One of Rome’s most beautiful and fragrant natural sites, which comes into full bloom in early May, is the Rose Garden, called in Italian “il Roseto Comunale di Roma,” comprised of two and a half acres of land, between the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) and the eastern side of the Aventine, one of Rome’s seven hills. The Rose Garden is at the base of the Aventine, facing the remains of the Palatine Hill and overlooking the Circus Maximus, where chariot races took place in Imperial Rome. In the shape of an amphitheater on the slope of a hill, the Rose Garden is always a pleasant sight despite the whirl of traffic on the Via del Circo Massimo which borders the Rose Garden.
A little farther up the Aventine and overlooking the Rose Garden is the monastery of the Camaldolese Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Saint Antony the Great. The nuns live a contemplative life of prayer and have a guesthouse for pilgrims coming to Rome. Some women studying in Rome lodge there as well. At the top of the Aventine is the headquarters of the Dominican Order of Friars Preachers and their church of Santa Sabina. Next door to Santa Sabina is the pleasant Garden of the Oranges, which was once part of the Dominican cloister, but now is a public park with a wonderful view of the city of Rome and especially of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican.
Close to Santa Sabina is the church of Sant’Alessio, once a Benedictine monastery, but now belonging to the Somaschi Father. Next door is a small public park, and then the Piazza of the headquarters of the Knights of Malta and the famous “keyhole.” From the tiny keyhole in the Knights’ huge gate, one gets yet another great view of Saint Peter’s Basilica. When looking through the keyhole, one is standing in Italy, looking into the garden of the Knights of Malta, which is territory belonging to the country of Malta, not Italy, and you are gazing at the Vatican, yet another independent territory within Italy. Each of the three issues their own stamps: Italy, Malta and the Vatican. There’s really no other “spot” on earth quite like the keyhole at the Knights of Malta on the Aventine.
Just beyond the Knights of Malta is the Benedictine headquarters of Sant’Anselmo, where our Abbot Primate and some one hundred other monks live, either doing studies or helping run the schools of philosophy, theology and liturgy there. The current Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation is Gregory Polan, former abbot of Conception Abbey in Missouri, USA. He became Abbot Primate of the Benedictines in September of 2016.
It is important to remember that the word “Primate” indicates a person who is “first in honor, authority or rank.” The second syllable should be pronounced as “mutt.” If you pronounce the second syllable as “mate,” you are referring to a member of the biological group that includes lemurs, monkeys and apes. It is also important to remember that Benedictines are not an “Order” technically, but an international grouping, called a Confederation, made up of hundreds of autonomous monasteries of men and women who belong to one of nineteen Benedictine Congregations. Also, in pronouncing the word “Benedictine,” the fourth syllable is pronounced “ton.” Very commonly the final syllable is pronounced as rhyming with “line.” Americans monks cringe at such, though the British perhaps do not.
But back to the base of the Aventine hill and the impressive Rose Garden, sometimes called “the most romantic garden in Rome,” but in fact with a very sad story attached to it. The present Garden was originally the site of the principal Jewish cemetery in Rome, beginning in 1645. For centuries the Jewish community buried their beloved dead at what is now the Rose Garden. Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in the twentieth century saw to the destruction of the Aventine Jewish cemetery in 1934. Some of the remains from the former graves were moved to a cemetery in Verona, Italy, and some to the Roman cemetery of Campo Verano, near the Basilica of San Lorenzo outside the walls of Rome. Nonetheless, it was a sad event for the Italy’s Jewish community.
Over time the destroyed and abandoned cemetery became the present Rose Garden. Today there are over a thousand varieties of roses growing in the Garden, many of them gifts from more than twenty countries around the world. There are classic varieties present, as well as modern ones and hybrids. Some don’t even look like roses, but they are in order to qualify for being in the garden.
The Rose Garden is divided into two parts with a wide sidewalk running between the two sections. The higher part, toward the south, contains the permanent display of roses and the lower or northern section of the Garden contains roses for an annual competition.
Since the site of the Rose Garden was once a Jewish cemetery and not far from the Jewish Quarter in Rome, the paths within the Rose Garden were designed as a reproduction of a Menorah, the seven branch candelabrum of Judaism. The American Countess Mary Gayley Senni of Birdsboro Philadelphia, who lived from 1884 to 1971, was responsible for the eventual creation of the Rose Garden on the Aventine and the path design. In addition to the carefully tended grounds of grass and roses bushes, there are plaques containing the Ten Commandments at the two entrances to the garden, indicating that this was once a Jewish burial site.
But before all this, in the early 1920’s, Mary Gayley Senni, a countess on account of marrying an Italian Count, Giulio Senni, wanted the city of Rome to have a garden similar to ones she had seen in other parts of Europe, especially in Paris and Venice. She gave the roses from her villa south of Rome at Grottaferrata to the city of Rome, but when she saw the roses being neglected, she took them back and was eventually able to have a garden near the Coliseum in the center of Rome. This garden was destroyed during World War II.
In the 1950s work began to relocate the Rose Garden of Gayley Senni to the base of the Aventine Hill at the former Jewish cemetery. It has grown there ever since and is open each day, from April 21st until June 17th, from 8:30 am until 7:30 pm, free of charge. The only closed day is May 19th, when the annual awarding of the “Premio Roma” takes palce, an annual international competition to select the most beautiful rose in the city of Rome. This year marks the seventy-fifth such competition.
Despite the sad and complex story behind the Rose Garden, it is a welcome site all through the spring and early summer, with its colorful display of roses. Some of the bushes climb up pillars; others are sculpted into various shapes and sizes. Some of the roses bear decorative fruit, and some are “what you might expect” of a rose bush. Others are hedges or walls in the garden, formed by rose bushes placed close to one another. All in all, the Garden is a feast for the eyes when it is in bloom.
Whatever the time of year, the roses can be viewed even if the gates are not open, as the two gardens are quite visible through the metal fencing around the garden. Cutting and taking roses to decorate one’s home or to offer to another is, of course, strictly forbidden. You can buy fresh flowers, including roses, at stands all around the city any day of the year.
The relatively mild climate of Rome means that some of the roses in the garden can bloom a second time in late summer or early autumn. Last year that was the case and the gardens reopened for a few weeks. An oftentimes overlooked place in the Eternal City, “il Roseto Comuale di Roma” is definitely worth a visit.