This 1761 etching by Giuseppe Vasi is a rare view of the "green theatre" of the gardens behind Palazzo Corsini alla Lungara; in the 1748 map of Rome by Giovan Battista Nolli there is no evidence of the theatre and of the fountain; a map drawn in ca. 1850 by Paul Letarouilly shows the fountain, but neither the theatre nor the two mazes which Vasi showed in the 1765 Grand View of Rome.
Detail of the 1765 Grand View of Rome showing the two mazes and the "green theatre"
In the XIXth century Italian gardens were no longer fashionable even in Italy and it is likely that the Corsini felt that the burden of their very expensive maintenance was not justified.
The view is taken from the green dot in Letarouilly's map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Entrance to one of the mazes; 2) Fontana dei Tritoni; 3) Alley leading to the fountains in the upper part of the Villa; 4) Wood on the Janiculum.
The view in March 2010: (left) the alley leading to the former "green theatre": (right) Fontana dei Tritoni
In 1883 the Italian Government bought Palazzo Corsini; the Botanical Garden of Rome was moved from the gardens of Palazzo Salviati to those of Palazzo Corsini; this explains why Fontana dei Tritoni is today surrounded by luxuriant palms.
The site of the former "green theatre"
Staircase designed by Ferdinando Fuga
Cardinal Neri Maria Corsini, nephew of Pope Clement XII, bought the palace and the gardens in 1736. He was a man of great culture and wealth and he wanted his residence to be comparable to those of other great cardinals of the past such as Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici and Cardinal Scipione Borghese, yet notwithstanding the enthusiastic description by Giuseppe Vasi, who dedicated one of his books to the Cardinal, the new gardens were relatively scarce of fountains and works of art. It must be said that the Corsini had already a villa outside Porta S. Pancrazio which they decorated with some ancient statues.
(left) Fountain designed by Ferdinando Fuga; (right) niche at the top of the fountain
Similar to what had been done at Villa d'Este, Ferdinando Fuga, the architect in charge of redesigning the garden, exploited the slope of the Janiculum for a series of cascading fountains which had at their top a niche where we know there was a statue; the niche however belongs to an earlier period, when Villa Corsini belonged to the Riario; it is decorated with roses, a heraldic symbol which can be seen also at Palazzo Riario or della Cancelleria.
(left) Fontana dei Tritoni (XVIIth century); (right) a small fountain with an ancient statue
The vegetation of the Botanical Garden provides an unusual setting for some of the remaining elements of the original decoration.
(left) Conifer wood; (right) bamboo wood
In 1543 in Pisa and in 1545 in Florence Luca Ghini, an Italian botanist, founded the first botanical gardens; that of Florence was called Giardino dei Semplici because the medicaments directly obtained from a plant were called semplici (simples). Pope Alexander VII founded a botanical garden behind Acqua Paola and in 1820 Pope Pius VII decided to move it to Palazzo Salviati.
(left) XVIIIth century greenhouse (its Corsini coat of arms can be seen in the image used as background for this page); (right) plants from Mexico
The Corsini built a greenhouse to shelter the citrus trees they grew in pots during winter. Today, with other modern greenhouses, it is used for plants which require specially dry or humid conditions. The mild climate of Rome allows most species to grow in the open air.
(left) Hemlock in "Giardino dei Semplici"; (centre) tropical plant in the hothouse; (right) succulent plant in the Corsini greenhouse
March 2, 2010, a carpet of daisies announces the end of winter
A magnificent porter in cocked hat and grand livery conducted the visitors across the quadrangle, unlocked the ponderous iron gates of the gardens, and let them through, leaving them to their own devices, and closing and locking the gates with a crash. They now stood in a wide avenue of ilex, whose gloomy boughs, interlacing overhead, effectually excluded the sunlight; nearly a quarter of a mile further on, the ilexes were replaced by box and bay trees, beneath which the sun and shade divided the path between them, trembling and flickering on the ground and invading each other's dominions with every breath of wind. The strangers heard the splash of fountains as they walked onwards by banks precipitous as a hill-side, and covered with wild rank herbage and tall trees. Stooping to gather a flower, they almost started, as looking up, they saw, rising against a sky fabulously blue, the unfamiliar green ilex and dark cypress spire.
Margaret Roberts - Mademoiselle Mori: A Tale of Modern Rome - 1860
The Botanical Garden occupies most of the eastern slope of the Janiculum; in the past Villa Corsini reached the peak of the hill where there was a small casino; it was pulled down to make room for Monumento a Giuseppe Garibaldi.
By gradually walking along the alleys leading to the upper part of the gardens, the views progressively include a larger section of the city.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Questo magnifico palazzo già de' Riarj nipoti di Sisto IV. fu abitato alla Regina di Svezia, quando venne a Roma per abjurare l'eresia, che aveva professata. Ma dipoi comprato dal Card. Neri Corsini nipote di Papa Clemente XII. fu rinnovato, e cresciuto molto più della metà dalla parte verso ponente con disegno del Cav. Fuga. Fra gli altri ornamenti, che lo rendono cospicuo, uno è la galleria ornata di quadri, quasi di tutti gli autori celebri; l'altro è la Biblioteca ricca di libri e manoscritti rari, con una prodigiosa raccolta delle più famose stampe di uomini eccellenti, legate nobilmente in 400. volumi, e il terzo è la deliziosa villa ornata di fontane, di lunghi viali, e boschi altissimi, con un ameno teatro con portici costruiti tutti di verdure, in cui si tengono le virtuose radunanze degli Accademici Quirini, e sull'alto evvi un magnifico casino di ritiro, da dove talmente si scopre l'abitato di Roma, con tutte le tue campagne, che di lì appunto io presi il partito del gran prospetto di Roma, che ho dato alla pubblica luce.