God’s country: the Italian gardens where popes have trodden

During the lockdowns I really missed Italy. Of course, I missed friends, family and uncertificated travel too, but visits to Italy have been yearly events in my life. I have just corrected the absence and spent time in gardens near Rome, one of them already familiar, another new to my eye.

New, for me, are the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles south-east of the city. They are now open to the public. In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII began the practice of commissioning formal gardens on a hillside above the exquisite Lake Albano. Others followed suit and, in the 1960s and 1970s, Pope Paul VI loved the site as a summer retreat.

He became a heli-pope. In 1975, he began to travel from Rome to Castel Gandolfo by helicopter, unaware carbon fumes might damage what he regarded as God’s creation. It was during a summer withdrawal to Castel Gandolfo that he died in 1978. The current Pope Francis prefers the city, an urban pope indeed, and since 2014 it is he who has made the gardens accessible to paying visitors. The helipad is not part of his weekend planning.

The main papal gardens run on three terraces, one above the other, with fine views over the lake and vast plain below. They were taken over from the great Barberini family, themselves a source of popes, in 1929. The terraces are still held up by the supporting walls of one of Rome’s most feared emperors, Domitian, who ruled from AD81 to 96. Long before the popes, Domitian had a palace on the same hillside. By the end of his reign, he was proclaiming himself the equal of the god Jupiter. In his own way, he wished to be considered infallible.

Domitian’s palace above Lake Albano is still only partly known and understood. Visitors to it could never feel safe and secure. On the lake, Domitian used to insist that he be towed in a small boat on a very long rope behind a man-powered galley so that he would not be irritated by the sound of its plashing oars.

The long border, Castel Gandolfo
The long border, Castel Gandolfo © Harriet Rix

In his gardens he had a small theatre, clad in multicoloured marble, in which he would meet delegations from the senate, whom he obliged to travel out to him from Rome. The most impressive ancient survivor in the gardens is a huge brick-built portico. More than 300 yards long and very high, it once led visitors into the hillside to encounter Domitian, the self-styled equal of Jupiter.

In the 1940s, it became a refuge for many of the local town’s residents, who had to shelter from nearby Allied bombing. The families included pregnant women, some of whom gave birth in a bedroom given over for the purpose in the Pope’s own residence. The babies became known as the Pope’s children, a category long in abeyance. If they were boys, many of them were christened with his name, Pio.

On Gandolfo’s main terrace the ageing trees are most impressive, evergreen holm oaks and fine pine trees, Pinus pinea, whose rounded heads were compared in antiquity to big mushrooms. The garden’s star attraction is the view from the first terrace on to the parterre beds of the second one below. They are hedged with box, still free of blight and moth, and are densely planted for summer and autumn with white and pink fibrous-rooted begonias.

These beds were introduced in the 1930s, based on old prints of the terrace when owned by the Barberini family. Spreading bushes of rosemary punctuate the walkway from which they are best viewed, together with that Italian staple, myrtle. This long terrace of papal bedding out is most impressive: the begonias are replaced yearly by flowering plants for spring.

As the terrace progresses, it becomes less tidy, so I walked down to see what was going wrong. There is plenty of grass and green weeds in the further beds, but the papal gardeners are not aspiring to rewilding. They have not looked after the full display. After a very dry summer, they need to go back to re-weeding.

Umbrella pines, Castel Gandolfo
Umbrella pines, Castel Gandolfo © Harriet Rix

Keen garden watchers will certainly enjoy Castel Gandolfo. They should not be deterred by a previous visit to the Vatican gardens in Rome. Popes have enjoyed walking there too and the current Pope Francis has used the hard surfaced paths under the garden’s trees for his personal jogging. Entry tickets give access to features and fountains, but neither they nor the level of gardening are distinguished.

An artificial grotto mimics the grotto at Lourdes, complete with a white statue of the wonder-shrine’s Bernadette. To one side, a pile of jumbled stones contains fibrous-rooted begonias, rose-red only. I give it very low marks.

The Vatican gardens publicise their blend of styles, English, French and Italian. For a blend of history and beauty, the place to visit is Ninfa, the lovely garden near Sermoneta, another 25 miles beyond Castel Gandolfo when heading south-east beyond Rome.

Ninfa too has a papal connection. When the garden was still a populated town, Pope Alexander III was crowned there in 1159 in one of the churches whose ruins still make a heavenly setting for roses such as Mermaid and White Rock.

In 1381, the town was ruined by feuding and fighting but, in the past 100 years or so, it has been given new fame and life by members of its owning Caetani family. Greatly helped by American and English wives in the family, Ninfa became a garden unlike any other, fed by copious water, set among ruined medieval buildings and planted by owners with an exquisite sense of plants and space.

The entrancing gardens of Ninfa
The entrancing gardens of Ninfa, where Pope Alexander III was crowned in 1159 © Giacinto Canini/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I first wrote about it in 1987, just after the death of Hubert Howard, husband of the modern garden’s presiding genius, Lelia Caetani. A life-long painter and thoughtful gardener, she was well described by a contemporary as a “shy beanpole”.

Since 1987, Ninfa’s visiting days have multiplied and its fame has spread to TV screens, often with commentators who are at a loss to name its loveliest roses. It has been masterminded by its overseer, Lauro Marchetti, who has maintained the standards instilled in him from early youth by the owners.

After 35 years of service, Marchetti has stepped aside from the garden’s daily running. Its gorgeous springs and rivers have become ever more at risk to droughts and alternative uses beyond the gardens. Fields of kiwi fruits now line approaches to Ninfa, crops that need copious irrigation from its river. In the first lockdown, Ninfa drew 60,000 visitors, flocking to beauty in the open air. Crowds are a challenge for any garden, but especially for one planned as a refuge.

After 120 days without rain, the garden at Ninfa is still green and entrancing. The water levels of the river have been raised slightly by controllers of dams further up the valley. Even in October, there are flowers on the Caetani family’s choice of roses, led by La Follette and copper-pink General Schablikine. Agrippina, the emperor Nero’s mother, was never so lovely as the scarlet rose named after her, which enjoys a second flowering on Ninfa’s walls.

Prime time viewing at Ninfa is May, but a pre-booked ticket is necessary: giardinodininfa.eu gives details. So far, all is well at this idyllic haven in Italy.

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