Patricia Cleveland-Peck revels in the peace and tranquillity to be found walking among the many gardens around Venice. Join her for a tour of the undiscovered secrets of La Serenissima…
Everyone loves Venice and everyone from Ruskin to Donna Leon has written about it – so is there anything left to say? Well yes. One aspect which has received little publicity – yet appeals strongly to visitors, especially the British – is the city’s secret gardens. Hidden behind walls along canals and among the twisting calli are some 500 gardens, remarkable not only for their beauty but that they exist at all in this city created on moving water.
Garden visiting in Venice is, however, quite tricky. Entrance fees for example can change dramatically between locations, opening hours vary and, unsurprisingly, hidden gardens are hard to find. The best thing is to avail yourself of the services of an expert like Mariagrazia Dammicco, President of the Wigwam Club Giardini Storici Venezia, (an international charity devoted to gardens of historical significance) author of two books on the subject and experienced guide.
Approaching by boat adds a new dimension to a visit, the sparkle of light upon water the perfect prelude. Disembarking on Giudecca, the island where Venetians once had pleasure gardens, we saw three very different gardens.
THE ISLAND OF GIUDECCA
The gardens of the Convento del Redentore date from 1576 and at one time produced quantities of fruit and vegetables. Now, with fewer monks, much of it has been left fallow but pruning of the olive trees was in progress during our visit and salad crops and artichokes were growing.
The factory of the luxurious Fortuny fabrics at the other end of Giudecca is surrounded by industrial-type buildings including the huge mill, the Molino
Stucky, now converted into a 380-room Hilton hotel. It is thus surprising to find, tucked behind the factory, a courtyard leading to a garden with roses and a small pavilion.
On the site of the luxurious Hotel Cipriani there was an important botanical garden in the 16th century. One part, known as Casanova’s garden from its proximity to the Spinster’s Church where the reprobate reputedly spend many happy hours, contains a well-tended little vineyard which still produces grapes for the ‘salt red wine’ – it is a feature of Venetian plants that adapting to the salty environment, they often acquire mutations.
Visiting the Cipriani Hotel’s baby brother, Locanda Cipriani, involves a longer sail to the island of Torcello, where you find yourself almost in the country. The garden is modern, vibrant with snap-dragons and bright roses; heady with scent and alive with birdsong – if you lunch there, add to this crisp white wine and delicious food and you’ll experience a multi-sense feast before returning to Venice as the setting sun gilds the lagoon.
Although summer visitors now flock to Venice, in the past wealthy Venetians engaged in the ritual of the villeggiatura, leaving the city in boats laden with holiday paraphernalia for their country houses in the Veneto, many of them architectural gems in the Palladian style.
For a taste of what Goldoni called “this fad of the country season” we set off to visit the 17th-century Villa Barbarigo Pizzoni Ardemani at Valsanzibo. Originally boats would have entered by the Portale de Diana, the triumphal watergate from which a chain of majestic pools lead up towards the Euganean hills, each of them terminating with statues, cascades and fountains.
We enjoyed the tall, tree-lined alleyways; were charmed by rabbit island complete with live bunny residents and laughed aloud at the giochi d’aqua which, cunningly concealed beneath stone benches, suddenly come on and soak the unsuspecting incumbents.
Villa Pisani is perhaps the grandest of the string of great houses along the Brenta. It was completely remodelled in the 18th century by the Pisani family, wealthy Venetian bankers, who used it for entertaining kings and ambassadors at sumptuous festivities. The gardens are truly magnificent with canals, statuary and a coffee house surrounded by a moat – but what I chiefly remember is going into the maze alone and getting hopelessly lost.
However, for sheer prettiness Villa Emo must take the prize.
A beautifully proportioned villa is set among glorious gardens with parterres, statues and flower beds filled with exquisitely coloured irises and roses. A gem.
Back in Venice we headed for Palazzo Rizzo Patarol, once an important botanical garden and a meeting place for Venetian intellectuals. It still contains old statues and strange hillocks beneath one of which is a large ice-house, but now the garden contains massed roses, climbers and shrubs.
Also in the quiet sestiere of Cannaregio are two gardens both of which surrounded palaces which have now been converted into old people’s homes, Ca’ Morosini del Giardin and Ca’Contratini dal Zaffo. It takes considerable imagination to envisage what they must have been like in their prime, but they contain some interesting trees and plants and still function as pleasure gardens for the residents and, in the case of Ca’Contratini dal Zaffo, the views over the lagoon are spectacular.
THE GARDENS OF PALAZZO MALIPIERO-CAPPELLO
Every time we made our way to and from our charming little hotel, Palazzo Sant’Angelo which overlooks the Grand Canal, we noticed one particular garden with a balustrade frothy with roses, the only one right on the canal side. This, Palazzo Malipiero-Cappello, is the pride and joy of Contessa Anna Barnabò, who has gardened here for some 30 years. Visiting was a privilege. Furnished with box-edged beds, a gazebo and magnificent statues, the focus is flowers, especially roses, Contessa Barnabò’s passion.
“Roses grow well here,” she explained, pointing out a Blue Moon rose which has unusual pinkish tinges – the salty water in action once again. She went on to explain the roses are followed by hibiscus and Japanese anemones and that in spring the garden is full of irises. “I try to have something for every season,” she said.
The palazzo dates from the 16th century, and in 1739 Casanova came here as a young man of just 15 years old and learned much from the elderly Senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero with whom he’d ingratiated himself. The garden dates from a later period but has that elusive and dream-like charm which we have come to associate with Venice. Sailing from garden to garden, you glimpse a completely different aspect of La Serenissima. Who could ask for more?
➤ KIRKER HOLIDAYS
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Patricia Cleveland-Peck travelled courtesy of Kirker Holidays. They offer 3 nights accommodation at Palazzo Sant’Angelo from £829 per person including return flights, water taxi transfers, daily breakfast and entrance to the Doges’ Palace with special offers for June, July and August.
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Venetian Gardens by Maria grazia Dammico, with stunning photography by Marianne Majerus, is published by Falmmarion.