Three Italian gardens that reflect their founders’ goodwill
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The garden of Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice can be seen from the campiello (little square) opposite the 16th-century palazzo that until 1869 was the home of the patrician Querini Stampalia family. By the terms of the will of its last descendant, Count Giovanni Querini Stampalia, the house and its contents were transformed into a public library and museum; today the site is a landmark in 20th-century architecture.
The decision to commission the Venetian-born Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978) to remodel the ground floor of the historic building, and with it the outdoor space at the back, was taken in 1950. Scarpa was building a reputation as a brilliant and innovative designer-architect.
Building work finally began in 1961, to be completed in 1963. Scarpa’s task involved redesigning the space directly inside the porte ad acqua (water doors) giving on to the canal, and reclaiming the dark and damp interiors which were prone to flooding at high tide. The 17 x 8 metre courtyard at the back of the palazzo was to be incorporated into the redesign as a low-maintenance garden.
Scarpa conceived the whole area as a unitary space in which there is no interruption in the view from the palazzo’s façade to the wall at the rear of the garden. The continuity from one space to the next is enhanced by means of wrought iron and by glass doors. Thus, from the campiello across the canal, the white sculptural elements of the garden seem to float mirage-like over the green, while canal traffic may be seen from the garden, gliding by outside the front of the building.
Since acqua alta (high tides) are increasingly a fact of life in the city, Scarpa took a Venetian view of it as a resource rather than a constraint; he saw water as an element that could be allowed to enter the building, as indeed it always had, for its symbolism and its decorative effect. When there is a particularly high tide, part of the atrium becomes flooded, giving an added, ethereal beauty.
At ground-floor level Scarpa continued to follow Venetian tradition, with a paved area and steps up to the garden, raised in order to protect plants from the tides. The sound of water is what we notice first; no longer the brackish, milky swill of the canal but a shimmering, crystalline presence flowing cleanly along a narrow channel. Water is one of the garden’s most important features. As it reaches the far end of a pool, the water encounters a plinth on which an antique stone lion crouches, momentarily distracted from gnawing a human head held between its paws. It is a humorous allusion to the centuries-old symbol of Venice’s might. Behind the lion, papyrus stems jut out at angles from the water, their fanlike leaves evoking Egypt and the invention of paper – aptly enough given the building’s function as a library.
Ivy and Ficus pumila cover the high brick wall bordering the garden at the rear, while the lawn at its base is empty, interrupted only by L-shaped stepping stones set into the ground. Elsewhere, periwinkle is used to create uniform areas of glossy dark green, and the heart-shaped leaves of sweet violet colonise the edges of the lawn. A Japanese flowering cherry, a Judas tree and a Magnolia soulangeana share the lawn space, taking turns to produce their pink and purplish blossoms in the spring.
They are succeeded by a pomegranate, whose compact habit, dark coral flowers and edible fruit make it a popular choice for the restricted space of Venetian gardens.
Giardino Jacquard at Schio and Parco di Villa Rossi at Santorso
The two 19th-century garden creations in the towns of Schio and nearby Santorso were the result of a collaboration between one of Italy’s earliest industrial pioneers and the architect he commissioned to create a workers’ utopia. Alessandro Rossi (1819–1898) took over his father’s modest business in 1847, and in the space of two decades built it up into the biggest wool mill in Europe, employing more than 1,000 people.
As a well-educated and cultured industrialist in the making, Rossi had been to inspect England’s “dark satanic mills” for himself, taking a special interest in the model villages of New Lanark and Saltaire. It was apparent to him that his workers had undergone a violent cultural transformation: that in leaving behind their rural way of life for the town and the security of a wage, they had also relinquished their bonds, their support networks and the cyclical rhythm of peasant existence, complete with its legends and superstitions.
A liberal Catholic, he responded with “enlightened paternalism”, building a church, enlarging the hospital and providing childcare for infants, day schools for children and night schools for adults, as well as founding a technical college in Vicenza.
He also recognised that his workers would need something to replace the sense of magic and mystery, the experience of danger and perhaps even of beauty, offered by contact with nature; and what better than a garden to provide for this?
Rossi chose a four-hectare, south-facing plot directly opposite the factory gates. The wool warehouse on the east side was given an elegant façade and decorated with terracotta portrait busts of Schio worthies. Renamed the Jacquard Theatre in honour of the inventor of the revolutionary loom, it was converted in 1869 to accommodate a theatre, library, night school and the gardener’s house. Beyond the garden’s northeastern boundary the 16th-century church of San Rocco was incorporated into the garden’s scenography by the addition of a high bell tower.
Rossi’s close friend and collaborator Antonio Caregaro Negrin (1821–1898) added relief to the natural slope with raised, curving beds, some outlined by flowing lines of low box filled with azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and fuchsias. Groups of trees or single specimens were placed so as to create a variety of views as the visitor moved around the garden, with the different heights and shapes of the foliage creating a picturesque and constantly changing scenery.
The focal point was the graceful, curvilinear greenhouse containing Rossi’s prized collection of orchids, its glass façade flanked by arches of red and yellow ochre while a long-gone statue of Flora stood on the terrace.
The most curious structure of the garden is on its west side, a three-storey octagonal tower known as the pisciatoj which was originally a collecting house for the human urine used in cleaning the wool. Artfully disguised as a dovecote, it was left in place. To the side of it, steps lead up the steep slope to the walkway with its neo-Gothic parapet, and the atmosphere changes: the giant head of a crocodile, a homage to the waters of the Nile and the contribution of Egyptian civilisation to the art of weaving, projects from rugged rocks among which ferns and mosses grow. The path leads across the top of the garden through a succession of fake ruins, in a woodland where elder and ivy grow unchecked among evergreen exotics, including a Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).
Negrin called it a “theatre of water and greenery” stocked with bizarre vegetable towering evergreens from faraway lands that bore no edible fruit, exotics such as palms and magnolias and the camphor tree and flowering shrubs such as oleander, tamarisk and forsythia planted solely for their colour or shape or perfume.
Then, tucked away behind the greenhouse, was another element of surprise: a nymphaeum entered by way of a fairytale courtyard with gothic arches picked out in a polychromatic mixture of stone, red brick and river pebbles and a monumental doorway crowned with a bust of the giant Atlas. Inside, airy vaulted interiors alternated with dark chasms and passageways studded with stalagmites and stalactites and crammed with curiosities and esoteric objects of every sort: a large phrenological bust and a stone dwarf are the sole survivors of this didactic treasure trove, whose purpose was to lead the visitor on an ascendant journey through human history.
At Santorso, at the foot of Mount Summano farther up the valley, Rossi, by then a senator of the newly unified Italy, bought a large villa and in 1866 commissioned Caregaro Negrin to enlarge it and create a private garden. An underpass leads into a formal garden of clipped box with a circular pond. Beyond this is the extensive park where Caregaro Negrin created a landscape of gently wooded undulating hillocks and hollows.
Through a rough gothic arch, surrounded by fragments of antique ornament and another doorway, this time Roman, the visitor descends into the dim interior of a circular tempietto with a domed roof. Behind four thick glass panels set into the far wall is an aquarium populated by ornamental carp. The statues have been lost but much of the painted grotesque-style decoration and some of the sculpted Roman heads in the frieze remain. Elsewhere in the garden the exotic gives way to the anthropomorphic, in the form of a “Fawn’s Grotto”.
The park, now grown to maturity, is a treasured amenity offering botanical variety and an “improving” beauty of which Alessandro Rossi would thoroughly have approved.
This is an edited extract from ‘The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto’ by Jenny Condie, published by Frances Lincoln at £35/$60
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