The Vatican Gardens: Gruesome Past into Green Haven
Today’s lush and immaculately manicured Vatican Gardens were once just a sprawl of mosquito-infested swamps, clay hillsides and hardy grape vines.
The wild, unpopulated landscape on the fringes of early Rome slowly shifted as it changed to accommodate historical events over the course of 2000 years: the martyrdom and burial of St Peter; the blossoming of Christianity; the growth of papal power; and the eventual establishment of the world’s smallest sovereign nation.
The gardens make up almost half of Vatican City State’s 44 hectares and their colourful evolution is documented in a newly updated volume: A Guide to the Vatican Gardens: History, Art, Nature, curated by historians and experts from the Vatican Library and Vatican Museums.
In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Caligula set up a circus for chariot racing on the outskirts of ancient Rome. Shipping over a red granite obelisk from Egypt, he decorated the circus with the monument, which now stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square.
Emperor Nero expanded the circus, using it to showcase his cruelty against Christians like burning them alive to light his evening parties on the hill’s gardens and crucifying others, like St Peter, who was then buried in a roadside cemetery nearby.
As the apostle’s tomb became a place of worship, the “circus fell into disrepair and returned to wild scrub”, wrote the book’s co-author, Ambrogio Piazzoni.
After Emperor Constantine converted and granted Christians the freedom to practise their faith in 313 AD, he ordered the construction of the first basilica dedicated to St Peter.
With the Saracen raid in 846, Pope Leo IV constructed a fortressed wall to defend the Vatican area from marauders. Inside the walls, there were meadows, vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards while outside — which is part of today’s gardens — were more pastures and woods.
Once popes started residing permanently at the Vatican, they added their own personal touches to the vast expanse of greenery surrounding them.
Pope Nicholas IV had his doctor, Simon of Genoa, cultivate medicinal plants and aromatic herbs in the tradition of the Benedictine monk.
This 13th-century papal initiative was to become the oldest botanical garden in Italy and marked the beginning of the formal scientific study of botany as a branch of medicine, “predating by centuries the teaching of botany” in academies and universities, Mr Piazzoni wrote.
Pope Pius V made sure the medicinal plant studies continued in the 16th-century by hiring a Tuscan botanist and geologist to take care of the gardens. The pope gave him the title of “medicinal plant expert of Our Lord” and furnished him with a “safe conduct pass” allowing him to travel anywhere in search of rare plants.
The Vatican medicinal garden gradually lost importance — becoming a humble lawn.
Given the variety of habitat and papal proclivities at the time, the Vatican Gardens were also home to a menagerie of wild animals including the brief upkeep of a leopard during the pontificate of Boniface VIII in the 13th century and Hanno, the elephant, which was a gift to Pope Leo X from Portugal’s king in 1514.
Pope Pius XII (1939-81) found an injured finch in the Vatican Gardens and nursed her back to health. “Gretchen” the finch would keep the pope company and sit on his shoulder at mealtimes while hopping down to peck at crumbs.
Pope Leo XIII (1818-1903) spent a lot of time caring for the gardens and pursuing his love for hunting and viniculture.
He reportedly tended his small vineyard himself, hoeing out the weeds, and visiting often for moments of prayer and writing poetry. He had a papal guard on duty with orders to shoot to scare off birds threatening his grape harvest.
Modern-day popes still use the gardens for exercise, restful relaxation and meditation, although the gardens were opened to the public several years ago for tours which “reinforce the ideals that constitute the universal mission of this extraordinary place”— the love and care for God’s creation.— By Carol Glatz