It is the sanctum sanctorum for the worlds 400 million Roman Catholics on one of the seven legendary hills of Rome, nestled behind the landmark dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. There on the grounds of what was once Nero’s circus, the early Christians were martyred, and St. Peter himself was crucified upside down. The land is today a sovereign nation, owned by the Holy See, its borders protected by walls, colorful Swiss Guards and its own modern police force. Though the grounds of the Vatican were once open to the public, since the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II this tiny city state has become a heavily guarded landscape.
The Vatican gardens are composed of different areas built at various times over its 2000 year history. They parallel the design trends of the ages from the decline of the Empire, through the middle ages and back into the light of the Renaissance when St. Peter’s was constructed. Popes did not always live there, but due to the presence of Peter’s grave under what is today the main altar of the church, it has always been the most hallowed of ground.
There are a few unique gardens in the Vatican that are rarely seen, and even more rarely understood. Perhaps the most intriguing, as well as the most ancient is Campo Santo Teutonico, an often overlooked walled enclosure just to the south of St. Peters. It is enclosed by a two story wall in that earthy cantaloupe colored stucco so ubiquitous in Roman architecture. One enters beneath a sign reading Teutons in pace, Germans in peace. Inside is a most unexpected garden, one shaded by Canary Island palms, bay laurel, cedar of Lebanon and blooming oleander.
It is believed that this site was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by St. Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of proto-martyrs, the first who died in the persecutions of Nero. The walled garden is older than most of the Vatican, dating back to the fifth century and Charlemagne, emperor of the Franks. His visit to Rome prompted the Pope to donate a piece of holy ground for a residence, but instead the emperor founded Schola Francorum, a hospice for pilgrims from his homeland.
Early Christians believed a pilgrimage to Peter’s burial place would grant them special blessings. The journey required months of hard travel over the Alps and down into Italy, with many of the exhausted pilgrims dying while in the city. For their sacrifice the German Cemetery was founded for their holy burial, a tradition that has survived 1500 years. Today, any Catholic from a Germanic nation of the Holy Roman Empire who dies in Rome has the right to be buried there.
Set into the outer wall are a series of majolica murals depicting religious scenes surrounded by artifacts in marble, and dozens of potted plants and flowers. The cemetery is laid out in the traditional four quadrant design, with pea gravel walks broken by great rectangular slabs of travertine marble noting burials. Over the centuries each of the quadrants has been raised as new layers of graves were added to a level of four feet. They are now planted with roses and fuchsias, geraniums and herbs of all kinds. Today the graves and plants are tended by the sisters of Christian Charity from Paderborn Germany.
The Vatican gardens include more grand expressions of Renaissance landscape design, many of them in the Italian style of parterres. The greatest of these is the 16th century Labarynth, a great rectangular expression of formal design set in boxwood and framed with Italian stone pines, (Pinus pinea) and cedars of Lebanon, (Cedrus libani).
Higher on the hill is the French garden, a beautiful formal parterre with Baroque fountains and arches of fragrant star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides. These great arches are aligned to reflect the architecture and mass of the dome beyond, and offer a place for sun filled strolls through its graveled walks.
The great water works in the style of Villa d’ Este is expressed in the Fountain of the Eagle, built by Jan van Santen for Pope Paul V Borghese in the seventeenth century. The family Borghese is inextricably tied to Rome where the grounds of family’s immense villa are spread out over many acres is today a public park. This fountain with its stone grottos and plentiful ferns is traditional in Italy, which is not surprising that when the cooling effect is experienced in the brutal heat of the Roman summer. This and all public fountains of the city run with fresh clear water that is cold and safe to drink, none of it recirculating but flowing by gravity straight through the ancient aqueducts and pipes dating back to the height of the Roman Empire.
Another more classical plaza is Casina Pio IV. It is a series of ancient style temples clustered around a central oval courtyard called the Nymphaea. Its central sculpture, that the goddess Cybele is a featured element, complemented by gorgeous mosaics and balustrades. It was built by Pirro Ligorio, the same engineer and garden architect who created Villa d’Este. The complex was built under the reign of Pope Pius IV, a member of the great Italian family of Medici.
Today the Vatican gardens are rarely seen except through the windows of the Vatican Museums, or an aerial view from the top of St. Peters dome. Many of the parterres created over the centuries since the completion of the basilica were expressly designed to be viewed from these high points of the cathedral. Though a visitor to Rome may not be able to enter this sanctum sanctorum, it remains one of the greatest garden realms of the world. Perhaps not because of its rare plants or history, but because it is a landscape born of faith and hallowed ground. For though nations rise and fall, the fortunes of he world ebb and flow, Michaelangelo’s creations and St. Peter’s grave are sure to beacon people of every faith around the world well beyond the new millennium.