In ancient times the site started out as the thermal baths of Roman emperor Septimius Severus – father of Caracalla and ruler of the Roman Empire at its largest. Later it was the private grounds of Palazzo Corsini, an 18th-century villa erected for one of Florence’s oldest noble families.
The late-baroque palace was also the residence of Christina, Queen of Sweden, who caused a scandal when she abdicated and moved to Rome where she socialised with musicians and artists such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The piazza at the entrance of Orto Botanico is today named after her.
When the land passed into state ownership in 1883, the gardens were merged with existing papal gardens nearby and established in their current format. Today, they are managed by the Biology Department of the Sapienza University of Rome.
Hidden behind the gates of Orto Botanico is a collection of themed gardens with rare species of plants, including some once thought to be extinct. Visitors can explore a bamboo forest, collections of palms and ferns, fragrant roses and even a Japanese garden complete with delicate Acer trees and two cascading waterfalls.
As well as exotic species, the garden also features native Mediterranean plants including various types of cacti, herbs and oak trees – once the predominant vegetation of the area.
The first greenhouse was built in the garden in the 19th century. Two stone bathtubs, once belonging to Queen Christina of Sweden, have since been transferred inside the greenhouse from Palazzo Corsini. Today, they’re used as extravagant plant pots and provide a cosy home for a collection of spiky succulents.