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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 the wall supporting the upper terrace. On the northern edge of the park is a Roman court theater. On the opposite edge, the Madonna of the Park, a statue sculpted by Angelo Righetti in 1935, stands near a stone-framed pool with water lilies. This charming corner of the garden was the favorite of John Paul II, who spent a lot of time here praying and meditating.

On the lower terrace, the magnificent Italian Gardens are 300 meters long and are divided into several gardens. The first one, which skirts Domitian's cryptoporticus, is divided into four compartments composed of geometric flowerbeds with low hedges (the floral designs of this garden imitate the ceilings of Roman basilicas). The next small garden is composed of four mazes made of clipped hedges with a fountain in the center. Another garden is called the Citrus Orchard (dell'Agrumeto). It consists of 20 lawns decorated with sophisticated floral patterns. In each corner of the lawns orange and lemon trees are grown in big pots. At the end of the garden a row of tall cypresses creates a natural green niche.

Just behind the Citrus Orchard is a charming little garden. In its center a beautiful specimen of Magnolia grandiflora grows; that is why this garden is called the MagnoliaGarden. The lawn of a garden is decorated with the floral representation of Pope Pius XI's coat of arms — an eagle with three spheres and a Florentine fleur-de-lis. Nearby there is also a fountain with a statue.

From the Belvedere Garden a monumental stairway descends to the lower levels. The entrance to the stairway is decorated with Pius XI's coat-of-arms, and on the balustrade, flowers in pots are placed.

On the lowest terrace in front of the stairs lies a square called Piazza Quadrata surrounded on three sides by a tall hedge of trimmed trees forming a green arcaded wall resembling ancient aqueducts. Along the hedge, evergreen oaks pruned to form cones grow in two rows. In the middle of the square, the most precious monument from the Roman period is preserved — an equestrian statue in marble (probably this sculpture represents the Emperor Antoninus Pius).

Close to the square, parallel to the Italian Gardens, the Garden of Mirrors (giardino degli Specchi) was arranged. It has vast English-style lawns with two rectangular pools. Their waters mirror the blue sky, white clouds and green trees. In the corners of the pools water lilies grow. The neat lawn is embellished with shrubs shaped into spheres and truncated pyramids. The garden is separated from the ItalianGarden on the upper level by a wall with the Fountain of Neptune, whose statue is placed in the central niche.

South of the Piazza Quadrata, the garden becomes a vast park containing a variety of trees and crossed by shady alleys inviting one to walk in. Further south and southeast, the landscape changes again, becoming an olive grove, a vineyard, and a meadow where cows graze." (from the monthly, “Inside the Vatican”)

We leave the gardens, ducking branches being pruned by an army of energetic gardeners. In a short time, the group is ushered into an elegant restaurant and greeted individually by the abbot of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. Many are still lingering on the balcony with its view of Lake Albano when his sales pitch begins. The “free lunch” is for a convergence of donors to St. John’s University, Catholic Relief Service and the Papal Foundation; it is too good an opportunity to pass up. But it’s not just any sales pitch; it is for “the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in the modern era,” an almost forty year-old dream of calligrapher Donald Jackson (“Senior Scribe to Her Majesty the Queen’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in London, England”) in collaboration with St. John’s Abbey and University. Jackson asked the monks, “Do you want me to make the Word of God live on a page?” And, given the monastic connection with illuminated manuscripts, they could not say no. Useful or not, the promotional literature claims this the modern-day Bible is poised to “ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world” and will be completed by next year, at a cost of $4 million. It is constructed from animal skin and inscribed with quill pens using natural, hand-ground inks and pigments – all bound in 200 year-old Welsh oak boards. The original, and this is important, will be permanently housed in the on-campus library. But “editions” of the original, handwritten work will be created on Guttenberg’s invention, the printing press. First and foremost will be 360 full-sized (“two feet tall and three feet wide when open”) “heritage sets,” printed on archival paper that will go for a pre-publication price of $115,000 (an additional volume of commentary is free). Just before dessert, someone from our group goes up to the microphone with a testimonial saying that his friend called him about purchasing a “heritage set.” “I said I wasn’t interested; don’t waste your time coming down.” This, of course, did not stop his friend. “After we met,” our speaker says, “I bought two.” I understand a pocket version of the seven volume bible is already available for $70, magnifying glass not included.

March 18, 2008

One of the seminarians who helps out at the church is going to Norway for a retreat. He will be staying at Tautra Mariakloster, the first Cistercian abbey in Norway since the Reformation; the ruins of a 13th century abbey lie nearby. The Norwegian government made a formal request for a foundation in 1999. It was seen as cultural benefit to have a monastery that would restore an ancient monastic tradition to the country. Although over 80% of Norway is Lutheran, monastic meditation and prayer is seen as beneficial to all, a contrast not only to the U.S., but most Europe.

Rome Diaries - Week 50
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