Early fall is a boon for gardeners in Venice. Rainy weather and cooler temperatures allow plants and vegetables to thrive in the moist Lagoon. Farther south, for example on the Amalfi Coast, autumn is considered a second spring – la primavera in autunno. That’s also true for Venice to some extent.
Early fall is the main harvest season and Venice is brimming with colorful produce. But the colors we can see in early autumn must be nothing compared to what harvesting time looked like for more than 1000 years in our town, until the early 18th century.
300 years ago, you would have seen manufacturing sites in all parts of Venice that may well be called factories, using tons of blossoms to make ointments, soap, essential oils and flower waters. Blossoms were used to make herbal remedies and distilled to flavor sugar (no Venetian noblemen would have eaten plain sugar 300 years ago !!). In particular, Venetians loved sucaro a la lavanda – lavender sugar, or rose and violet-flavored cane sugar to sweeten drinks, cookies and cakes.
As the noble families used the blossoms from their gardens for their own purpose, the Venetian factories needed to look for blossoms elsewhere. They needed flowery ingredients in addition to spices, dried herbs and roots arriving from the Levant, Far East and Africa. So Venice involved its population in growing flowers …
Families with no garden plots of their own seized this opportunity to earn a living and cultivated edible flowers (herbs and shrubs) wherever they found a public corner. Fragrant urban gardening developed and blossoms were harvested simply everywhere and delivered to the factories to make soaps and perfumes.
Venice must have been a very fragrant city when public space was used like this. Most campi weren’t covered with cobblestones but consisted of meadows and lawns !! Even Piazza San Marco was a lawn until the 14th century.
These meadows called campazzi or broli (depending on their location in town) were used as a sort of commons. They were used to grow orchards and for domestic animals like poultry and pigs to run free and feed on. Venice was indeed a very self-sufficient town !!
In the area where i grandi alberghi now line the Grand Canal (Monaco e Grand Canal, Westin Grand Hotel, Bauer Gruenwald), a big vineyard was located. In the 12th century, these herb gardens and orchards extended well into the reedy district of Cannaregio (canna means “reeds”).
A “relic” of the campazzi is Campiello de’ Squelini. You can’t miss it on your way from Ca’ Foscary University to Campo San Barnaba.
What happened to all these fragrant areas in town? Everything changed after the fall of the Republic in 1797. Many canals were filled up and now you find places in Venice called rio terrà (filled-up canal). The area of Venice grew by was one fourth (!!) to house workers with the onset of the industrial era. Mulino Stucky was such a factory needing workforce. Making perfumes, medicines and flower water simply wasn’t the focus of Venice anymore. No demand, no supply. Venice had lost her soul, she became an indistinct city first and her main vocation seemed to be “tourism”.
Perhaps times are changing once again. The borders between private and public space in Venice are vanishing and “green zones” belonging to passers-by and inhabitants are being created. The public orchards on Campo San Giacomo dall’ Orio are such an example. Now you can see that to Venice, “modern” concepts of urban, guerilla or neighborhood gardening certainly aren’t really new.