vatican, the Casina is now the current site of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
TOTAL COST € 114.100,00