Castel Gandolfo is one of the castelli romani, one of the hill towns closest to Rome, which have been a resort for the inhabitants of the city since ancient times. Because the area is elevated, it is cooler in the summer months, and before the age of the beach, this was the place to come. Cicero had a villa up here at Tusculum, which is now a mere collection of stones, and the Emperor Domitian also had a villa here, more or less where the Papal villa now stands. The site of the Papal villa is very fine, for it overlooks the lake of Albano, which must have been what attracted Domitian.
Most Roman Emperors had numerous suburban villas, and the landscape around Rome is dotted with various archaeological sites. The most famous of them all is the Villa of Hadrian on the road to Tivoli, an enormous complex of palaces and ornamental stretches of water, which represents the apotheosis of the Roman villa. Hadrian’s is a palace, whereas the villa in antiquity was essentially a country farmhouse, as Cicero’s would have been. Later on, in the Renaissance, villas became more oriented to the outdoors: thus the famous villa in Tivoli, that of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, is in fact a small house with a large garden attached. This is the garden famous for its fountains. Nearby is the perhaps more interesting Villa Gregoriana, which is simply a garden of the Romantic age, famous for its waterfalls, subject of numerous paintings. When the Italians today use the word villa they quite often mean what we mean by park.
The villa at Castel Gandolfo was the regular retreat of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the hot months, when Rome so often becomes unbearable. Pope Francis chose to spend his summer in the Vatican at work, but his predecessors would go to Castel Gandolfo, no doubt taking work with them. It was here too that the Popes would entertain people. John Paul II would hold what we would call house parties: various great and good people would be invited to stay; Benedict XVI used to meet here with his former doctoral students. These house parties ought perhaps to be best understood as summer schools or even reading parties, as once popular in Britain years ago.
The gardens at the villa contain one interesting feature left over from the time of Domitian: there is a cryptoporticus. This feature can be found also at Hadrian’s villa, and also on the Palatine hill in Rome itself, where it is very rarely open.
A cryptoporticus is really an underground tunnel which runs the length of a building and whose original purpose was to allow the household slaves to get from one room to another without being seen – what we would call a service corridor. The one on the Palatine was also used by the Emperors to get quickly from one end of the Palace to another, and the walls of this cryptoporticus have elaborate plaster decorations on them still, which shows that this corridor must have been used by people more important that slaves. Domitian is supposed to have had the walls of his palace polished so that he could see the reflection of anyone creeping up behind him to stab him. It is said he was stabbed in this cryptoporticus, in the front too, thus negating his precautions.
In later times, when the Palatine was a garden, as at Castel Gandolfo, the cryptoporticus was used as a pleasant walkway in rainy weather. Presumably the cryptoporticus at Castel Gandolfo would have served this purpose for our Holy Fathers of yore, who had the habit of reciting the breviary or the rosary while walking.
Incidentally, the Vatican gardens have long been open to the public on application. They are not very interesting. They provide a close look at the toytown state of the Vatican City with its heliport, its railways station, and, one assumes, the convent where Benedict XVI now lives, but as gardens they disappoint. There is a Lourdes grotto, a piece of the Berlin wall given to John Paul II, and numerous other monuments, all jumbled together. Castel Gandolfo may be better, being more extensive, and will have pretty lake views. But for really nice gardens, though this may be heresy, stick to the north of the Alps!