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Small Things Forgotten: Rome’s ‘orange garden’

Rome has precious gardens and spaces but only in Santa Sabina’s fortified garden (the Parco Savello) can you see the city and consume the voluptuous perfume of oranges at the same time.

Here on the Aventine the September storms have thrashed the orange orchard and caused the grass to grow. Roma Capitale gardeners know their city. They are at ease mowing the new grass here and inhaling the fragrance. A carpet of early oranges worthy of Palermo litters the ground, soon to be mashed by the mower.

The view from S. Sabina

A steep old road leads directly from the Lungotevere Aventino up to Santa Sabina. Parrots flash by as you pass the stout walls of the fort created allegedly by Crescentii family in the 10th century. The neat brickwork of this defunct martial exercise seems more consistent with the town’s great churches from its real rebirth in the 12th – 13th centuries. As likely as not much of this enclosure with its forward towers was put up by the Savellis after they demolished the earlier fort. Look for the bits of this palimpsest sticking out awkwardly from the otherwise neatly grouted brickwork.

S. Sabina from the orange garden

The orange garden belongs to yet another revivalist moment and was designed in 1932 by Raffaele De Vico.

As for Santa Sabina, the huge barn of the basilica with its mighty windows is a symbol of an altogether earlier revival in the city. Proud above the Tiber, yet out from beneath the massed ancient ruins in the centro storico, its monumentality marks the city’s metropolitan wealth in the 4th to 6th centuries before a perfect storm of troubles demoted it after c.540 or so, and turned much of Rome into gardens.

Inside shafts of sunlight illuminate the magnificent sculptured transennae that pen off the choral area in front of the altar. Yet all I can think of is the heady scent of oranges, an unexpected bouquet after weeks of arid air. This is a moment and place to treasure in a city that from this vantage-point possesses a viewshed endlessly marked by great churches and palaces.

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