Patricia Cleveland-Peck

IN Venice, behind the walls of the twisting calli and along the canals, the odd cascade of foliage or the vague scent of flowers may be the only evidence the visitor finds of the hundreds of hidden gardens in the city, remarkable not only for their intrinsic beauty but also that they exist at all in this city created on moving water.

There is one garden however, which far from being hidden is tantalisingly apparent to anyone taking a trip up or down the Grand Canal. It is situated near the San Samuele vaporetto stop and in spring and summer roses froth over the canalside balustrade while beyond one gets alluring glimpses of trees and statuary. This is the garden of the Palazzo Malpiero-Cappello belonging to Contessa Anna Barnabò, who has gardened here for some 30 years. It is private but visits can sometimes be arranged and we were lucky enough to gain entry.

Box-edged beds, a gazebo and magnificent statues are to be found there but above all flowers, especially the roses, the Contessa’s passion. In harmonizing pastel shades they bloom here in their hundreds on the walls, in the beds and as ground cover. “Roses grow well here,” she explained, pointing out a Blue Moon rose which has unusual pinkish tinges – it is a feature of Venetian plants that in adapting to the salty lagoon environment, they often acquire unique mutations. Roses will be followed by hibiscus and Japanese anemones and then in spring the garden is full of irises. “I try to have something for every season,” the Contessa told us. Her garden is not old but the palazzo dates from the sixteenth century and it was in fact visited by the young Casanova in 1739.

The well-tended gardens surrounding the elite Belmond Cipriani Hotel on the island of Giudecca also have a connection with Casanova. They are in fact, on the site of some very early botanical gardens but the ‘Casanova’s Garden’ is so named from its proximity to the Zitelle or Spinster’s Church where the reprobate reputedly spend many happy hours with the young girls housed there. The Zitelle, a nearby convent, took in and taught beautiful girls from poor families who, having no dowries might otherwise have fallen into prostitution.

In the hotel grounds a little vineyard continues to produces grapes for the ‘salt red wine’ - evidence of the salinity of the lagoon once again. Now, as well as the pleasure gardens with abundant flowers and statues, vegetables and fruit are grown organically for use in the hotel’s restaurant and there are chickens and even a pet rabbit to provide enjoyment for guest and their children.

Almost next door, the actual Zitelle convent which extends either side of the Palladian church of Santa Maria della Presentazione has been transformed into the lovely Bauer Il Palladio Hotel and Spa which is our base for this visit. We particularly enjoy the four large interconnecting gardens created by Bauer’s CEO Francesca Bortolotto Possati. The combination of classical Italian design and traditional English country flowers works well to form a tranquil space with plenty of lawns for guests to relax.

One of the most pleasing features is the scent – as we sit enjoying a glass of prosecco in one of the little gazebos, wafts of perfume from the nepeta and curry plants around us and the roses above us assail our nostrils. Exploring the gardens, we find a big magnolia and an enormous lime in one area, in another old olive trees and pergola laden with Isabella grapes and roses and in yet another ghost of an old orchard with fruit trees. Here the grass was cut to three different lengths - the first forms a path, while in the other two grasses and wildflowers are allowed to seed and grow to charming effect. We learn that in the spring thousands of bulbs; tulips, narcissi, fritillary and crocus bloom here too – echoing the oriental carpet effect mentioned in old documents. We also saw four vegetable patches enclosed with willow fences in which tomatoes and St Erasmus artichokes were growing as they did in the convent’s hey-day.

Although several convents on Giudecca have undergone such changes of use, there is still some active monastic involvement in gardening. At the Convento del Redentore when we are shown round by the friendly Fra Agostino, we watch the olive trees being pruned and see quantities of those local artichokes growing. At one time the convent, which dates from 1576, produced masses of fruit and vegetables but now with fewer monks much of it has been left fallow.

Not far away another ex-convent houses the woman’s prison where inmates cultivate organic vegetables and fruit in the Garden of Marvels. For obvious reasons this is not open to the public but the inmates sell the produce at a weekly street market outside the prison gates.

Nearby is the Fortuny Factory and Showroom and tucked behind it is charming courtyard leading to a pretty garden with roses and a small pavilion which can be visited.

For something on a more domestic scale, Ottilla’s Garden found down one of the long narrow calli is rather a magical place. At one time the grounds of an old furnace it is the creation of Ottilia Iten who can talk about horticulture in five languages. She is not only an extremely knowledgeable plantswoman but also a somewhat unorthodox one. One of her tools is a pendulum which she uses, for example when moving plants, to see if they will flourish in their new place. Her exuberant garden has responded to her sorcery and opens three times a year, in the spring for daffodils, in early summer for roses and in the autumn for asters and Michaelmas daisies but visits can sometimes be arranged at other times.

It is certainly worth taking a trip to the nearby isle of San Giorgio Maggiore where under the aegis of the Giorgio Cini Foundation you will find the unique Borges Labyrinth. This is a green maze in the form of an open book which spells out, in some 3000 box plants, the Argentine writer’s name and some of his favourite symbols. It was inspired by the story The Garden of Forking Paths and designed by British maze maker Randoll Coate. While there don’t fail to take the lift up to the top of the campanile, from which you’ll have an unrivalled panoramic view not only of the labyrinth and the extensive gardens of the Cini Foundation but also of Venice and the surrounding islands.

If the labyrinth has a literary connection there is another garden in Venice which appeared almost as a character in not one, but two books. The garden is that of the Palazzo Soranzo Capello on the Rio Manin not far from the station. The books are The Aspen Papers by Henry James, in which the hero pretends interest in the garden to, get access to a middle aged spinster’s trove of literary letters and Il Fuoco by Gabriele D’Annunzio in which the garden provided a trysting place for lovers. This garden was abandoned for many years and although it has been restored it still retains a slightly melancholy atmosphere partly because there is rarely anyone there but also because of its slightly wild character. There is a classical temple and statues of 12 roman Emperors in a grassy courtyard and pergolas which have been restored and planted with climbers but woodland plants and wildflowers have been allowed to naturalise and ivy to creep over fallen statues giving a pleasing ‘lost garden’ look.

These are but a few of the gardens which are to be found in Venice today, some large and elegant, some tiny rooftop spaces but all proving Venice’s ongoing horticultural tradition which burgeoned in the seventeenth century when Venetian merchants brought new plants and herbs from abroad and everyone became very excited about them. Venice in fact was in the vanguard with more botanical gardens than in the whole of Italy. The garden of Palazzo Rizzo Patarol in the Cannaregio district retains a shadow of these times as it was once an important botanical garden and a meeting place for Venetian intellectuals. It still contains old statues and strange hillocks beneath one of which is a large ice-house but has now been restored and planted with massed roses climbers and shrubs.


For further information and help in gaining access to Venetian Gardens contact Mariagrazia Dammico, garden historian, writer and guide.

Patricia travelled courtesy of Kirker Holidays which offers a three night stay at the Bauer Il Palladio from £639 per person, including flights from Gatwick, water taxi transfers, accommodation with breakfast, entrance tickets for the Doge’s Palace, Accademia or Guggenheim, Kirker Guide Notes, and the services of the Kirker Concierge. Call 020 7593 2283 or visit