The "Botanical Garden" institution in Rome has a very ancient origin that dates back to the thirteenth century, even if only in 1660 a land was assigned to the University in order to build its own Botanical Garden. It was established in its current location, in the “Villa Corsini alla Lungara", in 1883.
The fact that Rome hadn’t felt the necessity of an academic Botanical Garden, as other Italian towns had, is because a Botanical Garden already existed in Rome, within the Vatican walls.
The idea of a Botanical Garden in Rome, in fact, can be traced back to Pope Nicolò III (1277-1330), who commissioned the creation of an orchard and an agricultural meadow with grassy plants and a fountain. Here medicinal herbs were cultivated, from which the main medicines of the time were extracted.
Pope Leo X in 1514 set up the chair for the teaching of medicinal herbs. The teachers were also responsible for the Vatican Botanical Garden.
Giovanni Faber, director of the Vatican Botanical Garden from 1601 to 1629, was the first to use the name “botany”.
When the Quirinale Palace became the habitual residence of popes, the Botanical Garden, that was situated inside the Vatican and quite far from the Quirinale palace, was completely abandoned, and it is in this occasion, in 1660, that pope Alessandro VII, fully recognizing the necessity and the usefulness of a Botanical Garden, gave the University an area on the Janiculum hill, not far from its current location, in order to build an academic Botanical Garden.
Two centuries later, in 1820, because of the area’s unsuitability, the Botanical Garden was transferred to the abandoned garden of the Salviati Palace (at the beginning of Via della Lungara) and equipped with two modern heated greenhouses. In 1876, in order to gather all of the museums of Natural Science in one location, it was transferred again, this time in the S. Lorenzo convent in via Panisperna. But this area was too small and also it was starting to be urbanized, so the garden was moved in 1883 to its current location, in the Villa Corsini. This villa was bought by the Italian State from the Corsini family to accommodate the cultural academy “Academia dei Lincei” inside the villa, and the Botanical Garden in the gardens of the villa.
These gardens had originally been part of a vineyard, purchased in 1492 by Cardinal Raffaele Riario. But the Riario family had always had a poor interest in the property, despite having built an elegant palace on its grounds.
During her stay in Rome, Queen Christina of Sweden rented this property from 1659 to 1689, and both the palace and its gardens experienced a very prosperous moment. But the best period is undoubtedly the one that followed the sale of the property to the Corsini family (1736) and the in-depth restoration that was entrusted to the architect Fernando Fuga.
The garden never had an arboreal structure, if we exclude the woods in the upper part, that are still present today and that represent the last remains of an evergreen Mediterranean-type wood that probably once originally covered the entire Janiculum hill. There were many bushes and in-vase collections, even if the variety of the species was scarce.
We do not have any documentation regarding the Italian-style garden that ornated the yard facing the palace in the middle of the nineteenth century. We know, however, that from this moment until the sale to the Italian State the garden remained without maintenance, and after the sale 12 hectares of the property were attributed to the Botanical Garden, while the remaining 4 hectares went to the Municipality of Rome.
The first Director of the Botanical Garden in Villa Corsini, Pietro Romualdo Pirotta, oversaw the transfer of the existing plant collections from Via Panisperna. The "Winter Garden" greenhouse was also transferred, and two new greenhouses were built. The number of species was also hugely enhanced.
Today the Garden counts about 3.500 species, and the area occupied by the Botanical Garden has different characteristics and functionalities.
The flat area closer to the villa corresponds to the ancient Riario-Corsini garden, enriched by the planting of exotic palms (along the central path) and by several arboreal species of great value. In the area bordering Via dei Riari a herbal garden has been created on the model of the ancient ones, that includes all the main plant species that contain active substances. In the upper part of the garden, in addition to numerous collections such as Coniferous, Juglandacee, Rosacee, Fagacee etc., there is a particularly interesting example of Mediterranean vegetation of holm-oaks.
The modern significance of this institution and its scientific and academic-educational aspects can be summarized in two main objectives:
1 – To constitute a genetic bank for endangered species, promoting their diffusion through modern biotechnologies.
2 – To establish a permanent centre for environmental education and field training, by organizing and sustaining many educational activities to create awareness, respect and knowledge of the environment, targeting both students and adults.
The growing interest in this "Living Museum" and the acknowledgement of its scientific and cultural value, provide fresh stimuli both to experimentation and to the enrichment of the plant collections.
From the Papal herbal garden to the Botanical Garden at Villa Riario-Corsini:
1278 : Pope Nicolò III creates an orchard, agricultural meadow and herbal garden within the Vatican
1447 : Pope Nicolò V orders that the Garden is transferred to the Belvedere hill, still in the Vatican
1492 : Purchase of the vineyard on the slope of the Janiculum hill by Cardinal R. Riario
1660 : Pope Alexander VII gives Sapienza University a land on the Janiculum hill in order to create a Botanical Garden
1659-1689 : First renovation works of the palace and the Riario garden during the Roman stay of Queen Christina of Sweden
1729 : Purchase of the Riario property (vineyard, garden and palace) by the Corsini family
1736 : Cardinal Neri Corsini entrusts the building and the garden restoration to architect Fuga
1820 : Botanical collections are moved from the Janiculum hill to the garden of the Salviati Palace at ´la Lungara´ (Pope Pio VII)
1876 : With the aim of gathering all the Scientific Institutes in one place, the Botanical Garden is moved to the S. Lorenzo Convent’s garden in Via Panisperna
1883 : The Italian State purchases the villa (that today houses the cultural academy Accademia dei Lincei) and the garden (that houses the Botanical Garden, its first director was P.R. Pirotta) from Tommaso Corsini, Duke of Carigliano.