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Book Review: The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto

Gardens of Venice and VenetoJenny Condie with photographs by Alex Ramsay, The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto (Frances Lincoln, 2013; ISBN 978-0-7112-3404-8) £35

Jenny Condie, an art historian and writer, lived in Venice for 10 years and with Alex Ramsay as photographer has produced a fascinating as well as a sumptuous book on gardens not only in Venice itself but also in the old Venetian territories.  It would be wrong to regard the book as merely another for the Coffee table; for each of the 21 gardens that are described and illustrated the author provides clear details of their owners, historic and present their designers and the architects of the houses.

Visitors to Venice will be encouraged to seek out the labyrinth behind the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and the gardens of the Redentore;  they may no longer be able to visit Frederic and Caroline Eden’s garden, so lovingly described by F C Eden in “A garden in Venice” but, as the helpful appendix of opening hours shows, may be able to join a tour of the large garden of the Palazzo Cappello Malipiero Barnabo.  They will be able to recall that Henry James, when writing The Aspern Papers  “had more or less in mind” the garden of the Palazzo Soranzo Cappello, that after a longer period of abandonment has now been restored.

One of the particular attractions of the book is that the author does not limit herself to “historic” gardens so, in Venice itself, she describes the gardens of the Fondazione Querini Stamplia, “the smallest garden by far…that, in inverse proportion to its scale, repays long contemplation”  where the traditional elements of stone, water and evergreens have been worked with brick, cast concrete and wrought iron.

From Venice the book makes a leisurely progress via the Brenta canal, Padua, Rovigo, Treviso, and Verona to Vicenza and some short comments will illustrate the wide variety of the gardens described in each chapter.  The Villa Pisani at Stra has a labyrinth that is “a source of merriment – and sometimes anguish – for today’s visitors”.  (At the  Giardino Giusti in Verona Charles de Brosses in 1739 had wandered lost under the hot sun for an hour “before his cries brought help”). The history of the now long established botanic garden at Padua is summarised:  Venice was keen to encourage botanical research in support of the spice trade.  The huge demand for fresh supplies of medical plants prompted thieves to break into and steal the freshly planted specimens almost as  soon as the garden was opened.  The gardens of the  Villa Barbarigo Pizzoni Ardemani prompt interesting speculation:  does the garden reflect the Church’s triumph over the pagan world or seek to  portray a reconciliation of Christian doctrine with classical ideals of Greece and Rome, or to lead the visitor from darkness to a state of enlightenment?

There are evocative passages introducing each garden such as that for Villa Allegri Argvedi a Cuzzano:- “The impression of extraordinary fertility is something not easily forgotten.  It leaves a pulse in the memory, a sensation as of sharply indrawn breath.  Villa Allegri a Argvedi is above all a working farm – all tractors and revving engines, sprayers and muck-spreaders…..” but a farm that has a “magnificent terrace laid out as a parterre de broderie”.

It is not only the gardens that are described:  so are the gardeners.  When a new young Countess arrived  At the Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin in 1852 she found a large uncomfortable house “unadorned by any garden”; but she soon “lavished her prodigious energy “in laying out a formal garden that was much influenced by English Victorian tastes”.

By way of contrast Jenny Condie described the Masonic garden designed by Guiseppe Jappelli at the Villa Valmarana with its Knights Templars’ Chapel, a mysterious re-assembled tomb and a warren of tunnels and chambers, all neglected when the Habsburg rulers outlawed Freemasonry.  “There are few Romantic gardens in the Veneto that are untouched by (Japelli’s) scenic genius, but none is as unashamedly arcane and as bizarrely spectacular as that of …..Valmarana”.

The tour moves on through Rovigo to Treviso and the Villa Barbaro , its frescoes by Veronese and its huge array of water features and particularly a spectacular grotto set in the middle of an extravagant nympheum.  Because of the availability of natural spring water, such grottoes were often included in gardens (although in some case the springs have now dried) so another early grotto is to be found at the Villa Della Torre in Verona where “the gaping mouth (of) a doorway giving onto a small, vaulted chamber with a central octagonal pilaster…conceals a monstrous sculpted mask set in to the back wall”. 

Unusual features can be found amongst the gardens.  At Giardino di Pojega, Villa Rizzardi, there is a large teatro di verzura, or green theatre, completed in 1796 and the largest of its type in Italy being based on ancient Greek models and constructed entirely of plants.

Italian gardens, as in Great Britain, suffered in the Second World War but at the Villa Fracanzan Piovene near Vicenza strenuous efforts have been made over the past twenty years to return the villa and gardens to their antique splendour although as often happens the desire for historical accuracy can conflict with later accretions.,  As Count Nivolo explained “it was difficult for my wife to imagine the garden without the fussy bedding plants so beloved of her uncle and aunt,,,,,,that have since fallen firmly out of fashion, but should that mean that they no longer have a place here? ”

Some of these gardens are vast but the smaller Villa Valmarana ai Nani has the attraction of frescos by Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo and a famous parade of nani or dwarves that look down on the world from their elevated position along the garden wall – they gave rise to a local legend that a daughter of the house was surrounded by dwarf servants in order to prevent her from becoming aware that she was herself a small person!

And, perhaps most surprising of all, the Giardino Jacquard at Schio and Parco di Villa Rossi at Santorso, built by Alessandro Rossi who turned his father’s modest weaving business into the biggest wool mill in Europe and who, having inspected England’s dark satanic mills and especially the model villages of New Lanark and Saltaire constructed a garden city for his employees.  Realising that his workers “would be in need of something to replace the sense of magic and mystery, the experience of danger and perhaps even of beauty, offered by contact with nature” he constructed a park for their enjoyment.

Edith Wharton in her essay “Villas of Venetia” described one garden as “a composition of exceptional picturesqueness” – the charm and interest of this book lies in the great variety of the gardens described and illustrated by Jenny Condie and Alex Ramsay, and not only the picturesque.

Buy and Go.

A Pugh-Thomas
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