~ Curious And Unusual ~

- 13 -

Rome's Rose Garden

and the Premio Roma contest

Every year, in late spring, on the eastern side of the Aventine Hill, next to the Circus Maximus' area, one of the most stunning yet ephimeral natural shows takes place: the blooming of a thousand roses.
Rome's Municipal Rose Garden (Roseto Comunale di Roma) consists of two separate sections: a slightly larger one located uphill, and a lower one, separated by a short road, via di Valle Murcia, along which are the two main gates.

a view of Rome's rose garden, and its logo; in the distance, behind the trees, are the remains of the imperial palace (Palatine Hill)

Despite its rather small size, about 10,000 square metres (2.5 acres) all together, the number of different varieties densely scattered over the garden's slightly sloping grounds is remarkable, over 1,000, coming from no less than twenty countries.

small ground mosaic by the entrance

Roter Korsar (Germany): one of the prize winners of the 2006 edition

Due to its particular nature, the rose garden is only open from early May to mid-late June, i.e. when the plants are in full bloom. On this occasion, in late May, an important international contest called Premio Roma (Rome prize) is held here every year.

During these two months, the public can visit the garden every day, free of charge, from 8 am to 7:30 pm. All the staff is particularly friendly, and willing to answer the visitors' many questions. Guided tours are also available, but they have no fixed schedule (phone 06-5746810 to fix an appointment).

As for most other sites in Rome, also the story of how the rose garden was born is curious, and its history sinks its roots - we may really say so - way back in time.

Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers and, more generally, of springtime, as Chloris was in Greek mythology. Her cult may have been introduced as early as the 7th century BC by king Numa Pompilius, but the first temple sacred to her, according to official records, dated back to the 3rd century BC. It stood on the Aventine, facing the Circus Maximus, as the latter was the site where the celebrations dedicated to the goddess, originally called Floralia, then Ludi Florales, were held every year from April 28 to the first days of May, as of 241 BC. No trace of her temple has survived.
Although there is no connection between the archaic rites in honour of Flora and the rose garden's modern contest, it is a curious coincidence how the location of both events substantially matches, despite their distance in time, well over 2,000 years.

Carezza (Italy), in the garden's collection

Up to the first half of the 1600s, the local Jewish community had been using as a cemetery the grounds located just before the old Porta Portese, one of the two ancient city gates in Trastevere district (see also page 7 in this section for more details about the Jewish community, and The Pope's Walls, part III page 2 for Porta Portese).

the Jewish burial grounds (highlighted) in a map of 1748
In 1645 the gate was rebuilt not far from the earlier one; on that occasion, the cemetery, which spread over the spot of the new Porta Portese, was removed.
The Jews were then given permission to use for this purpose an uncultivated patch of grassland on the Aventine, enclosed by the ancient Santa Prisca's church, the area where the old Savelli fortress once stood, at the top of the hill, and the aforesaid remains of the Circus Maximus. In other words, the very location of today's rose garden.
Due to the strong religious discrimination enforced by the papal authority, this soon became commonly known as Ortaccio degli Ebrei (more or less "infamous yard of the Jews").

For two and a half centuries, up to the late 1800s, the Jewish community kept burying its dead on the Aventine hill. Meanwhile, Rome's main Verano cemetery had been opened in 1836, but only the Roman Catholic were admitted.
Religious prejudices rapidly subsided after the fall of the Papal State (1870), and the Jews were soon let free to use the main cemetery. The Aventine hill stopped being used for new burials as of 1895.

Rome would have probably never had a rose garden, had it not been for an enterprising lady from Pennsylvania who lived here, countess Mary Gayley Senni. She was very fond of roses, and grew a collection of them in her estate in Grottaferrata (just south of the city). Wishing to found a rose garden, such as the ones that already existed in other countries, in 1924 she gave her own plants to Rome's municipality; but then, not satisfied with the arrangement they had been given, in a simple flower bed on the Pincio Hill, she shortly took her roses back.
She had better luck eight years later, when a new governor (the equivalent of a mayor, during the years of the Fascist regime) embraced her project. Rome's first rose garden was opened in 1932 on Colle Oppio, one of the three peaks of the Esquiline Hill, next to the Colosseum. The following year, the first edition of the Premio Roma was held. The countess eventually became herself a member of the judging committee.

a romantic pathway with climbing roses

the plaque in memory of the old cemetery
In those same days (1934), the road that now crosses the present garden, via di Valle Murcia, was opened on the Aventine. This caused the removal of the old graves, and their relocation in the Jewish section of the aforesaid Verano cemetery. After three centuries these fields turned once again to simple grassland. Then, during WW II, the place was used as an orchard.

Finally, in 1950 the grounds underwent their ultimate change. With the approval of the Jewish community, Rome's City Council refurbished them into a public park where roses were planted, in order to retrieve the original project of Colle Oppio's garden which, meanwhile, had suffered severe damages due to the war, being sadly closed, and the contest suspended. The memory of the old Aventine cemetery was preserved by drawing the pathways of the larger section in the shape of a Menorah (seven-branch candelabrum), and by placing a memorial pillar with a plaque shaped as the Tables of the Law by each of the two entrances.
Also the few tall cypress trees that overlook the garden from its downhill end are still the same ones that once grew in the old cemetery.


Of the thousand roses from all over the world, one part forms the garden's own collection, while others are new varieties that enter the annual contest, and prize winners in previous editions.
The actual collection is steadily planted in the larger section. Besides Italy, the European countries which the largest number of specimens come from are France, Germany, Belgium, England and Denmark, but there are some also from the Netherlands, Spain, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. Other continents are represented mainly by the United States, followed by New Zealand, but some roses also come from the Middle East, Canada, South Africa, India, China and Japan. There are classic varieties, as well as modern ones, and a good number of hybrids too. To the eyes of a generic visitor, some of these flowers don't even look like 'roses'!

the modern arrangement of the garden, seen from above:
note the Menorah-shaped pathways in the larger section

the Rosa omeiensis pteracantha has
thorns over 2.5 cm / 1 inch in size, that
turn bright red if viewed against a light
As any other important collection, also Rome's rose garden can boast a number of rare varieties, and some rather peculiar ones too, whose unusual features stir the visitors' interest as much as the prize-winning flowers do, if not even more.
Among the curious specimens are the Rosa phoetida (literally "stinking rose", beautiful, but whose smell can hardly be called a fragrance), the Rosa chinensis viridiflora (a tiny rose from China, whose flower is completely green), the Rosa omeiensis pteracantha (i.e. "with winged-shaped thorns", amazingly translucent to the light, and whose flower has only four petals instead of five), and others.

Rosa phoetida persiana, from western Asia

The downhill section is the one where the annual contest takes place: usually, the public is not admitted here before the committee has chosen the winners. The varieties that enter the contest are arranged in the outer plots.

The central oval, instead, acts as a 'hall of fame', as all the roses found in it are prize winners in previous editions; among others, a sample of the earliest awarded variety (first edition, 1933), the Spanish Condesa de Sastago, is still on display.

Also in the uphill section the plants are arranged in different plots, according to their several categories. Shrubs (standard roses) are the large majority, but there are also climbing roses, ground cover roses, miniature roses, English roses, etc.

(↑ above) a row of climbing roses in the collection;
(← left) Rush, a tall shrub from Belgium, prize winner in 1983

In late summer, if a sufficient number of plants blooms for the second time - Rome's climate makes this very likely to happen - the rose garden may open again for a few weeks. However, no further contest would be scheduled, as this takes place only during the opening in May.