The Vatican Gardens have been a place of quiet and meditation for the popes since 1279 when Nicholas III moved his residence back to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace.
Pious tradition claim that the foundation site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with sacred soil brought from Mount Calvary by Empress Saint Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Jesus Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of Emperor Nero Caesar Augustus.
The gardens date back to medieval times when orchards and vineyards extended to the north of the Papal Apostolic Palace. The Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux is the official Patroness of the gardens.
Within the new walls, which he had built to protect his residence, he planted an orchard (pomerium), a lawn (pratellum) and a garden (viridarium). The event is recorded among other places on a stone plaque which can be viewed in the “Sala dei Capitani” of the “Palazzo dei Conservatori” on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Created around the hill of St. Egidio (where the “Palazzetto del Belvedere” is located today) and the courtyards of the Vatican Museums, this was to be the first garden in the Vatican. However, should you visit the Vatican Gardens today you would begin by viewing a totally different area from that first orchard, one located in a more recent addition to what is now Vatican City State. It is there that larger and more recent gardens have been planted, covering together with the original garden about half of the 44 hectares of Vatican City.
The site received a major re-landscaping at the beginning of the 16th century, during the pontificate of Pope Julius II. Donato Bramante’s original design was then split into three new courtyards, the Cortili del Belvedere, the “della Biblioteca” and the “della Pigna” (or Pine Cone) in the Renaissance landscape design style. Also in Renaissance style, a great rectangular Labyrinth, formal in design, set in boxwood and framed with Italian stone pines, and cedars of Lebanon. In place of Nicholas III’s enclosure, Bramante built a great rectilinear defensive wall.
Today’s Vatican Gardens are spread over nearly 23 hectares (57 acres), they contain a variety of medieval fortifications, buildings and monuments from the 9th century to the present day, set among vibrant flower beds and topiary, green lawns and a 3 hectares (7.4 acres) patch of forest. There are a variety of fountains cooling the gardens, sculptures, an artificial grotto devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, and an olive tree donated by the government of Israel.