Spring in Venice arrives overnight, by surprise so to say. Come March, we are accustomed to yellow mimosa blossoms, rose-golden morning light reflecting the turquoise blue skies in the canals. This year, the first day of meteorological spring brought snow to the city, ice-cold weather. The mimosa blossoms went frozen. But then, we tend to forget that for more than 800 years, snow in February and March had been the rule in Venice and not the exception.
The climate prevailing during the times of the Serenissima Republic is almost never mentioned in books or other publications: It may come as surprise to you that living in Venice between 1250 and 1900 rather felt like living in, say, the Vienna, Salzburg or Budapest in our times. That’s because of the cooling effects the Little Ice Age hitting continental Europe had on the Lagoon.
In short, the climate during the times of the Republic of Venice (421 – 1797) was much colder than it is today. Cold spells, snow, sleet and a frozen Lagoon were no curiosità storica but perfectly normal. In the 13th century, pack ice began drifting southwards in the North Atlantic, as did glaciers from Greenland. The cold weather advanced towards Europe, hitting the shores of the northern Mediterranean Sea. In the year 1650, the cold spell was at its peak.
There just weren’t those parching summers we have known in our childhood in Venice, that is, in the 1990s. Back in the 17th century, the weather was foggy and mild but coolish in summer, and temperatures used to fall below zero Celsius in winter. That’s why the Venetian noblemen, who used to cultivate tropical plants and exotic edible herbs and spices in their walled gardens, or gardens surrounded by cedars, were forced to build serre – glass houses to save their beautiful plants and spice plantations on the islands and in Venice (!) in winter. But for the plants to keep alive, the humidity of the Lagoon and constant moderate temperatures in summer made up for the lack of warm weather.
A remnant of these serre is La Serra dei Giardini built in 1830 to house the last remaining tropical plants of Venetian noble families during winter. Today, we know the Serra as one of the premier locations for buying plants in Venice and enjoying breakfast in spring :-)
When the climate in the past was quite cool, the tropical plants were growing in the horti conclusi, the courtyard gardens, protected from the cold bora and libeccio winds. Venice was lucky that the southerly wind, lo scirocco, also swept the Lagoon in winter, bringing on milder weather and much humidity to melt the snow, while on the mainland surrounding the Lagoon, snowy winters were the rule.
So yes, Venice has a tradition of dealing with snow: Today, we may marvel at the paintings of Giuseppe Borsato, Gabriele Bellini and Ippolito Caffo, who lived between the 16th and 19th century, showing the frozen Lagoon and Venice covered with snow. The average temperature in July was much lower, just around 18-19 degrees Celsius, while today, it is well above 24 degrees Celsius.
In fact, the Lagoon only exists because glacier tongues carved out the its basin in the first place. La Laguna Veneta is a relic of the Grand Ice Age, dating back 12,000 years.
There were other “snow days” in March like these in Venice just a few years ago. It happened on 4 March 2005 and also on 8 March 2010. You can see it here in the pictures Fausto Maroder, a Venetian hotelier and blogger, shared on his website.
The spring flowers in the garden are really suffering from the cold spell. Mimosas, blossoming in Venice between the first week of February and mid-April, look rather frozen. The pink tulips look very pale and I don’t know if the flimsy crocuses will survive. The primroses seem to be hardier, their leaves are cold to the touch but still lush green.