Venice - Hidden growth
We usually associate with Venice with canals, bridges and palaces - but what about gardens? In fact, the lagoon city on the shores of the Adriatic has roughly 500 parks and gardens dotted around it, most of them very beautiful, but tucked well out of sight
It's a sultry summer's day in Venice. Cinzia has found herself a shady spot in the garden beneath an oleander in full bloom. The air is heavy with the mingled scents of the lush pink blossoms above her head and the salt tang of the sea. Raising her eyes from her sketchpad, she gazes over the low stone wall that has stood there for centuries to Venice's South Lagoon, the tiny islands of La Grazia, San Servolo and San Clemente, and across to the long expanse of Lido island.
Cinzia is a student at the Universita' Internazionale dell'Arte, which occupies the grand Villa Heriott, a palazzo the color of ox-blood set between tall cypresses and climbing roses in a wildly romantic park beside the water's edge on Giudecca island. She is not the only person to be seen - other students have settled here and there on the grass, alone and in groups; two young mothers have parked their baby carriages beneath the outspread branches of a bay tree. There's not a tourist in sight.
"Strangers rarely come here," says Cinzia, who comes across to sleepy Giudecca every morning by vaporetto from the overcrowded district of San Marco, "the palazzo isn't mentioned in any of the travel guides and only locals know the park."
There's nothing unusual about that. Most of Venice's 500 or so gardens are tucked away well out of sight and largely unknown to the general public. They include the magnificent parks of the old patrician residences, the green inner courtyards of administration buildings and ministries, public parks like the Biennale Gardens, and secluded gardens, like those of the monasteries with their lovingly tended orchards and vegetable gardens.
Padre Adriano is the parish priest of the imposing basilica belonging to the San Francesco della Vigna monastery. The monastery is almost 800 years old, and so is the garden. "But we only began to introduce some order a few years back," says the priest, who has been here for 20 years. "Before, only vines grew here, and my predecessors made wine from the grapes." The vineyard was once the largest in Venice, and the monks naturally feel committed to continuing the winemaking tradition. They mainly produce white wine today, but also some red - and all of it strictly for their own consumption.
The gardens of the 800-year-old San Francesco della Vigna monastery: Vines were traditionally cultivated here, but now the monks also grow their own fruit and vegetables
Today the gardens also provide fruit and vegetables for the monastery kitchen: tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, lettuce, beans, sweet peppers as well as figs, apples, plums and peaches. Many of these were planted for culinary reasons, but some also for their religious symbolism. Olive trees, for example, represent peace and compassion, and pomegranate trees a symbolic link between life and death, while medlars are reputed to banish darkness. Right now, the cook is picking lush green basil leaves. "We'll be having pasta with fresh pesto tonight for sure," says Padre Adriano with a smile.
The monastery gardens are home to roughly 20 cats and tended by two retired gentlemen.
"We only put this place in order a few years ago," says Padre Adriano, priest at the basilica belonging to San Francesco della Vigna. Now the gardens are tended by two retired gentlemen - and populated by 10 cats.
Seawater laps at an arched opening in the high garden wall. In the old days, the monks could take a gondola right to their door, but now that the lagoon is rising, boats can no longer pass through. And anyway, "Do you have any idea what gondolas cost these days?" asks Padre Adriano. So the twelve Franciscan monks still in residence here go on foot when an errand or a visit takes them "into town." There are no shops in the vicinity of the monastery, which is tucked away in the northernmost corner of the densely populated Castello district, and even the closest vaporetto station, Celestia, has neither a cafe nor a kiosk.
Contessa Anna Barnabo can only dream of such celestial peace. Her palazzo is as ancient as the monastery, but it was built right on the Grand Canal, by one of the city's most influential families. Glittering receptions were held in the garden - and it is even said that Giacomo Casanova spent some years of his life here.
Giacomo Casanova is said to have roamed here. Splendid parties have always been held at the gardens of Palazzo Barnabo on the Grand Canal
The Barnabos bought the palazzo in the late 19th century, and the blond-haired countess married into the family a good 20 years ago. Since then, she has lived on the third floor of Palazzo Cappello Malipiero Barnabo. Her apartments include a drawing room over 200 square meters in size with a ceiling more than ten meters high, not to mention a Murano crystal chandelier that easily beats the biggest cartwheel in the world for size.
Most aspects of her life here are a headache "the central heating, the repairs, the cost of domestic staff" but the contessa, once so fond of traveling, has two excellent reasons to stay home these days: her two cats and her gorgeous garden. "When I first came here, I knew nothing about gardens or flowers," she says, "but I always had a good sense of color." Today the pinks of the camelias, hydrangeas and oleanders blend beautifully with the extravagant blues of the irises. A snowy carpet of tiny white roses blooms in a stone basin and nearby, pale pink water lilies float on the surface of the water in the 18th century Neptune fountain. Sweet-smelling jasmine climbs the walls, and the serried ranks of Blue Moon, Salet and other old rose varieties fill the geometrically arranged flowerbeds.
A somewhat different kind of front garden: Even where garden space is limited, there's no need to do without a touch of luscious green - all it takes is a few climbing plants to cover the walls
Replanting the garden cost the contessa 20 000 euros last year after her gardener ruined the grass and roses by using too much fertilizer. "You cannot imagine what a job that was! Every single bag of soil had to be brought here by boat," she says, still smarting at the thought. She now has a new gardener and a garden she is proud of, where parties are still held. If Anna Barnabo doesn't invite a few friends over for a garden party herself, then Francois Pinault does. He is the French billionaire and entrepreneur who owns the magnificent Palazzo Grassi right next door; and he likes to celebrate his art exhibition openings with a sit-down dinner in his neighbor's garden.
But even without an exclusive invitation, you can still dine in an elegant garden, at the restaurant of the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa on Giudecca.
The island offshoot of the prestigious Bauer Hotel in San Marco is barely two years old, but it lies within ancient monastery walls built in the early 16th century by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. He was also responsible for planting the extensive gardens.
"Sadly, the buildings and garden fell into disuse for over a century," says Bauer owner Francesca Bortolotto Possati, "and restoring everything to its former state was a pretty expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Today, Giuseppe Rallo, probably the best-known landscape architect in Venice, is overseeing the restoration of the historical garden. He has built a pergola and planted it with vines and roses, put in cherry and pomegranate trees, purple lavender, perovskia and veronica bushes, pink buddleias and daylilies.
The ample grounds are divided geometrically into areas of high and areas of low grass. "There is actually a good reason for the high grass," Giuseppe Rallo explains, "it's supposed to stop visitors from getting too close to certain plants, like the olive tree that's 300 to 400 years old, and the pine that has bent before the eternal wind on the lagoon and now lies virtually flat." For him, it goes without saying that the old trees and the garden's original layout must be preserved or, where necessary, restored.
Group photo with flowers: Many a Venetian house wall could take this as inspiration for a picturesque still life
It's good to see the same principle being applied in another of Venice's gardens: in the courtyard of the Palazzo Soranzo Cappello, namely, a building that dates back to the 17th century. Located not far from the station, it houses the Ministry of Agriculture and Architecture of the Veneto Region. This is where Rallo has his office, out of which he works for private clients and acts as a consultant to the public sector.
A couple of years ago, Rallo spent six months and some 70 000 euros on completely overhauling the palace gardens. "I left the trees as they were, included traditional Venetian garden elements and tried to revive the atmosphere described in the novels of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Henry James," Rallo explains, "because both authors used this very garden as the scene of lovers' trysts in their books."
Palace garden with a past: Authors Gabriele D'Annunzio and Henry James both set some of their love stories among classical statues and rare roses in the grounds of 17th century Palazzo Soranzo Cappello
Romance is still very much in the air there among the lilies and poppies, iris and jasmine, some rare and highly scented roses, including Dorothy Perkins, F'elicite and P'erpetue, Adelaide d'Orleans and New Dawn. Classical statues of Roman emperors, an ancient loggia and weathered terracotta pots with delicate young lemon trees reinforce the desired effect.
The sun breaks gingerly through the tall treetops, cats move indolently through the soft grass, and far away, the bells of a church tower begin to chime. Time appears to have ground to a halt in the middle of a wonderful dream here. Hopefully, no one will come along and startle you from your slumbers.
Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Castello:
Small, but beautifully landscaped courtyard garden with antique sculptures and a mighty magnolia tree. The garden, the lily-strewn geometric watercourse and square metal fountain are all the work of architect Carlo Scarpa. Papyrus plants point the way to the wonderful public library on the second floor of the palazzo. Nice café with garden terrace.
Giardini Pubblici di Castello (Biennale Gardens), Giardini vaporetto station:
Extensive grounds with old trees right on the banks of the lagoon. Part of the park is given over to pavilions when the Art Biennale event is in progress.
Teatrino Groggia, Sant’Alvise, Cannaregio:
Quiet, intimate park frequented mainly by young mothers and their children. Beautiful old trees, including a massive, fruit-bearing fig tree. A small theater in the grounds stages performances in the evenings.
Giardino Savorgnan, Fondamenta Savorgnan, Cannaregio:
Public park with over 200 old trees and comfortable benches behind which the Palazzo Savorgnan (not open to the public) provides a splendid backdrop.
Giardino Rizzo Patarol (Grand Hotel dei Dogi), Fondamenta Madonna dell’Orto, Cannaregio:
The magnificent and well-kept gardens were created in the early 18th century and today form part of a luxury hotel complex. After extensive renovations carried out a few years back entirely according to historical master plans, the hotel is now restored to its former glory.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, Dorsoduro
The garden of the villa that was art collector Peggy Guggenheim’s home until 1979 and is now a museum, is visited more for its sculptures than its plants. The lofty birches, cypresses, magnolias and maple trees are nevertheless well worth a second glance. One corner boasts the Wish Tree, an olive tree presented by Yoko Ono “to Peggy with love.”
Photos: Martin Nink