Recently I was invited to the Vatican in Rome, Italy, to visit the historic gardens – how that came about is another story for another time. The Gardens of Vatican City, or informally known as the Vatican Gardens, were established by Pope Nicholas III in 1279. He planted an orchard, a lawn (“pratellum”), and a garden. Today the gardens cover 57 acres of an amazing collection of plant species.
The Head Gardener, “Angelo”, met me and a turf colleague, Giovanni Tracanzan, at a secret side entrance. He didn’t speak English, but by tradition and ancestry we were able to communicate just fine. I guess it’s an Italian thing – I don’t know. He has a passion for taking care of the gardens and the overall grounds at Vatican City. He knows every square foot of the place and every plant in it, and he knows the story behind every tree and shrub like when it was planted and by whom.
Read: Down and Dirty
He is no different than a golf course superintendent in that respect. He knows the maintenance history and routine for every plant and area, and for each of the many small gardens and sites within the Vatican Gardens. Angelo started working there as a young man, and by apprenticeship he has learned how to care for the gardens in a way that is passed down from one gardener to the next starting in 1279. He also is aware of the historical, political, and religious significance of working at the Vatican. He doesn’t strive for ultimate perfection – in other words it doesn’t look like Augusta National every day – but there is perfection and beauty in the way nature has allowed the gardens to reveal itself. When you are actually standing there inside the Gardens, looking around at amazement, you realize you wouldn’t change a thing. The lawn areas are a combination of turfgrasses and what some would consider weeds, but they are mowed regularly and they form a sort of ‘turf’ that provides a lush, green cover. I suppose tall fescue would be the ideal choice for the lawns there, but that’s not the point.
Everywhere you look there were beautiful plant species allowed to grow and flourish, not overly trimmed and pruned. The backdrop of all the plants and planting display beds are statues, monuments, and of course St. Peter’s Basilica. Each one with significant historic and religious meaning. For example, Pope Paul III installed this fountain in the 16th century; Pope John XXIII like to visit this chapel in the summer to keep cool from the humidity; Marconi transmitted the first radio signal from that location; Pope Pius X planted these olive trees over there, etc. I inspected Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s rose garden with newly installed drip irrigation. The heirloom roses are very fragrant and would be welcomed at any botanical garden. There was one particular oak tree over 250 years old, and Pope Francis will often sit on a bench under in the evenings.
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I had the honor of an audience with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See. We discussed many things including a Patron Saint for golf course superintendents. Incidently, Saint Therese of Lisieux is the official Patroness of the Vatican Gardens and has the title of “Sacred Keeper of the Gardens.” The Cardinal presented me with rosaries blessed by Pope Francis to give to my wife and children.
After observing all the history, and artwork, and all the flowers, shrubs, and trees, I was most impressed with Angelo, the Pope’s Gardener. And at the end of the day, in true “la famiglia” fashion, he asked when I was going to take my wife and children and visit him and his family at his home located outside the city of Rome. Saluté Angelo!