Unveiling some secrets of Venetian palace gardens

Part 1 of my series on Venetian Palace Gardens: Venice still holds many secrets – I would say, most of these are hidden in palace gardens. Their botanical treasures usually hide behind the typical brick stone walls you can see in the picture above. As about one third of Venice is covered by green areas, most of them private, that means a substantial part of town is not accessible to the public. We can marvel at private gardens just in a few books on gardens in Venice, and often we don’t know about their actual fate. There is one famous example of such a garden, the Garden of Eden in Venice …  Sometimes, though, you are lucky enough to take a peek behind the walls …

From the 12th century, the Venetian palace gardens became the cradle of European botanical history: Most noblemen were also merchants who had the task of bringing back from their voyages elements to embellish their home town Venice. These elements, in addition to architectonic features, could also be exotic and precious plants. Thus, so many garden paradises were created, as most plants took well in the mild humid climate in a town in the midst of a lagoon.

Which are the characteristics of Venetian Palace Gardens – is there any difference to the campazzi, or communal gardens, green spots shared by farmers and artisans alike in the midst of one of the 118 islands making up Venice? In the early times, the population shared a common space – a sort of almende – on which to grow plants, orchards, and vegetables. There are, though, no defining features characterizing these jointly used orchards, but there certainly is a pattern according to which noble families created their gardens.

The luxury of possessing completely private gardens was a privilege only noble families – or very rich merchant families – could afford. Their homes occupied the most prominent positions in town, on the Grand Canal, and along other important canal arteries, in the San Marco area, or on any place with a great view of the lagoon. The inner parts of town, with the exemption of some areas in the northern parts of Venice, Cannaregio and Castello, were settled by artisans. Still …

… would you believe it – as far back as in the 14th century, even more so in the 16th and 17th centuries, Venice was strewn with secondary homes (much like it is today …) There were the recreational areas, unkempt, full of reedy lagoon grass, used by noble families to create a “country home”, located in particular in the Santa Marta/San Basilio/San Nicolò dei Tolentini area in Dorsoduro, or along the Sacca della Misericordia, San Giobbe and some western parts of the Fondamente Nove in Cannaregio. But also in Murano and on the Giudecca, noble families created gardens to spend their leisure time.

The “main” homes of noble families included a warehouse area on the ground floor, and the business quarters on the first floor including banqueting rooms. The private living quarters of the family were located on the second and sometime on the third floor. These rooms usually provided a double view – of the Grand Canal or the lagoon, and one of the marvelous house garden, recreating paradise, carefully planted with flowers that blossomed in every season of the year.

From the house, you would enter a paved protected rectangular cortile (courtyard). In the midst of it, you usually would find a pozzo – a drinking water well. In the corners, lilies or pots with flowers would make company to statues or stone vases. From the courtyard, you could reach the flower gardens, which would be raised to protect the plants from the salty underground.

What this flower garden would look like, depends on the century the garden was created. Before the 15th century, you would find a pergola lining a straight axis crossing the garden to its other end. Later on, you would enter a very scenic garden – like the one you can see in my title picture – a labyrinthine garden all’italiana, where symmetrical flower beds would be lined with low box plants. From the early 19th century, landscape gardens, English style, would prevail.

At the far end of the garden, another loggia or seating space would be created. In gardens looking away from a canal, a bucolic scenery consisting of shrubs, climbers or even a tiny artificial hill, would be set up at the one end of the garden to camouflage the walls.  You can see that style in the garden of Palazzo Nani Bernardo.

The scenic shrubbery at the one end of Garden Nani Bernardo, to camouflage the brick walls

Today, many gardens have contained these features, but it depends on the present vocation of the building. The garden has to second that purpose. In some cases, the original families still own the premises and tend the original aspects. Sometimes, based on old plans, gardens have been restored to their ancient splendor. Other gardens were restored to fit their new purpose , which is the case of the gardens belonging to two important museums in Venice, Fondazione Querini Stampaglia, or the gardens of the Guggenheim Foundation in Venice.

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