The Vatican Gardens – A Review of a Review

The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently reviewed a Vatican book on its gardens:

 “The gardens make up almost half of Vatican City State's 109 acres and their colorful evolution is documented in a newly updated volume: A Guide to the Vatican Gardens: History, Art, Nature, curated by historians and experts from the Vatican Library and Vatican Museums. Illustrated with full-color photographs and historic black and white engravings, the book has been translated into English.”

I have not read the book. I assume NCR is not misrepresenting it.

In describing the history of their Gardens, the Vatican reaches back even before St. Peter, to the time of emperor Caligula. This is fanciful at best. The review goes on at considerable length before quietly admitting that all this fluff has nothing to do with the present Vatican Gardens: “The Vatican lost that and many other properties after the loss of the Papal States in 1870.” But then it continues with further irrelevancies. The article never tells you how today’s Vatican Gardens came into existence.

During most of papal history, the Vatican was one of the world’s richest institutions. The pope ruled over the Papal States -- much of modern Italy (and often additional territory as well). Due to corruption and mismanagement, the people of the Papal States repeatedly rebelled. European rulers squelched their attempts at freedom. But since the rulers couldn’t agree on a division of spoils, they simply forced the people to continue under papal rule. Eventually, under Garibaldi’s leadership, the revolution succeeded. After the loss of the Papal States, not only was there no garden, but the Vatican was effectively broke. Pius IX refused to negotiate a settlement, and the Vatican fell into disrepair.

Mussolini realized he needed the support of the pope to rule over Italy, and entered into negotiations with Pope Pius XI. The Pope negotiated the Lateran Treaty, essentially extorting a fortune from Mussolini in return for his support. Pius XI proceeded to spend nearly all this fortune on a lavish renovation and expansion of the Vatican, including the creation of the Vatican Gardens. Keep in mind that this was during the Great Depression.

My discussion is based on God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner (2015, Simon & Schuster). This is an excellent, and seemingly encyclopedic work, which actually omits many damaging facts. Posner notes that nearly 1/3 of the cash went to building mail and telegraph offices; a train station; a power plant; and an industrial zone of garages, shops, and factories. Pius XI also built a radio station (p. 53). In the eyes of the pope and the Church, this was a much higher priority than his hungry and homeless flock.

To create the Vatican Gardens, they ripped out many small gardens – some of which the Vatican book mentions- performed extensive landscaping, and laid miles of pipe to irrigate a lavish formal garden. Not only did they build a replica of Lourdes, they imported rare and exotic plants from five continents (p. 54). This was a garden fit for Kublai Khan, or Marie Antoinette. The pope also built a wall around Vatican City, separating it from Rome for the first time in its history.

Not only did the Vatican launch a lavish building program in the midst of the Great Depression, it added over 500 positions to the Curia. The pope spent the cash from the Lateran Treaty very quickly, and almost none went to the poor. Furthermore, the Vatican had many Catholic community banks. At this time, 74 of them failed, and the Vatican simply refused to compensate the depositors (p. 56). Let them eat cake!

In short, the Vatican’s history of its Gardens was effectively disinformation, suppressing the real facts and substituting irrelevancies. NCR, which is supposed to be an expert on such matters, either intentionally followed the party line or neglected to do its homework, and thus unintentionally pushed the party line. Either way, if you want an unbiased light on Catholic affairs, NCR provides a dim and distorted one.