When spices were cultivated in Venice

Would you like to take a journey back in time, discovering the verdant paradise that Venice was in the 15th century?

We had the opportunity to do so during our InstaMeet #giardiniveneziani, organized in late April by Giuseppe Boscaro and Anna Toniolo. The first of the three gardens we visited took us back in time, four centuries. It’s a garden hiding behind red brick stone walls and you get the impression of entering into a jungle garden.

These days, the garden also contains a few Austrian-German decorative elements and plants such as the blue and turquoise-colored rose balls, for its current owner, artist Liselotte Höhs, was born in Austria. Your guide in this voyage back in time is  architect and garden expert Anna Toniolo who has written this guest post for us.

Anna focuses on gardening in Venice and the Veneto and has done intensive research on historical gardens for a couple of garden books. Together with Giuseppe Boscaro  (The Liquid Press) she organizes the Venice Garden InstaMeets #giardiniveneziani. She’s also admin of the IG Garden and IG Veneto Instagram Accounts and shares her own pictures at @anna_t7.

In our voyage back in time we visit Dorsoduro and the area of San Trovaso.

The church of San Trovaso was built in the year 1000 AD but was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1583. In the 15th century it was surrounded by dark wooden houses in which workers from the Cadore mountains lived and built gondolas.

In the prospective view of Venice created by Jacopo de Barbari in 1500, we can see that orchards and gardens abounded here, surrounded by high brick walls. We can make out Palazzo Brandolin to the north, whose facade was painted by Tintoretto anda copse bordering upon the rio near Palazzo Bollani.

In the far end of the garden little hills and stairs can be seen perhaps leading to a serra (hothouse) housing non-hardy plants in the cold season.  Here we’ve come to one in the most important shrines of horticulture. In the 15th century, Venice counted the largest number of botanical gardens in Europe !!

Imagine how in the middle of this vast green area the small garden of Palazzo Bonlini is embedded characterized by a mighty old mimosa tree.

“We learn form the precious guidebook written by Giannina Piamonte (1968), “Venezia vista dall’acqua”,  that in the 15th centur behind Palazzo Priuli Bon now called Clary, looking towards the Zattere, the Giardino dei Michiel was located.” This is a garden created by a botanist of the 15th century, the biggest garden in town used to cultivate and experiment with endemic and exotic plants.

You enter this long courtyard garden, decorated with dark niches made from trees and adorned with statues, from the Zattere quay. It may well be that in the 15th century, the famous garden extended over the canal where today the garden of Liselotte Höhs is located. Her garden, with stone statues and plant caves overgrown by a dense and dark green jungle recalls the ancient Venetian gardens and their stone sculptures representing gods and goddesses.

It’s like you’ve stepped back into 15th century Venice, almost meeting the owner of the garden, Venetian nobleman Pietro Antonio Michiel, who played a major role in botany in his time.

Science took on an ever more important role in Venice during the 14th century. The favorite topic was botany as branch of medicine and pharmacy. During those times, there were no other remedies available than plants. Venetians resorted to ancient works to replenish their knowledge, turning for example to Plinius The Elder and his book Historia Naturalis. In 1469, it was the turn of Giovanni Spira publishing “De materia medica” written by Dioscorides.

In the 15th century, Venetian noble families started collecting and experimenting with plants.

Herbaria were created and “horti sanitates” where herbs were grown for medical purposes to be sold to the spezieri. It wasn’t just herbs, Venetians cultivated exotic spices from the New World in their private gardens in Venice.

Marco Polo was first in listing exotic edible plants, herbs and spices.

Marco Polo introduced the notion of curcuma (turmeric) and rhubarb, sandalwood and aloe, cinnamon bark and indigo and wrote of trees from which incense and camphor were extracted. Venetian nobleman Alvise da Mosto brought back to Venice the baobab tree of the Cap Verde islands and “American peas”. Paolo Trevisan collected the names of plants and animals from Africa, Greece and the Indies.

Sorting through these vast amounts of information was now possible due to the collections of Venetian herbarium books illustrated in vivid colors.

While in other European countries the Church held the privilege of creating remedies from plants, Venice was different. Here, private gardens were used by doctors and pharmacists.  In 1330, the Maggior Consiglio gave permission to Maestro Gualtieri, a Venetian doctor, to rent a land tongue between San Biagio, Sant’Anna and Sant’Elena and create a medical garden there.

The Venetian experts went on probing into the classic works on herbs and medicine … and also corrected mistakes:

For example, Ermolao Barbaro corrected the works of Plinius. He found 5,000 mistakes and published his findings as “Castigationes Pliniane”. Venetians scientifically scrutinized ancient works and filled in gaps. They used to meet in expert circles: At the Giudecca for example, in 1484 and 1485, ”Accademia filosofica” experts held lectures on Aristoteles, at the time when in Padua the Botanical Garden of the Serenissima was founded.

The owner of the garden we visited, nobleman Pietro Antonio Michiel (1510-1576), lived in Venice during these times of scientific scrutinizing and experimentation.

Michiel supervised the Botanical Garden in Padua from 1551 and then returned to his own garden in Venice to start working on his book collection. His  Codice Erbario  consisted of five volumes, each book came with a differently colored cover page. Michiel may well be considered the first author of a plant encyclopedia: From the 1,200 plant species known during these times, around 1,000 were contained in his book, some of which were described for the first time ever with exact illustrations and scientific notes.

Michiel collected knowledge on plants from his suppliers but also from working in his own vegetable garden at San Basilio and the garden at San Trovaso.

His friend Conrad Gessner in 1561 wrote a book on the plants growing in this garden. He noted that a few exotic plants had arrived there from the ambassador of Charles V. in the Indies. There were also ornamental plants such as the clematis vitalba della rosa senis (Philadelphus coronarius). Michiel used to exchange knowledge and opinions with other garden owners and botanists such as Anguillara and Aldrovandi.

Guest Article by Anna Toniolo (May 2016)

4 responses to “When spices were cultivated in Venice”

  1. Maristella Tagliaferro Avatar

    So interesting! I have been a good friend of artist Liselotte Höhs for many years and I regularly visit her wonderful home and magic garden, but never before had I found so many informations about its history. Thank you very much Iris Loredana and Anna Toniolo also for including a picture of mine

    1. furbiziahs Avatar

      It’s been such a pleasure exploring the gardens with you!! We’ll continue describing the history of a few more gardens in our next blog posts :-)

  2. seductivevenice Avatar

    Your pictures make these gardens appear boundless!

  3. […] #14: Venice shared her medical know-how with Europe. For example, Paracelsus and Hildegard von Bingen, during the Middle Ages, sourced their knowledge through Venice. Venetian spice masters and physicians collected ancient Greek and Roman know how, forming academic circles which even corrected and updated the works of ancient masters. Read more our blog post: When Spices were cultivated in Venice. […]

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