The renewed garden of St. John in the Lateran’s cloister

From a project by Anna Bruno and Luciano Cecchetti


           If you like to discover which is the most charming medieval cloister in Rome, for sure  you will have to visit the basilica of John in the Lateran’s.

           And It is also the largest one with its 118,00 feet (36 metres) per side!

           An unquestioned masterpiece by the Vassallettos, the famous marble-worker family under the popes Honorius III and Innocent IV, between 1215 and 1231.

Chiostro San Giovanni in Laterano

            However, before entering in such a holy place, please make sure you have left the noise of your own time behind you! A time that loves being chased and seeing you in an endless harry towards such an invisible goal or an unknown achievement. As a matter of fact our Lateranense cloister has been there for such a long time waiting for anyone desiring to go slowly and sometimes stop and contemplate. It rejects any modern fleeting glance, being too mental and hardly connected with its visitor’s soul. The only one able to help him/her to contemplate with the Divine.

               In general, the hortus conclusus was born at odds with the paradisiacal contemporary hortus deliciarum’s Roman de la Rose of the chivalrous medieval world. So much the latter was an ambience for wordly plaisures as the first one was meant to be a closed and secret place, inspired from the one of the Song of the Songs “You are an enclosed garden, my sister, my bride, closed garden, a fountain sealed”. An intimate place where to meditate and contemplate, where to experience the Divine’s mistery and where the only time possible took the name of Eternity. A claustrum, surrounded by a porticus and inspired from the perystiles of the Ancient Rome’s domus: metaphorically a passage, in practice from place to place, symbolically from the darkness of the monastery to the light shadow of the porticus, to the final light of the garden, meeting point of the Earth and the Vault of Heaven. Under the porticus, Light filters and clashes with the Shadow which resists, on the other side. But, from the porticus you glimpse and you start your observation trascending little by little contemplation. It is when time begins to become an eternal springtime for those eyes and hearts who enter with the desire of partecipating. And if you participate, nothing gets past you. Your eyes will go into the innermost spirit, and symbols will reveal to you as a flower wheb it opens its petals to the sun, inconditionately. And the sun, in change, will infuse it with energy

           Our cloister’s quadrangular shape evokes the four corners of the universe, whereas its three thresholds, from the porticus into the garden, become a holy meeting with Most Blessed Trinity, for those who feel nostalgia for knowledge prior to the fall. At this point, your choice will be between overcoming one of them to go on ascending or remaining definately in the shade. And if we decide to cross any of them, the garden will reveal all its symbols, which otherwise would keep them secret from you.

           Since 2011, our cloister’s garden has been proposed according to Anna Bruno and Luciano Cecchetti* ’s project, starting from the restoration of its original four parterres, being precedently reduced in two big specular flowerbeds. In the crossing point of the two ortogonal axes separating the four parterres, which represents the focal point of the garden, omphalos or navel of the Earth, there is an old well of Roman times, source of wisdom, symbol of Christ and from where the four rivers of Biblical memory metaphorically start.

           But the project did not stop here: the rundown garden – where even the roots of a big palm were damaging the ancient Roman buildings excavated underneath – was dismantled; the two ortogonal axes and the four two-feet (60-cm) parterres were recreated – each of them laying on an almost half a foot (10- cm) waterproofed cementitious bases conceived to shield the ancient Roman buildings underneath. Only at this point, the garden was left in gardeners’ hands directed by Luciano Cecchetti.

           The choice of the few plants between the ones mentioned in the Song of the Songs was necessarely driven by the existence of the ancient Roman buildings underneath: plants provided with a shorter root system and a more modest crown.

            The three external corners of each parterre was coated with flowers and perennial herbs such as the rose, a sacred flower for Venus, symbol of the Vergin Mary but also of the divine blood; the lilium, born from the milk spilled by Giuno while feeding Hercules, symbol of purity and poverty; the violets, symbol of modesty and humbleness; carnation, or dianthus, from a Greek word  meaning “God’s flower”; a sage bush or salvia officinalis, which was thought having the power of raising the dead, predicting the future and communicating with the other side; the thyme or thymus vulgaris, a perennial plant arrived in Europe thanks to the crusaders as a symbol of strengh and courage; and, last but not the least, the clover or trifolium pratense, symbol of Trinity, which is today a green carpet for one of the four parterres.

            In the centre of each parterre, we agreed in planting evergreen trees to symbolize incorruptibility in eternity, such as the religious cypress or cupressus, as a symbol of longevity and sign of hope when placed near Christian tombs; and furthermore fruit trees as the olive tree or olea europea L., symbol of mercy and peace; an almond tree or l’Amygdalus communis L., the fruit of which, the almond, was represented in its mystical sphere to enclose Christ or the Vergin with the Baby within as an image of the Light of Christ and the union between the Earth and the Sky in medieval iconography; a pomegranate or punica granatum L., which is the symbol of resurraction when represented in Holy infant’s hand, of chastity when in the Virgin’s hand.

            In conclusion, when anyone enters the Lateranense hortus coclusus, he/she becomes part of a rigorous geometrical broderie full of intense colours, parfumes and savours, evoking old paradisiacal harmonies and cosmic rules, in an endless game of hiding themselves and looking for each other, or still better in an endless game of hiding and revealing with the Creator, cloaked in a sweet and infinite sense of intimacy and solitary confinement!…

            Our project was approved by the Department of Technical Services of the Vatican city, and signed by the General Secretery of the Governatorate, on May 11, 2011 and soon after performed. It was celebrated in December of the same year.

             Hereunder the article published in “All’ombra del Cupolone” – An informal magazine for the personel of the Governatorate. Article in Italian page 10:


* Luciano Cecchetti, responsable of the Vatican gardens until 2014