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 1966.2