An outsider's inside look at the Vatican gardens

  • May 21, 2009
{mosimage}When Linda Kooluris arrived at the Vatican with an old Nikon F2 she discovered the secret life of the city state. She also found out it is not really a secret.

Twenty-seven years later the photographer and painter reveals her discoveries in The Gardens of the Vatican, a 159-page, hardcover photo book with text by her husband Kildare Dobbs (McArthur & Company, $39.95).

To many, Kooluris’s views of the dome of St. Peter and La Cassina will seem odd and unfamiliar. Instead of the everlasting pavement of St. Peter’s Square, all that marble and stone is nestled in greenery.

By booking in advance, any tourist can stroll through the Vatican gardens in a guided tour. Spontaneous tramping through what amounts to the Pope’s backyard is not possible, but Kooluris wants people to know that the lawns, trees, pavilions and flowers behind the high walls are not off-limits.

Over the years of her occasional visits to the Vatican gardens, Kooluris graduated from her old, manual and mechanical film camera to a digital Nikon D70. She took advantage of privileged access through her friendship with Dominican Father Allen Duston, a Vatican canon law expert who loved and helped raise money for the gardens.

She came to appreciate both the timelessness and timeliness of the gardens. During the pontificate of John Paul II more images and statues of Mary were added to the gardens.

Some of the new artwork came from the Americas and Asia, to better reflect the universal nature of the church.

At the same time the gardens encapsulate a long history of European gardening — everything from a kitchen garden that really does garnish plates in the Pope’s household to one that grows medicinal herbs.

“When you’re in the gardens, you are experiencing history all the way back to 800 or so,” Kooluris told The Catholic Register recently.

As the gardens evolve, there’s more to a walk through the gardens than just stepping into the past, she said.

“There’s a whole lot of the modern world being brought into the gardens — which reminds you, it is a part of the world. It isn’t just an isolated area, inaccessible.”

The Vatican’s gardeners aren’t out to impress anyone with colourful displays.

“It has a certain restraint that appeals to me temperamentally,” said Kooluris. “It isn’t over the top with all these flowers. It’s sometimes kind of wild, but you find all these shades of green and you find order. And then every so often there’s an accent of colour.”

Kooluris’s uncommon view of the dome of St. Peter surrounded by trees emerging from the hedges was never meant to be strange. Kooluris learned from Dustan that the architect wanted viewers to see the church united with nature.

“He (Dustan) said, ‘did you realize that this was Michaelangelo’s vision?’ He did not think that people should see St. Peter’s just from the square,” said Kooluris.

Neither Kooluris nor her husband are Catholic, and they approached the Vatican as artists interested in the cultural history it contains.

“What the book was all about was being an outsider, which I am, going around the walls and glimpsing it,” said Kooluris. “Then finally finding my way in and trying to tell the rest of the world that they can have access to these gardens. All they have to do is book ahead.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.