The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto

By Jenny Condie with photographs by Alex Ramsay

Published by Frances Lincoln 2013


Weighing in at 1.7kg, with 224 pages, this is definitely not a guide book to take on your travels. However, it is well written, very informative and has stunning photographs. It gives the history of each garden, the architects and owners who created them, and in some cases, the artists and novelists who may have been inspired by them.

The island of Giudecca was always more rural and less built up than the main body of Venice. In 1844, Frederick Eden and his wife Caroline, (sister to Gertrude Jekyll), built the Garden of Eden there.  Unfortunately, it is now somewhat dilapidated and not open to the public. However it is possible to visit some of the hotel gardens on the Giudecca with their remnants of old orchards and it may be possible to visit the monastery gardens attached to the churches.

Jenny Condie only lists three gardens on the main islands of Venice. One is not normally open to the public, but you can catch a glimpse of roses and statues as you take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal. And very splendid it looks. The second, Palazzo Soranzo Cappello, across the canal and not too far away from the railway station, was bought by the Italian state in 1989 and restored over many years. The palazzo is seventeenth century but its garden has been restored to its nineteenth century heyday, with rustic pergola, mature trees and bulbs, when it inspired Henry James who alludes to ‘its sweet characteristic Venetian shabbiness.’ There are complicated instructions of where to send a fax to obtain entrance, but it may well be worth just knocking at the door. The third garden is accessible. It was designed in the 1960s by Carlo Scarpa and is at the Querini Stampalia, which is a library, museum and gallery, and a good choice to add variety, but I would have liked more gardens in Venice itself and the surrounding islands.

From here, we move to the Veneto, that huge plain stretching from the Po in the South, to the Piave in the North and the Dolomites beyond. The author includes only one example of a garden on the Brenta canal. I had expected more Palladian villas, but I can understand why they were not included. The author explains that Palladio designed beautiful villas often flanked by low colonnaded barchesse which were essentially agricultural buildings. The gardens of his villas in the Veneto were modest and agricultural in nature, and he was never prescriptive about the garden.

She does describe the beautiful Palladian Villa Barbaro at Maser near Asolo. She says ‘A garden does exist here, as will be seen, though not in the ordinary sense of a collection of plants. This is a garden of architecture, in which proportion and space provide the conditions for water, painting and sculpture to express a unique sense of space’. I think this is an excellent way to look, not just at this garden, but Italian gardens in general where sometimes the only plant material will be box and yew with perhaps the odd cypress, or a hornbeam hedge and pots of lemons.

I liked the sumptuous close ups of the nymphaeum, and the description of how the water travels from a spring behind the villa through the nymphaeum and fish pond, to the kitchen, then to the fountains in front of the villa, irrigating, as it goes, under the road to the fountain of Neptune and water troughs for the animals, and finally to the orchard beyond. These insights add a dimension that you might miss when visiting the garden.

There is a good range of gardens described, ranging from the splendid renaissance Giardino Giusti in Verona, to Villa Emo at Rivello di Monselice. This villa was designed by Scamozzi, a follower of Palladio, but the garden was created in the 1960s from farmland and the present countess has added an herbaceous border and wild flower meadow.

I took a dislike to some gardens such as Ca’ Dolfin-Marchiori, where the owner in the nineteenth century built a garden dedicated to poetry: a fantasy of grottoes, torrents and ruins, while the local peasants were dying of pellagra, a disease caused by lack of vitamin B in the subsistence diet of polenta. However, it is rarely open to the public so I am unlikely to ever see it.

Quite a few of the gardens are either not open, or only by appointment, or only to groups. So who is the book for? Excellent if you are planning a group visit. The author was so good at describing statues and their significance, that I would love it if she could produce a small pamphlet with photos which you could take with you when visiting, because you will not be able to carry this tome.  I would also like another small pamphlet of more gardens and green spaces in Venice.

But this large, beautifully illustrated, well researched book was ideal for whiling away a wet January in Cornwall, dreaming of Italian gardens and sunshine.

Joan Farmer