Venice still holds many secrets and most of these are hidden in palace gardens. Their botanical treasures sometimes protrude from behind brick stone walls Almost half of Venice consisting of green areas, mostly privately owned, a substantial part of town is not accessible to the public.
From the 12th century, the Venetian palace gardens became the cradle of European botanical history: Most noblemen were also merchants who had the task of taking back from their voyages objects to embellish their home town Venice, which could also be plants for the gardens. Precious and exotic plants, of course. Many garden paradises were created and most plants took well in the mild climate of a town located in the midst of a Lagoon.
Which are the characteristics of Venetian palace gardens – is there any difference to the campazzi or communal gardens shared by farmers and artisans? There are no defining features characterizing these jointly used orchards, but there certainly is a pattern according to which noble families created their gardens.
The luxury of possessing private gardens was a privilege only noble families and very rich merchant families could afford. Their homes occupied the most prominent positions in town, on the Grand Canal and along other important canal arteries, near San Marco or on any place with a great view of the lagoon. The other parts of town, with the exception of some areas in the northern parts of Cannaregio and Castello were settled by artisans.
In the 14th century and even more so in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were many secondary (holiday) homes in Venice, much like it is today. In addition to a palace on the Grand Canal, many noble families owned a “country home” located in particular in the Santa Marta/San Basilio/San Nicolò dei Tolentini area or along the Sacca della Misericordia, San Giobbe and overlooking the Fondamente Nove. Noble families also created gardens on Murano and on the Giudecca islands.
The “main” homes of noble families included a warehouse area on the ground floor and business quarters on the first floor complete with banqueting rooms. The private living quarters of the family were located on the second and sometimes on the third floor. These rooms usually provided a double view, of the Grand Canal or the Lagoon and a view of the garden paradise, carefully planted with flowers blossoming in all seasons of the year.
From the house, you enter a paved rectangular cortile (courtyard) complete with a pozzo – drinking water well. In the corners, lilies or pots with flowers provide the stage for statues or stone vases. From the courtyard you enter the flower gardens, usually raised to protect the plants from salt infiltration.
What a flower garden would look like depends on the century the garden was created. Before the 15th century you would find a pergola lining a straight axis crossing the garden to its other end. Later on, you would enter a very scenic garden all’italiana where symmetrical flower beds would be lined with low box plants. From the early 19th century, landscape gardens in the English style would prevail.
At the far end of the garden, another loggia or seating area was located. A bucolic scenery consisting of shrubs, climbers or even a tiny artificial hill was set up to camouflage the wall.
Today, many gardens have retained these features depending on the present vocation of the building. In some cases, the original families still own the premises and tend the original aspects. Sometimes, based on old plans, gardens have been restored to their ancient splendor. Other gardens were restored to fit their new purpose, which is the case of the gardens belonging to Fondazione Querini Stampaglia and the Guggenheim Foundation.