The American Academy includes eleven acres of organically cultivated gardens atop the Janiculum Hill, an area in Rome with a long history of gardens.
Part of the Horti Caesaris and Getae, it was occupied in the sixteenth century by several Casini in Vigna and in the late nineteenth century by smaller villas and gardens. The Academy’s two main gardens are those around the Villa Aurelia and the Mercedes and Sid R. Bass Garden behind the McKim, Mead & White Building and around the Casa Rustica. In 1986, the Academy’s Board of Trustees launched a campaign to restore the gardens to their original splendor. In 1990, the Academy began the implementation of the Landscape Master Plan, which continues today. Since the adoption of the organic cultivation method in 1992, twelve varieties of butterflies have settled on the Academy grounds, and they have become a haven for hedgehogs, robins, herons, blue tits, woodpeckers, lizards, and a variety of bees.
Behind the McKim, Mead & White Building lies the Mercedes and Sid R. Bass Garden which recalls the vanished landscape of the Roman countryside. In fact, it occupies the site of a seventeenth-century vineyard, Vigna Malvasia, that surrounded the site occupied today by Casa Rustica. The defensive walls of Rome, built in 1642–44 by Pope Urban VIII, enclose two sides of the garden. The overall atmosphere is that of a quiet, rural place with simple plantings and a domestic feeling. Fruit trees, olives and cypresses edge the sloping lawns, dotted with chamomile daisies and naturalized bulbs. The garden has a grove of olive trees; an orchard with apple, apricot and plum trees, as well as artichokes; a bocce court; and many benches beneath the trees. There are also Roman pines, lindens, cherry, crab apple trees, and persimmons.
On the north side of this garden is a flower and vegetable garden surrounded by a fragrant bay laurel hedge. In the flower and vegetable garden, a line of brick-edged rectangular beds with herbs, vegetables, and cutting flowers give color and texture year round. Fountains of tufa stone and a rill, a little channel, running alongside the beds of vegetables echo traditional country irrigation systems, reminding us also of the Pleasure Gardens of Moorish tradition. The main walk, linking the main building to the Casa Rustica and the back gate, is lined with cherry trees.
The Bass Garden also features two works by Simon Verity: a small drinking fountain, the Quasimodo Fountain, located on the west side of the garden and dedicated to the most famous and ugliest cat of the Academy’s feline community; and a sundial, modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s sketches for a sundial at Monticello, dedicated to the Basses, that stands near the garden’s olive grove from which extra virgin olive oil is produced.
Villa Aurelia Gardens
Villa Aurelia has been the property of the American Academy in Rome since 1909 and is the site for cultural events organized by the Academy, such as concerts and conferences. The recently restored Villa is perched on the crest of the Janiculum Hill, one of Rome’s great hills. The beauty of the Villa gardens, the breathtaking views of the historic city center, and the variety of spaces available make Villa Aurelia an ideal location for private events such as receptions, dinners and board meetings.
The original gardens, laid down by the Farnese at the end of 1600, were destroyed in a bombardment by French artillery in 1849. Old engravings and maps show a formal space divided into geometrical areas by rows of trees. This layout survived for centuries with few changes. The gardens were described as being small but well organized, with stucco and peperino statues, open-air and pergola-covered walks, and delightful fountains.
The present-day Villa Aurelia gardens are the result of four major periods of planting and construction: the first begun by Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland in 1881; the second by Gorham Phillip Stevens, Director of the Academy from 1917 to 1936; and the third by Laurance Roberts, Director from 1946 to 1960. The fourth period began in 1990 with the implementation of the Landscape Master Plan under the supervision of the Landscape Committee of the American Academy in Rome. When Mrs. Heyland took possession of the site, she restored the grounds to create a typical Victorian garden, mixing garden features of various traditions: boxwood hedges and tropical flora, winding paths and tree topiaries, tufa rockeries and gazebos. She also planted the Italian villa trees, pines, holm oaks, and magnolias that provide the overall structure of today’s garden.
Mrs. Heyland generously bequeathed the Villa Aurelia to the Academy in 1909. Since then, the traditional layout has been refined to a more classical garden layout. The main features of the Aurelia gardens are the giant dome-shaped topiaries. The entry drive is lined with two mixed borders of white and blue flowering plants known as The Mediterranean Borders. They provide a very long and varied flowering season, starting in September and continuing through July, coinciding perfectly with the annual calendar of activities at the Villa.
Throughout the gardens fountains abound. The Water-Lily Fountain, which stands in the middle of a formal garden at the intersection of orthogonal paths, is enriched by blossoms of pink Nymphaeas in the summer. The Pigna Fountain, at the entrance of a bay laurel gallery, crosses the length of the main garden. The Bee Fountain, a work by sculptor Simon Verity, stands at the end of a long allee, edged with two tall bay laurel hedges. The bee is portrayed busily harvesting from two cornucopias that create an arch, while dropping its honey in the basin beneath. The fountain is draped by a giant climbing rose covered in hundreds of tiny pink flowers in May.
The Secret Garden, designed by Academy Trustees Laurie Olin and Millicent Mercer Johnsen, together with Bass Superintendent of Gardens, Alessandra Vinciguerra, opens behind the bay hedges, a secluded cozy hideaway where vine-covered arbors offer glimpses of the rooftops of Rome. Two sides of the gardens are surrounded by a parapet on which clematises, climbing roses and star jasmine grow behind a border of mainly white flowering agapanthus, highlighted with blue flowering plumbago and salvias and the white flowered Iceberg rose. On the third side, the Millicent Fountain, fills the atmosphere with the soothing murmur of water.
The fountain is made of rough red tufa stone with faucets created from old Roman pottery, amphora necks, jug handles, bottoms of pots, old roof tiles, and bricks, all found around the site during construction. This is a typical feature in Roman gardens where gardeners would recycle found objects in their garden construction. A dedication to Millicent Mercer Johnsen appears on the peperino coping to the fountain, carved by Simon Verity. Behind the fountain, a background of flowering and evergreen shrubs creates color and atmosphere. Roses and Salvias bloom intermittently while Ferns, Chaste tree, bamboos, asparagus fern emphasize the moisture and water theme, screening the view of Villa Aurelia and enhancing the sense of intimacy of this corner of the gardens.
The courtyard in front of the main facade of the Villa is laid out with a chequered parterre of gravel and grass, where a superb collection of lemon trees and Impruneta terracotta pots is displayed during the warm months. Winter months see cold-hardy variegated hollies in pots take the place of the lemons. This design, by Academy Trustee, Mercedes T. Bass, underlines and enhances the splendor of the Villa façade thanks to its subtle play of colors; the golden and white gravel, the fresh greens of lemon trees and grass, the yellow lemons hanging in the rich green foliage.
On the south side of the Villa, the terraced slope and the Rockery, lined with aerial hedges of ilex trees, are planted with Cistus, Lavandula, and Ceanothus. Here thrives the oldest specimen of stone pine, Pinus pinea, in the garden—in fact it is oldest in the whole city. At the far end of the south side, the hydrangea tower, wreathed with the yellow-flowered tropical climber Caesalpinia sepiaria offers a breathtaking view of the city of Rome.