Decoding the age of Venetian gardens

When you look at the way public and private green spots in Venice are arranged, you may even determine how old the place (and sometimes, garden) is. Very often, you can decode the age of gardens based on the three stages of garden history in Venice: Early lagoon gardens, Gardens during the Republic of Venice, and Gardens in the 19th century. Each time the gardens looked different, but fulfilled the same purposes: they represented places of leisure, sources of beauty and self-sufficient life.

In the last five years or so, another stage or “forth season” may be added: i giardini rivistati, gardening re-visited, discovering long-lost and half-forgotten know-how, traditions and lifestyle, when gardening played a major role in life. Just consider terms like “urban gardening”, “guerilla gardening”, “neighborhood gardening”, this is what gardening re-visited is called in other parts of Europe.

Stage 1: A campazzo in laguna (Torcello), VERY old because inhabited already in the 4th century AD, consisting of land mark trees, meadows, benches, olive trees.. and in former times, vegetable gardens. It is unpaved for most of its area.

This means that the “gardening threads” are taken up exactly where they were left at more than 100 years ago. Campi are becoming greener as flower beds, trees and even herb and vegetable corners (on some) have been popping up these last few years. Islands that were originally dedicated to gardening, like Giudecca and Murano, now begin taking up their former traditions.

Stage One “Campazzi e Broli” means that vegetable gardens and orchard plots were available in Venice simply everywhere, taking center stage, on the islands as well as in Venice. Also, where the hotels now line the Grand Canal (Hotels Monaco e Grand Canal, Westin Grand Hotel, Bauer Gruenwald..), in the 10th century, a big vineyard was located, but its area diminished gradually. In the 12th century, green “campazzi” (campi only partly cobbled or not at all) provided enough space for trees, fruit trees, herb gardens and were slowly extending beyond the reedy and swampy district of Cannaregio (canna meaning “reeds”) where they were tended by the monasteries.

Nowadays, most campi and campielli have been paved, while at the  beginning, they were – broli, that is to say, orchards, vegetable and herb gardens. This is Campiello Squelini: There are still a few campi in Venice where green spots have been spared ..

A “relic” of stage 1 in town is Campiello dei Squelini. You cannot miss it, you pass it when you walk from the Ca’ Foscary University towards Campo San Barnaba. Venice .. or somewhere in the countryside – another view of quiet Campiello dei Squelini in May: Here, ceramic works and mosaics were produced back in the middle ages, there was also a furnace – so it is a very old place .

In Stage 2, many gardens were  moved “inside”, into courtyards or backyards (this is how corti and corti private developed). At the beginning of the 12th century, the first palace gardens were created in town, as Venetian tradesmen brought back from their voyages a host of valuable tropical and even nordic plants to experiment with. So by the 15th century, Venice became the hub of botanical gardening in Europe.

Look at this example of courtyard garden, beautifully tucked away and enveloped by trees, shrubs and creepers, American vines. This courtyard belongs to a hotel I already described in this blog and will come back again and again, aptly named Hotel Flora. Space is used to grow plants in an ideal manner, including the facades, creating a cooler climate in summer, but which also confers to the place a very enchanted atmosphere.

Or even, when courtyards are broader and more airy, there are water basins and places in the corner where to grow vegetables, or fruit trees. Pomegrate trees are often the choice here.. Look at the example of Hotel Belle Arti, the picture of which you can see above: located on the Rio tera Foscarini.

This brings us to the third stage: to the times after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, many canals were filled up, creating the rii terrà (literally filled-up canals). So more space was created – for whatever purpose. At that time, Strada Nova was created under the Austrian rule, so between 1812 and 1871, houses were torn down to open up this avenue in order to connect the newly created train station with Rialto and San Marco. Gardening then was back to self-sufficiency, but at a price.

Wide avenues in Venice were opened up in the 1800s – this is the San Leonardo area / Strada Nova, and were – are still used for street markets

You can recognize the space created in the 19th century not only because these new areas are very wide and airy, but often because they bear telltale signs .. see below, this is Campo Sant’Agnese, where you see the upper part of where the canal, now filled in, went .. right under the Gesuati church.

So in Stage 3, that is in the 19th century, the Venetian urban landscape (tessuto urbano) was changed considerably, filling up entire canals and thus deviating water, which may not have been entirely of help when we take into account the acqua alta perils. So the area in town rose by one forth (!!). After the fall of the Republic, many inhabitants of Venice were very poor, so sometimes construction sites were opened to provide work and income to the Venetians.

These days, we have arrived at Stage 4 – gardening re-visited: The ancient know-how of Stage 1 is unconsciously coming back, or as Spiazzi Verdi has is, Torna l’aia in laguna. Aia means “the commons”. Private vegetable plots now start “overflowing” into public space, where not only flower gardens tended by the inhabitants grow profusely, but also herb gardens and vegetable plots (to see examples of how stage 4 is now taking over in Venice, take a look at my blog post on Urban Gardening in Venice).

As of now, the borders between private and public space are vanishing, and a grey zone (or green zone) belonging to all passers-by and inhabitants is created. Stage 4 is often created where Stage 1 has prepared the terrain – for example, this is the case on Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. Gardening re-visited: A green spot under some trees on Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, next to sunflowers and roses, you find kitchen herbs, zucchini and tomatoes .

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