How the exotic plants came to Venice & Our botanical treasures

I took the pictures for this article on a morning in early November. Fall seemed to arrive earlier than last year. With the leaves wilting they make way for us to spot something else. During the warm season, it’s hiding behind the foliage but now, something stands out evergreen and emerald. Solitary and exotic plants attract our eyes. You wouldn’t expect them to grow in a garden in the midst of a Lagoon in the northern Adriatic sea. They had been guests in Venice originally, yet they’ve been around for the past couple of centuries and they are thriving…

This is my the third article in my seven-part blog series Venice for First-Time Visitors and this time, I take you behind the scenes of gardens and gardening in Venice. For populating the Lagoon with any plant species could never be taken for granted. Venetians learnt it the hard way, via trial and error what worked and what not.

First of all, no garden in Venice or the Lagoon can ever be the same because the quality of the soil differs every step you make. Laterizi (ancient bricks) were used to fill in the unlevel ground. To close the gaps between the islands and to consolidate the banks along the canals. So today, only few families actually know what’s hiding in the ground.

More than half of Venice consists of real islands, that’s the 118 mentioned in the guide books. Yet, any unlevel area between them was filled in with whatever was available. So Venice wasn’t built on palafitte (wooden poles) but they were just used to fill in the gaps.

The garden of Hotel Flora which I’m showing you in these pictures IS a typical garden in town. It conveys that first impression Venetians had always intended for their visitors. There’s a concept behind everything. Gardens served as stage, colors and accessories making it look good in any season were chosen carefully.

From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, Venice was the city boasting the largest number of botanical gardens in the world. There were more than 500 of them.

When you first come to Venice, this may be hard to believe because one of your first impressions may be that Venice is a city all white stones and marbles. But in the past, noble families competed in planting precious species arriving in Venice with the merchants coming home from voyages. (NB: Venetians were both merchants AND explorers).

Still today, you can find two types of gardens in Venice: Garden type #1. Gardens created by monks and nuns, that is vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards. Garden type #2. Palace or courtyard gardens first created by the noble families of Venice called famiglie apostoliche behind their houses. From the upper floor windows (piano nobile) they loved to take in the spectacular views that their trophy plants gave them, growing lush in their garden below.

Venetian merchants took home so much inspiration for architecture, design and gardening from their Levantine trading partners, including botanical treasures or at least their seeds or young shots. When a ship unloaded goods at the Rialto market, you must imagine thousand plants being unloaded too in addition to luxurious goods, tons (!!!) of spices, silk, carpets and precious stones. All that merchandise was used to embellish Venice but also to be sold to clients all over Europe.

For this reason, Venice strongly influenced what plants grow in Europe today. There was no other nation indulging in exchanging and bringing home beautiful plants to that extent for centuries !!

Noblemen created gardens fulfilling decorative purposes and to feed their families (self-sufficient gardening). Gardens were laboratories to experiment with tropical plants and spices.  Why yes – Venetians cultivated spices and beautiful palm trees!

One can say that the curious and adventurous noble families between the 11th and 14th century represented the forerunners of what would later be calledesotismo, creating green jungles and thus adding to the fascination of Venice and the Lagoon.

“Venetia. Città nobilissima e singolare” published in 1581, Francesco Sansovino (son of architect Jacopo Sansovino) describes the Venice of the 15th century as “interspersed with gardens inviting to take a relaxing break”. On the outskits of town, the Giudecca, the northern islands of Cannaregio, and Castello, you would find the bulk of monastery gardens and orchards interspersed with reedy and grassy areas and little puddles and lakes (le piscine). In town, it would be the courtyard gardens like the one Hotel Flora still lovingly tends to.

Typical plants (roses, vines, cedars, cypress) made a lush background to all the valuable tropical plants, protecting them from too much sun or wind. In particular, Venetians loved pomegranates, mirti, jasmines, hibiscus, citrus trees, precious palms. In short, imagine gardens reverberating with Levantine influence and recalling the citrus gardens of Damascus.

Garden layouts were symmetrical: First, one enters a paved corte (courtyard) complete with pozzo (fountain used to collect rain water). From here, a few stone stairs lead into a slightly elevated garden where the trophy plants were growing. The third part of the garden consisted of shrubbery, a herbs and vegetables zone and was divided into two even parts by a gravel walk leading to the far end of the garden. The gravel path was usually covered by a pergola leading to the far-off area overgrown with shrubs, or a rose garden and the porta all’acqua overlooking a canal. This pergolato was mostly covered with vines and roses.

I don’t know how many plant species we have lost in Venice. They may live on somewhere else in Europe. Sometimes such a lost treasure is being redisovered, growing wild in the woods on an estate near Venice. That’s the story of the Venetian rose told by Andrea di Robilant in his book. We’ll look at more stories in a few weeks’ time for Christmas. Click here to join us in this voyage of discovery.

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2 Comments

  1. Ciao, Iris
    I was always getting your posts at the beginning but then for some reason I stopped getting notifications. Then I reverted to my maiden name and used a filter, so was happy to see posts from your blog again. Now I have changed my account and hope I can post.

    Thank you for very informative posts about Venice, its traditional recipes and history.

    Best regards
    Liz

    1. Dear Elizabeth,
      thank you for your message, I’m very happy that the notifications of our Blog work again. Just started an Advent Calendar series on lavenessiana.net and also a Newsletter. There will be more Christmas photos and blog posts to come 🙂 Please contact me any time if there’s something special you would like to see or know about Venice. Best regards, Iris

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