They say that the origin of the Italian capital’s nickname, the “Eternal City”, dates back to classical times. Romans, the rulers of the most powerful empire in the known world, thought their city would last forever. While other political entities rose and fell like amusement park rides, they believed that Rome would never fall. Obviously, they were mistaken: the barbarians brought the hegemony of Rome to an end. Today, this ancient city is an impressive jumble of architectural and archaeological heritage. Yet despite the layers of buildings that have been laid down over the centuries, there are still some green areas.
The Villa Borghese is one of the finest. Bought by the State from the Borghese family in 1901, this enormous park is one of Europe’s largest. Unlike other famous city parks, from Hyde Park to El Retiro, it combines nature with art. This sprawling green space, as well as a zoo, has dozens of fountains and monuments created by great artists. It even has a museum: the Galleria Borghese, where visitors can browse works by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio. However, although the Villa Borghese is a highlight, there are many other gardens, both private and public, lying waiting to be discovered.
One of them is the Trastevere Botanical Garden. Recommended for its soothing atmosphere, despite its location in one of Rome’s most touristy areas, this 12 hectare garden was the estate of a palace that was once the home of Queen Christina of Sweden. The property later passed into public hands, and is now part of the Sapienza University of Rome. Although it is sometimes said that it is rather neglected, there are nonetheless some fascinating finds here: a bamboo forest, dozens of varieties of fern, a Japanese garden, aquatic plants and much more.
San Liberato is another botanical garden, although one that is rather harder to gain access to. Not open to the general public, the only way you can enter is by being lucky enough to be invited to an event here. It is certainly a unique place. The British landscape gardener, Russell Page, described it in his diaries as “the most magical garden in the world, with an atmosphere of great tranquillity and the correct balance between trees and woods, the lake, hills, the sky and the fields.”
The garden was laid out over the course of half a century. It was the passion of the Count Donato Sanminiatelli, an extraordinary amateur gardener and art lover who, together with his wife, the princess María Odescalchi, made this green space a very personal project. When responsibility later fell to his son, Andrea, he contacted Page for help on some of details, although in the end the famous garden designer spent 15 years working on it. “We have created paths, green fields and flowerbeds to frame and underline, to enhance and polarise the visible presence incarnated in the features of the lake,” says Page.
In this city of churches, nature lovers will be pleased to hear that some of them have their own gardens. A delightful example is that of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, located within the institution’s walls. It is both green space and vegetable garden, created in the space left vacant by an old amphitheatre and re-landscaped in 2004 by the architect Paolo Pejrone. The elliptical space of this former monastery garden is divided by two perpendicular pergola-covered paths which meet at a central fountain; the spaces in between are filled with herbs, flowers and shrubs of all kinds.