Olive & Oil 04/11/2013

A tour through the olive groves of Papa Francesco

Exclusively for the readers of Teatro Naturale International a tour of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican farm. The Agronomist Vincenzo Scaccioni guide us in the estate and explain how did the extra virgin served at the table of Bergoglio. "On the trees, unfortunately - said Scaccioni - the man has often sparked his own ignorance." Two olive trees of the Pontifical Villas have a special meaning

The summer retreat of the popes is widely known as Castel Gandolfo, after the town where it is situated, but it is more formally known as the Ville Pontificie or Pontifical Villas. The one hundred and thirty-six acre (fifty-five hectare) retreat, which is part of the independent Vatican City State, and not Italy, overlooks Lake Albano on one side and the distant Tyrrhenian Sea on the other. The lake is a crater lake and the town center of Castel Gandolfo sits, in effect, on the rim of what’s left of two collapsed volcanoes.

Rome’s hot summers, with the attendant malarial mosquitoes and infectious diseases were the catalysts for these relatively distant country retreats, from Roman times forward. Castel Gandolfo is about twenty-four kilometers from Rome. The towns of the Alban Hills are now, however, well within commuting distance from Rome and there is frequent train service.

Almost half of the estate’s land is devoted to farming and that land is in the neighboring town of Albano Laziale. It is on the outside slope of the crater, and faces the sea. The volcanic nature of the soil makes it fertile and well drained. Extra-virgin olive oil, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, all manner of dairy products, beef cattle, rabbits, chickens and eggs are some of the foods produced at the Farms of the Pontifical Villas. The production is largely organic, and the olive oil is entirely so.

Vincenzo Scaccioni, who manages the gardens and farm of the Pontifical Villas, generously hosted two visits for the benefit of Teatro Naturale readers, one in June and one in August. He took up his current post at the Pontifical Villas in the fall of 2012, where he supervises a team of twenty-seven gardeners and farmers. Before this appointment, Vincenzo worked as the head gardener at the Vatican gardens in Rome. His degree is in Agronomy; he wrote his thesis on the Vatican gardens and in 2009 he authored, in collaboration with photographer Nik Barlo, I giardini vaticani.

The papal retreat is known as the Pontifical Villas, in the plural, because the retreat is made up of different properties, which are linked together by overpasses, as well as astonishingly beautiful gardens and allées. The Pontifical Palace (1620s), which faces the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo, was built incorporating the original medieval castle that belonged to the Gandolfi Family, for whom the town is named. It was Pope Urban VIII, a member of the Barberini family, who hired the famed architect Carlo Maderno to design the palace. The building was later enlarged and remodeled by Gianlorenzo Bernini. The Villa Barberini (c. 1630), built by the Urban’s nephew, Cardinal Taddeo Barberini, is chronologically the next villa. The Vatican’s Secretary of State currently uses the Barberini Villa as a summer retreat. The Villa Cybo (1717) was erected by Cardinal Camillo Cybo from Massa Carrara. He hired the architect Francesco Fontana to design the marble-rich villa with stone from Carrara. All of these buildings occupy the land where the 1st century AD, Emperor Domitian had an immense villa. The Barberini Villa incorporated the still visible cryptoporticus of Domitian’s Villa. It is a long and partly subterranean gallery, which is wonderfully cool on even the very hottest days. By the cryptoporticus, there are the parterred Belvedere Gardens, which were designed in the early 1930s.

Vincenzo Scaccioni says that the farm’s olive oil comes from four principal olive varieties: pendolino, frantoio, rosciola and vernina. Pendolino and frantoio are commonly grown throughout Italy, but rosciola and vernina are more typical of Lazio and central Italy. In addition, the variety uovo di piccione [pigeon eggs], a seldom grown but excellent table olive, is included in the oil, although not in great numbers. There are two olives trees that are set apart, and used more as landscape trees in the ornamental gardens of the villas. One is a taggiasca olive, a gift from the Ligurian town of Taggia. The other is a tree with religious significance—it is from Gethsemane, a gift to Pope Paul VI from King Hussein of Jordan.

Vincenzo says that 2012 was an “on” year, and the farm’s 1,360 olive trees produced 12,000 kilos of olives to make 1,537 kilos of olive oil. The harvesting takes place from late October to late December. Each fall about eight men are tasked with the production of the oil. Some pick the olives, while others operate the old fashioned mill, with its granite millstones. In Italian, the usual word for an olive oil mill is frantoio, but locally, in these Alban Hills, it is known as the montano. Largely because the time between the picking of the olives and the making of the oil is so brief, the oil is of high quality. Vincenzo says that they test it and its acidity level is .03 percent, well within the .08 percent limit for extra-virgin olive oil. It is pale green and has a delicate flavor.

When asked for olive culture advice for Teatro Naturale readers, Vincenzo Scaccioni spoke of the importance of a correct, respectful, and even Christian pruning of the olive. He particularly objects to radical pruning with chainsaws, which in five minutes can eliminate the great canopy of the olive. With some emotion, Vincenzo said, “On olives, man’s ignorance is often unleashed,” and continued, “the man beats a donkey to have it work harder, so the man prunes to have more fruit, but instead gets branches.” At the Villas, the trees are mostly trimmed to a cup shape, although about forty trees are pruned to a palmetto shape.

The Ville Pontificie, in addition to growing food for the Vatican, provides 300 palm fronds and 100 bundles of olive branches for Palm Sunday celebrations and the procession of cardinals and bishops at St. Peter’s Square. Several churches in and around Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale are also provided with palm and olive branches.

The olive oil, like the other foods, is produced for the pontiff’s table and for his immediate circle. Because there is an overabundance, it is also sold at the Vatican supermarket, the Annona (an apt name for a supermarket because Annona was the Roman goddess who ensured a supply of grain to Rome.) The price is a very reasonable 9 euros per liter, and it also comes in 3-liter tins. A small quantity is also sold to some of the cafés in Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale.

While the papacy has held properties at Castel Gandolfo since the 17th century, the idea of having a self-sufficient farm is comparatively recent and springs from the Lateran Treaty of 1929. That treaty provided for the sovereignty of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, and included the extraterritorial status for the Pontifical Villas. It must have seemed prudent to Pope Pius XI, the then reigning pope, for the Vatican to have its own food sources in case there should be hostility from the Italian government. The Ville Pontificie, in addition to all the agricultural land, have the their own water source from the spring called Palazzola; a power generating plant; and heliport for landing the helicopters that transport the pope to and from the Vatican.

At the time of this writing, Pope Francis has visited the Pontifical Villas for three daylong trips. In July, each of the farmers and gardeners introduced themselves to Francis and spoke of their roles. Among Catholics, he is known as the Holy Father, and all of the gardeners who spoke of the Santo Padre, did so in a warm and smiling way.

With thanks to Vincenzo Scaccioni and his colleagues at the Pontifical Villas and thanks to Monsignors Daniel Gallagher and Antonio Pelosi in the office of the Vatican Secretary of State.

di Lucy Vivante