Restoration of the Vatican Gardens: Madonna della Guardia

EKTA 31412 (6X7 cm)


Pope Benedict XV spent countless hours in front of the shrine of Our Lady of the Guard, the patron saint of his hometown of Genoa. Many diverse monuments are scattered throughout the Gardens, and they all reflect the styles and preferences of their times. The Statue of St. Therese of Lisieux was placed in the Ethiopian College section of the Gardens in 1927, at the behest of Pope Pius XI, to serve as guardian of the Vatican Gardens . The Genoese donated a replica of the shrine of the Madonna della Guardia (the original overlooks the port of Genoa) to their countryman Pope Benedict XV in 1917 to reduce his homeland nostalgia. The devotion to Our Lady of the Guard began at the end of the fifteenth century with the apparition of the Virgin to Benedetto Pareto (1490). In this marble representation, Our Lady appears to the farmer Pareto, indicating the exact location on Figogna Mountain where she wished for a chapel to be erected in her name. In this section of the Gardens, statues of pagan deities and busts of Roman emperors complement the religious statues of angels and saints. Two sculptures of male characters wearing togas are situated alongside one of the “Aurae” statues, which are neo-Attic Hellenistic personifications of winds. There are also numerous fountains, fragments of ancient sarcophagi, and marble columns that need to be restored.

Thanks to your generosity, phase one of this project was pledged last year. A pilot restoration site has been set up, and the project is moving forward; five sections have since been adopted. In this year’s Wishbook, we present to you the following three sections of the Vatican Garden, statuary, and artifacts in need of restoration.

The Vatican gardens have been a place of quiet meditation and reflection for the Popes, ever since 1279, when Nicholas III (Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, 1277-1280) moved his residence back to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace. Within the walls of his property, he planted an orchard, lawn, and garden.  The gardens, “Palazzetto del Belvedere,” and courtyards of the Vatican Museums are located on the same ground where Nero’s Circus once stood, and where early Christians, including St. Peter, were martyred. According to tradition, St. Helena symbolically scattered earth brought from Golgotha on the Vatican Gardens to unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians who died under the persecution of Nero.

Today’s Vatican Gardens stretch across an area of nearly 58 acres that constitutes over half of Vatican territory. This oasis includes lush gardens filled with winding paths, vibrant flower beds and topiaries, green lawns, groves of massive oaks, and a 7.4 acre forest. There are also ancient fountains, sculptures, and grottoes dedicated to the Madonna, St. Joseph, St. Peter, and other saints.

The Gardens are complete with birds, fountains, flora, and fauna, and they epitomize the harmony and peace found in nature. They remind us of our original role as beings destined to coexist with God, nature, and one another. “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed,” writes Genesis 2:8. These idyllic parks also make us think of our eternal home where all of creation will unite in the shared experience of paradise.

The Vatican grounds represent one of the most unique gardens in the world because the landscape was formed on hallowed ground and, thus, sewn with faith and hope. Many popes have prayed surrounded by this verdant haven.  Pope John XXIII often reflected in the gardens as he prepared to lead the church through the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II often invited young people to pray the rosary with him at the Lourdes shrine atop the Vatican Gardens. The Gardens are also where Pope Benedict XVI prayed his daily rosary.

Restoration of the entire collection of artwork located within the Papal Gardens has never before been performed, making this a historic undertaking.

The Marble and the Metal Restoration Laboratories, together with the General Maintenance team of the Vatican, collaborated to assess the state of conservation of the Garden’s many artifacts. Then, representatives visited various gardens around Europe, including the gardens at Versailles, to learn more about different restoration methods and techniques.  Simultaneously, an inventory and specific report was made for each of the over 600 pieces in the gardens in order to determine the following background information for each object: age of the artifact, constituent materials, former interventions of reassembly or the insertion of new stone parts, presence of metal pins, location within the Gardens, and degree of exposure to the elements. An unfortunate state of degradation affects a large number of the sculptures, and the general lack of maintenance is visible. The product of this careful study now fills a three volume work that advocates an urgent restoration project to conserve all of the artifacts in the Gardens.