Venice is so quiet, and the water is turquoise and crystal clear. Several times last week on social media, surprising images were shared, such as the ones showing millions of fish born in the Venetian canals during the past week! Continue reading
Did you see the first post in our blog series on the Venetian way of life, and why small squares (corti) play a unique and essential role?Continue reading “The Beauty of Venice 2 Healing Neighborhood”
This is the first in a series of secret glimpses, explaining Venice from a different point of view: Venezia, The Humane City. It’s a virtual journey around our city, exploring her strenghts, cultivated and sometimes, lost, during 1600 years. Keep on reading!
Venice has a myriad of garden types, which developed during more than 1,700 years! Little is known that each garden holds a special message for us, and that’s true for convent gardens and for palace gardens! We cannot say which one of these two came first in Venice, but we assume it’s the convent gardens.
Venetian gardens speak to us through symbols, layout and the wise choice of plants, and it’s fascinating to decipher their ancient voices. To share an example with you, take a look at which plants were chosen in the oldest gardens in Venice. These plants are known to be hardy and survive in a marshy halophile environment.
The basic layouts of the first gardens in the Lagoon were the hortus conclusus, a small square garden you can often find in the convents of the Lagoon, and the hortus deliciarum in private gardens. Hortus deliciarum was the core feature of the palace garden, from which the spice gardens developed approx. 850-900 AD. The spice gardens needed a special setting to protect sensitive plants such as ginger, pepper, and cinnamon! Spice plants were growing in profusion in the protected gardens of noble families and spice merchants in Venice, especially during the periodo caldo medievale (Medieval warm period) between the year 950-1250 AD approximately. Personally, I find this period to be the most fascinating chapter in Venetian garden history.
We found that the plants growing in the gardens of Venice until 1797 hold clear messages and provide hints of how their owners viewed life and business, and the role the plants were playing in Venice to make the city as self-sufficient as possible.
While there were of course individual preferences for plants, some trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs were ubiquitous in Venice: Below we list a few of the first plants, arriving in the Venetian gardens between 370 and 900 AD approximately (yes, these gardens are between 1100 and 1400 years old. El Brolo, the ancient garden of the San Zaccaria Monastery, is one of them ..)
The layout of these oldest gardens is based on the Ancient Greek and Roman gardens and is thus rather formal. It’s the basis for what would become the monastery gardens in Venice: San Zaccaria as I mentioned above, but also San Zanipolo, San Francesco della Vigna, I Frari, to name just a few.
Here are some of the plants you could find in the first gardens of Venice, and their hidden meaning:
- Cypress trees were used to confer pace – peace and tranquillity to an area, and were planted in the the Lagoon cemeteries.
- Vines originally represented umiltà – humility. The first vineyards were created by monks and nuns in the Lagoon. San Zaccaria was the most ancient vineyard in Venice.
- Olive trees shall promote misericordia (mercy) and wisdom of the heart. Did you know that the Doge of Venice had a giardino pensile – hanging garden, and a towering olive tree?
- Peri e meli (pears and apple trees), brought to Europe by the Greek and Romans around 200 BC from the southwestern coast of Turkey, symbolized obbedienza – obedience and were first planted in the orchards of monasteries in Venice.
- Amongst the herbs, la salvia (sage) is one of the most ancient herbs we know of in Venice. It’s the symbol of la salvezza (sanity, health) due to its strong healing principles. It was used as antibiotic before the advent of potent spice mixtures created by the Venetian spezieri (spice masters / apothecaries)
- To protect the herb gardens from unwanted animals and insects, ruta (rue) was planted around the cultivations. The little yellow blossoms were also thought to attract good health in general.
We could continue for hours on end, unearthing more forgotten Venetian garden secrets and treasures. Lina planted all of these herbs, shrubs and trees in her garden, to recall the beginnings of Venetian garden culture, when she started restoring her garden in 1968, suffering from the flood of 4 November 1966.
It’s a palace garden tucked away behind a brick stone wall. Given away by tell-tale scents and yellow rose blossoms I was to discover in the garden. If there ever was any competition called for any plants in Venice, I suppose this garden must have won, and would still win:-) It’s here you can have a closer look at the ancient garden heritage of the Republic of Venice. With telltale traces: The tallest palm tree, the oldest wisteria in town … and who knows, the biggest peony blossom.
It’s a garden laid out in the style you would have seen in the last century of existence of the Republic of Venice. The palace, though, had been built before, in the 15th century. The garden very much reflects the formal baroque / renaissance style en vogue before the advent of landscape gardening in the 19th century. It’s not a garden overlooking the Grand Canal,even though it is located next to Ca’Rezzonico, but stretches farther inland with a view of the campanile of San Barnabà.
We were greeted by chirping birds on this sunny afternoon. It was one of the first warm spring Sundays in Venice, a clear and deep blue sky. A mix of flower fragrance greeted us, roses and wisteria. First of all, I noticed the roof of wisteria, just coming into bloom on the pergola covering all of the paved corte – courtyard from which you enter the garden. But then it’s not so easy stepping into the garden – just look its special guardian in the picture below …
I read that this is the oldest wisteria plant in Venice … more than 100 years old. It’s still a splendid plant, even though its trunk looks corrugated, with lots of lush leaves and dripping purple blossoms..
When I look at a garden, Venetian and non-Venetian, I do it in the following way my father, an architect, taught me: Check out its pianta (layout of the grounds). Look for symmetry, which in our case is quite clear – there is a central axis, that is, path leading from the house to a collina – a little artificial grass-covered hill opposite, at the other end of the garden. Then divide the garden into rooms that make sense. Go about exploring these rooms one by one. Then walk round and take in the garden from all four angles. Walk to the center and look round. Return to the entrance and look back – see whether your impression has changed. And believe me – it always does. This is how the essence of a garden will unwrap
The garden is separated from the lower-lying courtyard by a low stone wall, acting as a nursery with lots of pots of chlorophytum plants, and as a shield protecting privacy under the thick roof of wisteria.
It seems that every garden in Venice is home to and attracts cats, and so does this. The resident black cat followed the visitors, exploring paths, views and perspectives between the boxwood-lined flower beds.
As you would have found in the ancient Venetian botanical garden, a corner was dedicated to citrus plants – terracotta pots of little lemon trees (which you can harvest in Venice in the spring) amongst the marble statues. In the other corner of the garden, a garden table and chairs stood out in the shade.
There is one obstacle if you intend walking down the central axis of the garden, though: The highest palm tree in Venice is coming into sight 🙂
In Venice, not all palm trees take well, even though private gardens used to grow many due to the botanical vocation of noble families. These merchants of Venice filled the gardens of their homes in town with botanical troves from exotic places. It was a keen interest on the one hand, but also a must: The Republic of Venice commissioned its merchants to bring back anything to further the beauty of their home town. Could be a precious piece of art. A relief. Or a botanical rarity. Many of these went to the Botanical Garden of the Republic, founded in 1545 in Padua. Other plants never left their “owners” and usually took well in the humid and warm climate of the lagoon.
So how many years must it have taken for the palm to become as big as that, starting out as one of the tiny seedlings you find almost everywhere on the lawns or flower beds in Venice. They look like thick glossy grass, but after a 3-4 years, they will be about 1 meter high. I can’t tell the height of this palm tree, but it’s very impressive, and its leaves looked very fresh. Around it, you can see the young canna indica shots.
On we go to the other end of the garden, past symmetrically cut flower beds. I would have continued straight to the other end, but was distracted by an unexpected color patch in pink:It must be the lushest peony blossom in Venice. We literally formed a queue to take a picture of this beauty blossoming amidst lush green leaves, next to lotus plants growing wild at one edge of the garden.
Now we have arrived at the other end of the garden, at La Collina, a seemingly unkempt part of the garden where animals retreat. Many formal gardens in Venice today have done away with this little copse which used to be an integral part of Venetian gardens. Some don’t have it because the garden borders on a canal at its far end. Others don’t have it because they are simply too small.
But fact is that Venetian noble families were masters in self-sufficient gardening. When you live in the midst of a lagoon, space is limited – as much in former times as it is today. In former times, the rural swampy parts of town were numerous: Large parts of Cannaregio were dedicated to gardening and growing herbs and vegetables.
Under the collina, a natural fridge was created, called la ghiacciaia – a cool place where deperible food was stored in former times. I was delighted to see a collina for a first time myself. A long time ago, I had had a brief look at another, still located in the Giardino Rizzo Patarol.
To be continued – Part 4: Modern Palace Gardens in Venice.
A big thank you goes to the organizers of the #FourGardensOneCommunity Meet, Anna Toniolo (IG Veneto) and Giuseppe Boscaro (IG Venice).
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.
Spring has finally come to us, too. After rainy times we are now happy that the weather has turned mild and sunny again. So you may have wondered how Venetians prepare their flower beds (aiuole), little vegetable plots (orti and orticelli, there are some of these in town, located in private courtyards and small garden plots), and window herb gardens. As you may have guessed, with regard to private vegetable plots for everyone, or at least for every family, we have some shortage here, as the custom of keeping broli (orchards) in town has long been abandoned. Broli were places in the 10th-16th century, where Venetian families were growing their produce next to their houses, even spreading out into campazzi (squares). These days, the islands of the lagoon are ready to deliver all the bounty we need for cooking with fresh spring greens. But despite difficulty to find space to grow herbs, Venetians don’t give up and use their … window ledges, provided these are neither exposed to the blazing soon at noon, nor looking into northern direction with no sun available at all. Continue reading “L’arte verde in città: How to plant a spring herb garden in Venice”
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 .