Włodzimierz Re¸dzioch speaks with Dr. Osvaldo Gianoli, Director of the Papal Villas, about Pope Francis’ decision to open his summer residence to the public.
The evening before the signing of the Lateran Pact, on February 11th, 1929, Prince Luigi Barberini learned from a journalist friend that, according to that agreement between the Holy See and the Italian State, his villa at Castel Gandolfo would become the property of the Holy See. It was quite a surprise for the prince, but, being part of an aristocratic family with strong ties and fidelity to the Pope, he graciously reacted with a gesture of best wishes for Pope Pius XI. His villa would once again be the papal summer residence. More than three hundred years prior, his ancestor, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, spent time at this enchanting place. After the Conclave of 1623, when he mounted the Throne of Peter, taking the name Urban VIII, Barberini had a villa built here that three years later, in 1626, was already completed. Not far from this villa, his nephew, Taddeo Barberini, took up residence, having a small palace built in the adjacent gardens that stood where the Emperor Domitian’s villa had once been. With the signing of the Lateran Pact, the Popes returned to Castel Gandolfo, to the Barberinis’ former residence, which now became part of the new State of Vatican City.
It was Pius XI who contributed most to restructuring the Villas. Then Pius XII spent a great deal of time at the Castel Gandolfo residence, and in 1944, in some of the War’s most dramatic moments, he opened the Villas to 12,000 displaced persons. Pope Pacelli was the first Pope to begin reciting the Angelus from Castel Gandolfo from the microphones of Vatican Radio. John XXIII was always glad to spend his time in his summer residence, but there are many stories told of his “escapes” from the Palace to visit the surrounding towns. Paul VI was an important figure, because he paid special attention to Castel Gandolfo (among other examples, he had a school established nearby, run by the Sisters of St. Lucy Filippini, and he also had a hall for audiences set up; today this hall is managed by the Focolare Movement). John Paul I never managed to get to Castel Gandolfo during his short papacy. But for John Paul II this summer residence became a “second Vatican” where he not only rested but also carried out intense public activity. Benedict XVI truly loved Castel Gandolfo and was very attached to its historical gardens, going often to the statue of Mary in the park; this is where he wrote his books.
Pope Francis spends his holidays in the Vatican, at the Casa di Santa Marta, and so he has decided to allow public access to his residence. Starting this year, groups organized through the Vatican Museums will be able to visit the Papal Villas. This is a new phase for the Castelli Romani papal residence, and I talked about it with the Villas’ new director, Dr. Osvaldo Gianoli.
Dr. Gianoli, how was the decision reached to open the Papal Villas of Castel Gandolfo to the public?
Dr. Osvaldo Gianoli: Pope Francis himself decided to open the Villas to the public, since he never goes to Castel Gandolfo. The decision implies the sharing of a unique asset with the public. In opening the Villas to the public, we want to show that they are an object for the common good. We have managed to bring the Pope’s vision to life through the synergies that exist between the Villas and the Vatican Museums, but also through organisms such as our Internet office. The Villas’ managing staff takes care of the properties, but the Museums have indisputable professional quality when it comes to managing visits. Besides this, we use the Museum’s press office, since we don’t have one. Thanks to this cooperation, we were able to open to the public in only two months.
Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said that the Papal Villas are not “a city park, where you can go for an open-air stroll with your girlfriend, or read the paper; rather, they are a true art gallery…”
This is important to note: the Papal Villas are not simply a “public green,” but a prestigious historical garden. They are a park that is also a museum. Here we find the ruins of Domitian’s villa (its perimeter walls, cryptoportico, theater, Roman road and numerous Roman statues) as well as Italian-style gardens created in the 1930s by director Emilio Bonomelli and architect Giuseppe Momo, and which have been preserved up to the present day with very few variations. For the Church, too, this is a very special place, as it has served as a place of rest and prayer for many Popes.
And this is why visits are being organized as if the Villas were a museum?
Exactly. At this time, whoever wants to visit the Villas needs to access the Vatican Museums site, and reserve a visit in small groups, up to 25 people, with a guide. For the moment we have tours in Italian and English, but eventually we will be offering tours in seven or eight languages, including Polish.
The ticket price of 26 euros might be a bit steep for a pilgrim…
This is still very much a work-in-progress, and we are trying to improve the system as we go, so that means we are open to changes made according to visitors’ needs. We could, for instance, start giving discounts for larger groups.
Why can’t people visit the Villas on their own?
We can’t give people the freedom to enter by themselves, because the Villas do remain the papal summer residence, and we have to be committed to preserving this place.
Speaking of the Villas, we have discussed its archeological treasures, works of art, marvelous Italian-style gardens, etc. But a good part of the Villas is taken up by the farm. How is it that there is a farm in the papal residence?
The farm was born at the same time as the Villas, because Pius XI really desired it. At that time, it was very cutting-edge, and in some aspects it remains so today, although it is managed in a traditional way. Our production is not labor-intensive; we work the way they did in the 1950s and 60s. All of the farm’s produce is organic: for fertilizer we use cow manure.
The farm consists of an olive grove (1500 trees), a vineyard, a cow farm (around 70 cows), farmyard animals (chickens, turkeys and rabbits), a pair of ostriches, a vegetable garden, and a fruit orchard. We have a traditional olive oil press: it has a millstone that doesn’t heat the oil while it is working.
What do you produce on the farm, and where are your products sold?
We produce milk, cream, butter, yogurt, oil and eggs, and these products are sent to the Vatican market (known as Annona). Of course, the people who work here can also buy our products. If our management agrees, we may be able to start including the farm in our tours. It could also become a unique snack stop.
How many people work at Castel Gandolfo?
In the Villas we employ a total of 55 people; of these, 32 work on the farm.