Recently, the world spotlight has been focused on the Vatican and the tight knot of buildings squeezed into its walls. Between St. Peter’s Basilica, the Nervi audience hall, the Domus Sanctae Martae and the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City has seemed like a condensed cluster of structures.
Behind those lofty brick or travertine facades, however, lies the oasis of the Vatican Gardens, where Pope Benedict XVI will live out his days in a renovated monastery. The gardens were already dear to the pope emeritus, who referred to them as his "vital space" for prayer.
The Vatican city state comprises 104 acres, of which 57 are destined for gardens. This division is much like the synthesis of the active and contemplative in the Christian life, where the busy existence in the world is fortified by quiet times of prayer.
The gardens climb the steep Vatican hill, amid winding paths and terraced overlooks. The fortunate souls who have enjoyed access to the garden are often surprised to discover how taxing a climb that hill can be.
Pope Emeritus Benedict will retire to a modern building, the convent of Mater Ecclesiae, founded in 1994 by Blessed Pope John Paul II to house a community of religious sisters who would pray for the pope and his mission. The Spartan structure humbly stands apart from its larger, more glamorous neighbors.
St. Peter’s Basilica soars 200 yards away, dwarfing the little brick box, while a few yards up the hill a stretch of wall dating from the reign of Leo IV in 850 underscores the recent construction of the monastery. The building next door, once known as the "cottage in the wood," is the splendid Casina Pio IV, built by one of the last great Renaissance popes in 1564. Pius IV Medici hired architect extraordinaire Pirro Ligurio to construct this white marble and stucco confection, replete with fountains, mosaics and picturesque terraces. Today, this exquisite building functions as the Vatican think tank, housing the Pontifical Academies of the Sciences, Social Sciences and Thomas Aquinas.
It seems doubtful that Pope Emeritus Benedict was looking for splendor and antiquity after eight years in the Apostolic Palace and filling the 2,000-year-old shoes of Peter the Fisherman.
The beauties of the Vatican Gardens are not found in its palaces or villas, but in the fruits of man’s cooperation with nature in shaping the land and helping it to prosper.
Dubbed by some as the "Green Pope," Benedict spoke frequently of the relationship between nature and man. During World Youth Day 2007, Benedict explained, "Experience shows that the disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men."
Benedict’s new home stands at the crossroad of the three types of gardens in the Vatican: the subtle symphony in green of the Italian gardens, where jade boxwood twists into labyrinths against the emerald swath of lawn; the studiously varied flora of the French garden; and the deceptively "natural" spontaneity of the English garden.
Twenty-seven gardeners oversee the many varieties of trees and flowers, taking pride in a Japanese maple that sits next to a gnarled olive tree planted in 1995 to commemorate the first anniversary of Vatican diplomatic relations with Israel. A bunya-bunya from Australia stands by a guava tree from Brazil and a North American magnolia. These myriad plants blooming side by side offer a colorful, fragrant and joyous vision of the unity of the universal Church.
Amid the flowering trees and broad greensward, the artistry of man also adorns the site. The gardens are punctuated with fountains, 100 in total, ranging from the spectacular pseudo-grotto built by Pope Paul V in the 17th century to a charming little basin with perching bronze frogs nestled by the heliport. Pope Paul V was so enamored of constructing water works that he earned himself the nickname "Fontifex Maximus" instead of the usual title of "Pontifex Maximus." The most recent fountain to grace the gardens is the St. Joseph Fountain, given to Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 by the Patrons of the Vatican Museums in honor of his given name.
Many visitors have been delighted to find a reproduction of the Grotto of Lourdes on the highest plateau of the gardens. Built in 1902, the altar is the original one from Lourdes, which was given to Pope John XXIII.
The active and contemplative life of the garden is perhaps best expressed in two statues placed in these grounds. The first is a moving marble statue of St. Peter sitting in chains awaiting his imminent crucifixion. This 1887 work by Amalia Dupre was the first sculpture by a woman to be placed in the Vatican. A few short yards away, high atop a column, stands a bronze statue of St. Peter that marks the geographical center of the Vatican Gardens. Dupre’s statue shows Peter’s quiet and prayerful preparation for martyrdom, while the lofty image of the Prince of the Apostles surveys the fruit of his witness, overlooking Vatican City, Rome and beyond.
Elizabeth Lev is an art historian based in Rome.