The not-so-rosy history of Rome’s public Rose Garden
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'Thousands of corpses were moved, but thousands are still buried here'

The not-so-rosy history of Rome’s public Rose Garden

For hundreds of years the Jews of Rome buried their dead here -- until the Mussolini regime turned it into a narcissistic tribute

A judge in the international competition at Rome's public Rose Garden stops to smell the roses. (Courtesy Rome Garden Authority)
A judge in the international competition at Rome's public Rose Garden stops to smell the roses. (Courtesy Rome Garden Authority)

ROME — For the vast majority of the year, the small, fenced-in garden sitting across the road from the Palatine Hill goes unnoticed by passersby, overshadowed by the spectacular brick-red ruins looming above.

But every spring, Rome’s public Rose Garden — located off the Via Del Circo Massimo in the heart of the city — bursts forth with bright colors. From the end of April through mid-June, the garden’s gates are open and local and international visitors can enjoy a walk among the 1,100 species of roses blossoming there.

Ready to welcome visitors is Salvatore Ianni, an official of the Rome Garden Authority. Ianni has been working at the Rose Garden for 23 years and knows its every nook and cranny.

He also knows that the blooms stretching out towards the sunshine are partially intended as a token of redress, a living reminder of a sad page in the Eternal City’s Jewish history. It is a story that speaks of oppression and betrayal, but also of deliverance.

“This site is a crossroads of history and botany,” Ianni tells The Times of Israel while guiding this reporter around the garden.

A view from above of Rome's public Rose Garden. The garden's paths form the shape of a menorah as a reminder of the burial grounds that the Jewish community had here for hundreds of years (photo by Luciano Rossetti, courtesy of Rome Garden Authority)
A view from above of Rome’s public Rose Garden, May 2016. The garden’s paths form the shape of a menorah as a reminder of the burial grounds that the Jewish community had here for hundreds of years. (Luciano Rossetti, Courtesy Rome Garden Authority)

Around us, tourists, lovebirds, and botany enthusiasts stroll in the park, pausing to admire and photograph the most beautiful and unusual species. Some pause at the “Sun and Moon,” whose silky flowers blossom yellow, then turn white, and finally crimson; others take a break at the “Knock Out” rose that survives temperatures as low as -30°Celsius (-22°Fahrenheit).

Enraptured by the glorious beauty of the lawns, visitors might not notice the garden’s unique feature: The paths and flowerbeds are designed to form a specific shape — a menorah — which is meant to pay homage to the site’s Jewish origin, along with a plaque of the Ten Commandments by the entrance.

“When I lead guided tours, I always start by explaining the Jewish roots of this place. Rome has the most ancient Jewish community in the Western world. People should be more aware of the importance of the Jewish presence in the city, especially its own citizens,” Ianni stresses.

Salvatore Ianni has been giving tours of the Rome public Rose Garden for 23 years. Each spring he greets an influx of visitors between the months of April and June (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
Salvatore Ianni, who has been giving tours of the Rome public Rose Garden for 23 years, May 2016. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

“For centuries this area, including the site where the three-lane boulevard Via Del Circo Massimo stands, was the city’s Jewish cemetery, the only piece of land Roman Jews were allowed to own according to the strict anti-Jewish laws enforced in the Papal States,” explains Ianni.

Ianni elaborates, delving deeper into the history of the place.

In 1645, Pope Innocent X granted the Jewish Compagnia di Morte e Carità (Company of Death and Charity) the permission to buy a plot of land to establish a cemetery.

For 200 years, legislation approved in 1625 by Pope Urban VII prevented markings or distinctive signs on Jewish burial plots. The law was abolished only in 1846 by Pius IX, following which the Jewish community began erecting tombstones — many of them of artistic significance.

In 1934, the governorship of Rome expropriated the land in order to build a new road, the Via Del Circo Massimo. The Jewish community tried to resist, but ultimately their leaders could not avoid making a deal with the governorship, who promised to build a Jewish school and ensure that all the bodies resting there would be carefully moved to a new cemetery.

Each spring visitors flock to enjoy the 1,100 species of roses growing in the garden (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
Each spring visitors flock to enjoy the 1,100 species of roses growing in the garden, May 2016. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

At that time, Italy was already under the regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The new road was supposed to be ready for a parade to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the notorious March of Rome, the insurrection by which Mussolini came to power in October 1922.

“In order to meet the deadline, the building firm insisted on performing the exhumation also on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, when the Jewish supervisors who were promised the opportunity to monitor the process could not be present,” Ianni says.

“Therefore, thousands of corpses were moved, but thousands are still buried here, both under the Rose Garden and the road,” he adds.

On October 28, 1934, Mussolini rode down the new road together with 15,000 Italian athletes in a parade that celebrated the fascist regime. The cypresses bordering Via del Circo Massimo were those of the former Jewish cemetery.

Less than four years later, in 1938, Italy ratified its racial laws. The promised Jewish school never came to fruition and Roman and Italian Jews found themselves suffering persecution once more, betrayed by their own country.

“During the war, due to scarcity of food, the hillside of the Aventine was turned into a vegetable garden,” continues Ianni.

“It was not until 1950 that the Rome City Council turned its attention to the neglected park. They consulted the Jewish community, who reacted positively to the prospect of establishing the site as the new Rose Garden of the city.

At the entrance to the garden is a memorial plaque in the shape of the Stone Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were etched. Jewish visitors to the site often leave small stones atop the plaque, just as they do by a tombstone to honor the dead (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
At the entrance to the garden is a memorial plaque in the shape of the Stone Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were etched. Jewish visitors to the site often leave small stones atop the plaque, just as they do by a tombstone to honor the dead, May 2016. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

“In order to acknowledge its Jewish origin, the City Council had the garden designed in the shape of a menorah and put the memorial plaque at the entrance,” he concludes.

Jewish visitors to the garden often leave stones or pebbles on the plaque — a Jewish custom honoring the dead.

The chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, explained in an interview to the Italian Jewish paper Pagine Ebraiche that “the Rose Garden must still be considered a Jewish cemetery, with all the consequences that entails.”

This means, for instance, that kohanim — Jews descending from families of the priestly class — cannot visit the site, just as they are prohibited from entering regular cemeteries (with very few exceptions).

Through the flora rises the dome of the Great Synagogue, one of the centers of Rome's 13,000-strong Jewish community (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
Through the flora rises the dome of the Great Synagogue, one of the centers of Rome’s 13,000-strong Jewish community, May 2016. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

From the upper part of the garden, one can spot the square dome of the Great Synagogue — built in 1904 — one of the fundamental centers of Rome’s thriving Jewish life today. With over 13,000 members, the Jewish community is the largest in Italy.

Before parting, Ianni launches an appeal: “Every year, the Rose Garden organizes an international competition for new species of roses. We receive roses from all over the world, but we have never had someone participating from Israel. I hope that some Israeli rose hybridizer changes this soon.”

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