The Gardens of Venice
The Gardens of Venice are mostly hidden behind high walls, giving the impression the at the city is made of stone and water. In realty, an aerial view of the lagoon, shows more green spaces than is commonly perceived.
Originally, a large part of the Venetian archipelago was comprised of agricultural lands, woods, reeds, and for grazing cattle.
As the city rapidly grew, many of these green spaces diminished. By the 13th C, the economy of Venice was principally built on international trade; leading to the progressive relocation of agricultural activities to the mainland.
The concept of the garden however, is a relatively recent one.
Small parcels of land delineated by walls, were contained behind houses. The spaces were used to cultivate fruit and vegetables to meet the family needs; the surplus was sold off locally.
The first gardens were primarily designed for the cultivation of medicinal plants, that were dried and formulated into medicines and potions; sold often under license and by regulated pharmacies. Venice became internationally renowned for the production and European trade of high- quality remedies and potions; becoming the centre for research and development.
In the beginning of the 16th C with the development of the printing press, scientists/alchemists could refer to detailed and illustrated books for the study of curative herbs.
During the same period, the Botanical Garden of Padua was established and linked to the University. The passion and expertise for botanical plants and research, spread to many citizens. The exchange of information was promoted by merchants and travellers, resulting in many exotic species being brought back from distant lands.
One such nobleman, Pier Antonio Michiel became a great expert in botany; renowned for his garden in San Trovaso, which unfortunately no longer exists today. Credited to Michiel, is the most detailed and illustrated plant catalogue from the 16th C; containing accurate drawings and detailed descriptions of a thousand species.
The small walled Venetian garden, also became a secluded medieval “hortus conclusus”, for silence, contemplation, reading and even romantic encounters! Plants were laid out according to precise rules. Palazzo Dario, is a good example, whose perimeter and structure have remained unchanged to the present day; even though the planting has changed.
In palaces, the garden was often separated from the house by a courtyard; used as an area for domestic chores.
During the Renaissance era, the garden became a decorative feature, where the planting was arranged according to a plan; to create an artificial scene. Instead of medicinal plants and fruits, owners replaced them with collected plants; which provided an “all the year round” structured and green space. Unusual pruning or topiary developed, using species such as box, laurel and myrtle.
Gardens also contained statues and architectural elements, such a pergolas and open galleries. Perimeter walls were covered by evergreen climbers, roses and jasmine or decoratively covered with shells, bone fragments, coloured glass, sands, or even coral.
This exquisite Manneristic trend for the artificial was widely popular in the second half of the 16th C. For some, the garden became a magnificent private stage for entertaining, music and comedy.
Almost all of the splendours have not survived – perhaps only a few remaining fragments and fortunately detailed documentation from that era.
Venetian gardens are still characterised by their small size and flatness; in contrast to other Italianate gardens elsewhere, with their rigorous geometry, terracing and spectacular view-points.
To protect them from the salty lagoon waters during exceptional high tides; early gardens were often slightly raised, intersected by gravel paths. Over the centuries and due to climatic factors; plants such a s laurels, hackberries, yew and box hedging are still prevalent today.
By contrast, on the islands of Murano and Burano, the nobility built their holiday homes with gardens on a much larger scale; with fruit trees and vines and classical decorations. Owners and their guests enjoyed receptions and pastimes such as horse riding.
Plant enthusiasts even discussed flowers as representations of their feelings. They used a symbolic language based on colours, white symbolises trust, green for hope, yellow stood for desperation, blue for jealousy, red for revenge and orange for joy!
One of the most beautiful gardens of the Giudecca belonged to the wealthy Pisani family, where important social events were staged; such as the visit of Gustav 111 of Sweden in 1784. For the event, a famous theatrical set designer was hired and a large room facing the lagoon was constructed; complete with an “ice” air conditioning system constantly replenished! The theme was one of flowers and fruits, with a profusion of colour, scents and sensations. A flat boat carried an “Arc de Triomphe” like structure, the illumination aided by reflective mirrors.
Almost nothing remains of the stylish gardens today on the Guidecca. Only the vegetable plots of the Chiesa del Redentore and the Villa Eden garden; which was restored in the 19th C to the times of the “Serenissima”, can be seen today.
The 19th C, brought a revival of interest in Botany with the resumption of cultivating exotic plants and a new vitality to many of the semi-abandoned gardens.
The new “English Garden” style, brought about major changes and enhancements to the more extensive spaces. The new romantic garden had an irregular shape and was characterised by many different elements and an unusual variety of “panoramic” view-points.
Carefully placed elements included, small wooded areas, colourful flowerbeds, hedges and pergolas covered with climbers such as jasmine roses and wisteria. Other accents included, sculptures, pots, architectural elements, obelisks, small bridges, turrets, lodges and huts.
Among the informal gardens that can still be seen today, are those of Palazzo Gradenigo and Palazzo Albrizzi at Sant’ Aponal. The latter, although small in size, still retains a degree of romantic atmosphere; with a small bridge that connects it to the palace and a Neo-Gothic tower.
The most extensive public gardens of Papadopoli and Savorgnan, are quite different from their original 19th C styles.
After the fall of the Republic, the public gardens of Castello, were designed by Gian Antonio Selva. A large area was cleared, but none of the planned service buildings were constructed.
From 1887, the Biennale di Venezia occupied around two thirds of this lush area. In the first stages, The Padiglioni di Venezia was built for exhibition purposes; later to be followed by other international pavilions.
The Royal Gardens, commissioned by Napoleon, occupied an area facing the St Mark’s Basin, where is situated the Granai della Repubblica (grain store); the ancient building of the Venetian Republic.
Fondazione Querini Stampalia, has one noteworthy garden, designed by the Venetian architect Carlo Stampa; at the end of the 1950’s. The space features rigorous geometry with austere cement partitions, set in a grassy carpet with four different trees and shallow water ponds.
From the 16th C onward, Venice’s dominant position started to decline. Wealthy Venetians were forced to diversify their traditional activities and consider new investment opportunities and the acquisition of land on the mainland to the north. First developed as holiday residences, they eventually evolved into sumptuous villas, surrounded by splendid parks; many of which are intact to this day.
In terms of magnificence and interior opulence, they often exceeded that of their city houses. The wealthy Venetian’s competitive nature, allowed them to freely express their fantasies and vanities. In their parks and gardens, they created a celebration of botanical variety, accentuated with lakes, lemon groves, mazes, gazebos, fishponds and rabbit hutches.
Wealthy Venetian families and their staff, escaped to the countryside to avoid the summer heat and humidity. Those villas on the banks of the River Brenta, were accessed by taking the “Burchiello; a ship that was pulled along the water by a team of horses, whilst others took to their carriages.
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