The Orange Garden and the Keyhole

Climbing up the Aventine Hill lies one of the most suggestive gardens in Rome where a splendid view of the city can be enjoyed thanks to its panoramic balcony.

The Orange Garden, or Savello Park, located in the area of an ancient medieval fortress belonging to the Savelli family, has very little remains after the almost complete demolition in 1613, destroying everything except for part of the surrounding wall, granaries and underground warehouses. The garden was created during an architectural reorganization of the thirties which, together with the urban redefinition of the hill, had the purpose of establishing a third viewpoint over the city, alongside the Pincio and the Janiculum Hills.

It was built by Raffaele de Vico in 1932 using a symmetrical plan. In the center, a large avenue that leads directly to the view of St. Peter’s Basilica divides the park into two side openings. Walking along the avenue, you can admire an extraordinary view of Piazza Venezia, the Tiber River, which flows just below, the Tiber Island, the Mosque and finally St. Peter’s Dome, not to mention the numerous and famous Roman terraces.


The garden is planted with orange trees in order to recall the tree where St. Dominic preached, visible in the cloister of the nearby early Christian church of St. Sabina.
Next to the entrance to Via di Santa Sabina, in Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, there is a fountain made up of two heterogeneous pieces: a granite basin from the Roman baths and the mask, which can ideally be related to the Mouth of Truth sculpture and the Fountain of Via Giulia and which was originally intended to decorate a fountain in the Campo Vaccino.

The Keyhole

Continuing along Via di St. Sabina, you arrive at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, where you will find what the Romans know as the Keyhole: a hole in the entryway to the garden of the Magistral Villa, from which it is possible to get a suggestive view of St. Peter’s Dome. In reality, the opening has nothing to do with the real lock that is located further down, but the hole, thanks to an optical effect, enlarges the view of the Basilica that can be seen framed by the high hedges of the garden.



Thanks to the keyhole, in a single glance, three sovereignties are brought together: the view of the Vatican State, of the Order of Malta (the Villa, in fact, has been an extraterritorial place since 1869) and of the Italian State represented by the Square.
This place also has a long, fascinating history: located in a strategic control point on the Tiber emporium and on the Tiber Island, it was occupied in the 10th century by a fortified Benedictine monastery which then passed into the hands of the Templars and, after the suppression of their Order, to the Knights Hospitaller and finally to the Knights of Malta. The rearrangement of the entrance to the Priory was ordered by Cardinal Giovan Battista Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII, who in 1765, commissioned Piranesi to create the facade of the entrance door to the Villa and the square in front of it. The result was one of the rare examples of Rococo architecture in Rome, with the enterprise trophies of the Knights, symbols and coats of arms of the Rezzonico.
Above the door, you can see the sculptural work of a ship that refers to the shape that tradition attributes to the top of the Aventine Hill, that of a vessel with its prow in the direction of the Tiber, a ship ideally ready to set sail for the Holy Land, as the Templars did, of which the Knights of Malta are the heirs.

Entering the garden of the Villa, you immediately notice that the view of St. Peter’s Dome is much smaller than it appears from the hole in the entrance; indeed, the closer you get to the viewpoint, the more it seems to move away. The beautiful Italian-style garden consists of three parts: an original part dating back to the early seventeenth century, consisting of the ancient rose garden, the geometric part of the Italian-style hedges that draw the cross of the Templars and the more famous portion of the belvedere.

The Garden of St. Alexius

Between the Orange Garden and the Priory of Malta, next to the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexius founded between the 4th and 5th centuries AD and remodeled several times from 1216 onwards, there is a third garden, less known than the two already mentioned, but also with the same spectacular view of Rome: the slopes of the hill, the early Christian churches, the Tiber below, and in front of Janiculum. This is the Garden of St. Alexius, three thousand square meters of pine trees and Mediterranean plants, which reflects the typology of the nineteenth-century Roman public garden.


On the left wall, there is a fountain from Palazzo Accoramboni, an example of late Renaissance architecture, completely demolished and rebuilt in 1940. At the center of the garden is the statue of Joan of Arc, represented in prayer as life abandons her young body and the flames devour her mantle, sculpted by the French sculptor Maxime Real del Sarte in 1935.

The places are celebrated by a sequence from the film La Grande Bellezza, the one in which the camera follows the relaxed walk of the protagonist, Geppi Gambardella, on Via di St. Sabina. Winner of numerous international awards, the film also made Aventine Hill known to the general foreign public.

Laura Luciani Italy Trails Blogger

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