The Giardini Reali, Venice…a hidden gem

Private gardens hidden from view, Venice, July 2022

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.

The pergola, Giardini Reali, before restoration,
photo credit: Martino Lombezzi,

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.

Watercolour drawing of overall design by Anna Regge, credit:

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.

The newly restored pergola, Martino Lombezzi credit:

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.

View of a distant cupola, the superb dense underplanting, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022

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.

Fabulous Farfurgium japonicum, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022
Eriobotrya japonica multi-stemmed tree, Giardini Reali, July 2022
Detail of planting including original 19th century pergola ironwork, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022
Flowering Clerodendron trichotomum, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022
Pots of fig trees underplanted with Erigeron karvinskianus, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022
Flowering Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’, Giardini Reali, Venice, July 2022

Thank you again, Martin Lombezzi, for the photograph below.

Photo credit:

Leiden, Von Siebold and d’Incarville

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Clusius Garden, Leiden Hortus Botanicus, March 2016

Earlier this month, on a crisp, cold and sunny day, I had the pleasure of wandering round the Leiden Hortus Botanicus.  One of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens,  it was founded in 1594 expressly to curate and acquire knowledge and understanding of medicinal plants, and from the beginning, it rapidly built up a vast collection of plants from all over the world, fuelled by the merchant adventurers exploring both to the East and the West.   Carolus Clusius was recruited by the University of Leiden in 1593 to set up the garden, and Clusius himself was an ambassador for a new understanding of internationalism and plants.  Speaking eight languages himself, he was a well-known scientist, geographer, engraver and plant collector, who had already published a respected work on the flora of the Iberian peninsula, ‘Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias obseruatarum’, published by Plantin in 1576.

The engraving above, dated 1610, by Woudanus shows us how closely the modern reconstruction has followed the plan for the original garden, although it is a little smaller in size to allow for a modern width of path, and it is now contained inside the perimeter of the Hortus Botanicus.  The engraved portrait of Clusius, above left, was made in 1575 by Martin Rota.

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Another view of the Clusius Garden, Hortus Botanicus Leiden, March 2016

Through his work, until his death in 1609, the world came to know and love the tulip, in particular.  He was particularly fascinated by the colours of tulips, and worked ceaselessly to try and understand how ‘breaking’ happens, when striping can change the colouring of a tulip.  Surviving terribly hard winters and two years, in 1596 and 98, when thieves broke into his garden and stole tulips, Clusius worked tirelessly to try and understand the ‘breaking’ problem.  But it was not to be.  The world had to wait until 1928 when Dorothy Cayley, a British scientist, discovered ‘potyvirus’, the virus responsible for breaking and colour change in the tulip.  A good article in the New York Times tells more of the Clusius tulip story.

In the garden today, although not much was up as it was early in the year,  there were still some memorable sights to be seen.  I loved the way, in the massed planting of daffodils, how smaller varieties like Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ had been grouped in with the bigger varieties, it made for lovely undulations of colour.

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Massed daffodils in the sun, Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, March 2016

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Anemone nemerosa under a vast, spreading tree, Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, March 2016

And beneath a vast, spreading tree, clumps of Anemone nemerosa had been encouraged to spread.  Visible as a bright blue mist beneath the tree, you had to get up close to see what was actually flowering.

Thinking of plant exploration and connections with Leiden, a 19th century medical doctor working at the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki in Japan, was another important contributor to our expanding knowledge of the plant world.  Philipp von Siebold transformed the world of gardening almost single-handedly.  Before his travels to Japan, only 34 East-Asian plants were known in the West.   Today, 70% of all shrubs and trees planted in Dutch gardens and parks originate from East Asia.  The Acer palamatum specimens which can be seen in the Hortus, are in fact more than 150 years old and were brought back by von Siebold on his second visit to Japan between 1859-61.

Back in Tostat, my Sophora ‘Sun King’ has just burst into flower.  It is such a good, small tree and was discovered in China by a plant explorer 80 years before von Siebold, a French Jesuit priest called Pierre Nicholas le Chéron d’Incarville.  d’Incarville gave precious seed to a Russian caravan to bring them back to Europe sometime around 1747 and the first seeds were successfully germinated in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, with the first trees appearing in England in 1753.   This first Sophora, Sophora japonica, is now known more commonly as Styphnolobium japonicum, but it is the plant from which other varieties were bred, including my own Sophora ‘Sun king’.  It is a fabulous, spreading, pinnate-leaved tree, small and perfectly formed, with stunning pendulous golden blossoms that hang in handfuls in early spring. Tough, not demanding, it is a perfect small tree.  Mine has grown from 50cms to 2ms tall in about 5 years, so it grows reasonably fast, but will not get much bigger, I think.  Beautiful.

NB. A great Hortweek article here with more information about the varieties available, and  news of an original Sophora at Kew from 1760…amazing.  Get down there now to see it!

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Sophora ‘Sun king’, Tostat, March 2016

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Close up, Sophora ‘Sun king’, Tostat, March 2016