Giudecca's four gardens

... and four different stories brought back to life by Francesca Bortolotto Possati

Four gardens have been re-arranged and partially restored behind the XVI century Zitelle complex on the island of Giudecca, where there were vineyards and orchards until the beginning of the twentieth century, laid out in obedience to the canons for the area.

The historic documentation, from De Barbari onwards, describes the nature of these places, bounded by brick walls and communicating with each other through little doors leading into long, narrow plots lying in a north to south direction to get as much sun as possible and create the best micro-climate for vegetation that, in many cases, is of a Mediterranean type, still to be seen, for example, in the olive tree growing in the Palladio garden. Subsequent changes parcelled out the long allotments and new buildings started being put up in the 1940s, this work continuing up to our own time: constructions that ignores the basic rules of this place and shut off the historic buildings and gardens from their southern aspect.

In their different ways, the three gardens tell three different stories and bring nature back to this part of the island.

The first, attached to the Palladian Zitelle Convent, preserves its great trees, among them an Aleppo pine and a European olea, which are the main objects in the composition and historical landmarks. Recovering some themes connected with the orchards and gardens of Giudecca, the restorers put back a pergola of Isabella grapes and roses pointing from north to south with blooms of iris, iris barbata, catnip, columbine, roses and grasses at the base, planted according to a natural scheme that harmonises with the way in which the lawn was conceived and designed.

The design of the garden and its geometry, which evoked the orchard plots without intending to reproduce them to the letter, creates a sense of direction and a way of moving about in the area of grass that is simply obtained by cutting the lawns to three different heights: the first closely trimmed for visitors to go over, the second medium height and the third left to grow wild and conjure up wide open spaces where spontaneous grass finds a home in a kind of spirit in which biodiversity is welcomed at the wish of both the designer and the owner.

In the spring thousands of tulip, anemone, narcissus, fritillary and crocus bulbs enrich a part of these lawns, creating an Oriental carpet effect often mentioned in old treatises and literary descriptions of the grounds of villas and palaces.

The second garden belongs to the former Asilo Mason, a modern building with a brick wall that has separated it from the area of the Palladio garden since the middle of the twentieth century, with five plane trees and a magnolia. The garden that has been created consists of hedges bounding spaces that communicate with each other. Even if the hedges are the traditional boxwood, they have been planted next to Annabelle and oakleaf hydrangea, roses, agapanthus and dwarf pittosporum, playing different variations on this garden’s main motif and almost making up a maze laid around the existing trees to imbue the place with a character that is not false to its history without giving up the opportunity of providing visitors and residents with a new space halfway between tradition and modernity. Roses of different varieties, delicate blooms, lilac and buddleja  at the foot of the hedges and separating the small spaces from each other make an interplay of perspectives of different depths and mark out imaginatively designed recesses that make the garden look larger than it is in an interplay of spatial and botanic complexity.

The third garden on the west side of the Zitelle complex also has big trees: a taxus baccata, a monumental magnolia, an enormous lime and a classic, long and narrow, umbrageous Venetian garden open onto the Giudecca Canal, perceived as a space of light and water with a shady green interior consisting of different pre-existing varieties of hortensia, fern, astilbe, ruscus, fatsia and oleander that are very much at home in this minute space.

The fourth garden, the last to be completed, is part of the land surrounding the '400 Villa F. An avenue of camphors marks the central line of the palazzo’s courtyard: that Mediterranean aspiration of the Giudecca’s gardens and fruit and vegetable plots. There are clumps of bamboo before the walls, two long lines of narcissus and pink and white tulips  that in May give over to the delicate flowering of the white and blue asters. The well-known and assertive rose Pierre de Ronsard, a clematis jackmanii armandii and oak leaf hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ separate the courtyard from the former vegetable plots.

Moving on into the shade of the wood, we find three salix matsudana, or Chinese willows, two laurel bushes, laurus nobilis, as well as the prunus, two ash trees and two hawthorn bushes, a young apricot tree, a small jujube tree, white and pink hibiscus and two forsythias and some intensly-perfumed viburnum carlesii.

Four fruit and vegetable gardens are enclosed within woven willow fencing, within whose borders grow tomatoes and Saint Erasmus artichokes, mixed in with cornflower verbena bonariensis, all interwoven in accordance with the tradition of the island that brought together roses, fruit and vegetables, jasmines, carnations, lilies and grape vines.

The historic walls live in harmony with the cypresses, figs, laurel and bamboo, with, at the foot of all of these, the teucrium, fejioe sellowiana, myrtles, buddleias, daisies and phillyrea, juniper and sweet-smelling pittosporum, irises and roses.