Rome Diaries - Week 50

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.


March 12, 2008

A chance comment by a visitor allows me to ask if I can join members of the Papal Foundation in their visit to the gardens of Castel Gandolfo. It is not an easy place to see without a formal invitation. The pope’s villa (built in 1624 by Carlo Maderno) is on a commanding knoll that overlooks both an enormous crater lake and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Emperor Domitian (reign 80-96 AD) built his sprawling villa on the site and then, in the 12th century, the Gondolfi dukes built their castle there. Tradition has it that Aeneas, the son of a Trojan War hero founded the first city here, Alba Longa, and that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were born here. Three hundred years older than Rome, Alba Longa was always its rival until the legendary third king of Rome, Tullus Hostilius, destroyed it in the 7th century BC. The papal fiefdom of 136 acres (27 acres more than Vatican City State) was purchased for 150,000 scudi by Pope Clement VIII in 1598. Its “extra-territorial” status was guaranteed in the 1929 Lateran Treaty and stringent zoning has preserved a semi-rural enviornment to this day. The inner courtyard of Maderno’s palace holds a statue of the cyclops Polyphemus, linked to Aeneas and his bout on the isle of Vulcano, just off the coast. It was found in a nymphaeum of Domitian’s villa, a reminder of how carefully the Romans nurtured their connections to classical Greece. The gardens preserve some of the ruins of Domitian’s villa, which was oriented to gain the views and breezes of the sea. Cisterns and servants quarters took up the highest level (the side of the volcanic crater facing away from the lake and towards the sea), then came a huge retaining wall with four nymphaea (artifical sea caves filled with statuary) and the imperial living quarters and, on the lowest level, a cryptoporticus, which still partially exists, a vast tunnel, more than 1000 feet long, with a coffered ceiling and an arcade along one side. Domitian had this last structure built on doctor’s orders so that he could comfortably walk in all weathers. During World War II, Pius XII secretly housed and fed 12,000 Jews here.

The ruins of small theater, carved decorations still in place, can also be seen. Nearby, a hippodrome was built and woods finally buffer the residence from that point to the Appian Way. Domitian was so content in his villa that he lived here almost the whole year. After his death, at the age of 44, his successors refused to live in his villa, which was abandoned. Unlike the Emperor, the Vatican has put the land to work. About half the property is given over to olive groves, vineyards and dairy farming. The produce is sold at the Vatican grocery store. In the 1930’s, the Vatican Observatory headquarters was moved here to take advantage of clearer skies. (It was de-commissioned in the 1980’s and replaced by VATT (Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope), hosted by Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.) Water comes to the property by aqueduct from the far side of the lake at Palazzulo, another property belonging to the Holy See.

Journalist Vladimiro Redzioch describes the gardens:

"At the request of Pope Pius XII, Emilio Bonomelli rearranged the gardens at Castel Gandolfo. The new Pope's gardens were designed according to the classical principles of landscape gardening and recall the most refined 17th century Italian gardens (so-called giardini all' Italiana). The large-scale work started in June 1930 and lasted two years.

Bonomelli respected the levels of the former Domitian's residence. The present upper level of the gardens, corresponding to the middle level of the emperor's residence, is occupied by the so-called Belvedere Garden (giardino del Belvedere) or simply "the Park." The park is divided into 16 square lawns and embellished with magnificent specimens of Mediterranean and exotic trees. Four nymphaea ornament th