Venice in July! Hot and very crowded could be the overall impression- but this wouldn’t be entirely true.
There are so many streets and areas in Venice that are almost empty and still full of palazzos, beautiful churches and the beguiling beauty of the canals and waterways. You just need to brace yourself for full immersion in the narrow streets around the main square and the Rialto, as well as the environs of the railway station. Gardens and open spaces are enormously rare, private and hint at great wealth in the special chaos that is Venice. Most, however, like the top photograph are glimpsed as you pass on the sides of canals or through dense iron railings or over high walls from another building. The top photograph was taken through the decorative ironwork of a window space across the canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.
One such space, just off the Piazza San Marco and looking out over the Bay of Venice, is the tiny Giardini Reali, only 500m2, but now, though hidden behind tourist stalls of stuff, such a gem to find right in the heart of touristic and commercial Venice. But it was not always thus.
Until 2018, these gardens were abandoned and desolate, though not, luckily, forgotten. Founded in the very last years of the 18th century and styled by Napoleon’s artists to reflect his conquests and military defeat of the Venetian Republic, these gardens were intended originally only for the distraction and delight of powerful courtiers and royalty. By the mid 19th century, the gardens were restyled in the English tradition, and an immense iron pergola was installed cutting through the middle of the garden. By this time, the Venetians themselves were permitted to ‘walk through’ the gardens. The gardens fell into decay and neglect for decades by end of the 20th century. But, in 2014, the Venice Gardens Foundation took on responsibility for the Giardini Reale, committed to restoring the fortunes of the garden, and create for the citizens of Venice a garden space that would help rebuild civic pride and commitment.
A new design was developed, building on the historic bones of the past, as well as the original planting plans. From the start, the principles were to retain and amend, to create, as far as possible, a mix of large trees, small trees, shrubs and a limited palette of ground covering perennials to maximise shade cover and reduce evaporation. The gardens were re-opened in 2019 after five years of work.
The pergola with the sturdy, yet elegant, ironwork typical of the 19th century, shown below just after the restoration, is the main artery through the space, providing deep and reliable shade for passers-by and the protected planting conditions for hydrangeas and other shade lovers.
Now, nearly three years after opening, the tiered structure of the planting is impressive and successful in creating a protected and serene atmosphere. The top tier of the planting consists of tall, airy trees such as Sophora japonica, with wafting delicate foliage. The second tier is multi-stemmed smaller trees such as Eriobotrya japonica and Clerodendron trichotomum fan out to cast shade into the plantings alongside the pergola. Big shrubs such as Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ punctuate the corners of paths and soften the edges. Lastly, with no bare soil showing at all to preserve soil humidity, huge plantings of Iris, Agapanthus and Farfugium japoncium fill out the planting at ground level. The planting palette repeats and combines, bringing the small space into a brilliant, cohesive whole.
The careful discipline of the restricted planting absolutely works. Even with every bench filled with people sitting, talking or just resting, the garden is a calming and thoughtful experience. For even more detail on the history and reconstruction of the gardens, see the Venice Gardens Foundations excellent website, to which I am greatly indebted. Good for Venice. And see the last photograph….what a way to deliver trees.
Thank you again, Martin Lombezzi, for the photograph below.
Photo credit: venicegardensfoundation.org