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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in July 2010.

Giardino e Casino Pontificio nel Vaticano (Book 10) (Day 8)  (View C2) (Rione Borgo)

In this page:
 The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
 Today's view
 Casino di Papa Pio IV

The Plate (No. 182)

This 1760 etching by Giuseppe Vasi is an interesting record of the changes made by Pope Clement XIII to the surroundings and accesses to the small casino designed by Pirro Ligorio for Pope Pius IV in 1561. The section of the 1748 Map of Rome by Giovanni Battista Nolli (below) shows that there was little room between the fountain of the casino and nearby Giardino dei Semplici, a garden where officinal (medicinal) plants were grown (it was designed between 1560 and 1570 by Michele Mercati, who was the physician of several popes); the view by Vasi shows instead a large open space and two stairs decorated with pots of orange trees which did not appear on the map; also the shape of the basin is different; one of the figures near the fountain wears a round hat, rather than a tricorne; possibly Vasi portrayed the pope himself while checking the result of the changes he commissioned; the two figures at the left end of the plate are gardeners, one of whom is pruning a tree.
The view is taken from the green dot in the section of Nolli's map. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Loggia with eastern granite columns; 2) Nymphaeum with statues; 3) Circular courtyard with two entrances; 4) Steps leading to the courtyard.


The view in July 2010

The main noticeable change relates to four stucco statues portraying satyrs supporting the loggia which do not exist any longer; other changes relate to two small obelisks which have been added at the beginning of the stairs and to the disappearance of the pots with orange trees.

Casino di Pio IV

The casino seen from the dome of S. Pietro ...

... and the dome seen from the casino

The image taken from the dome of S. Pietro and Vasi's plate show a particular aspect of the casino which was immersed in a natural context, but at the same time was separated from it; the oval courtyard which was the centre of the complex was limited by a wall which, while not completely precluding the view of the wood which surrounded the casino, marked a sort of border between the work of Nature and that of Man.
The wall did not hide the dome of S. Pietro, a nightmare for Pope Pius IV; at the death of Michelangelo in 1564 only the drum was completed; the great architect had left a detailed model showing how the construction should be carried forward, but many members of the papal court doubted about the feasibility of the project; for more than twenty years the unfinished dome loomed over the casino similar to an ancient ruin; this until 1590 when Giacomo della Porta in just 22 months gave modern Rome its most popular symbol: il Cupolone (the large dome).

(left) The main building; (right) detail of its decoration

The idea of building a small casino on the first slopes of the Vatican hill came to Pope Paul IV, who disliked nearby Casino del Belvedere, notwithstanding its commanding position, probably because it housed too many ancient sculptures which he regarded as symbols of the pagan world; his lifestyle was very austere and he wanted a small place where he could meditate; the construction of the casino started in 1558, but the plans for it were radically changed by Pope Pius IV, his successor. The new pope was a true believer, but at the same a man of great erudition which in those years meant being imbibed with classical culture. Pirro Ligorio, the architect in charge of the construction was also a scholar of antiquities; he carried out early excavations at Villa Adriana and he designed nearby Villa d'Este. The two figured out a very elaborate decoration for the casino; they were so keen on displaying as many stucco reliefs as possible, therefore the window size was very small in order to have more space for their iconographical plans.

(left) One of the side entrances; (right) oval courtyard

Pope Pius IV wanted to transmit Christian concepts through symbols taken from the ancient world; a few years later the Roman Church developed guidelines for works of art consistent with the teachings of the Counter-Reformation and the elaborate approach followed by Pope Pius IV was abandoned. For this reason many of the reliefs and statues which decorate the casino such as the putti riding marine creatures (one of which you can see in the image used as background for this page) do not seem to have a religious significance, although this was what the pope had in mind.

Caryatids and relief with a classic theme

A reference to water is a prevailing theme in the decoration of the casino: seas, rivers, boats, fish and other marine creatures are portrayed in stucco reliefs and statues; the Ocean, springs and Water as one of the four elements had meanings which were absorbed into the early Christian tradition and which Pope Pius IV and Pirro Ligorio wanted to revive. In this environment the Pope spent long summer evenings with philosophers and artists discussing poetry and theology.

Details of the mosaics embellishing the fountain

With the move of the papal residence to Palazzo del Quirinale the casino lost importance and this helped its preservation because the successors of Pope Pius IV did not modify the original building and its decoration in a significant way.

You may wish to have a stroll in the Vatican Gardens.

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Giardino Pontificio
Il mentovato Niccolò V. formò in questa valle un giardino per diporto e sollievo nelle gravi sue occupazioni, e Pio IV. vi aggiunse un magnifico casino, e dipoi Paolo V. lo adornò di deliziose fontane, e viali, facendovi il nobile ingresso a piè della salita.

Next plate in Book 10: Casino al Pigneto del Marchese Sacchetti

Next step in Day 8 itinerary: Casino di Belvedere