People often refer to Venice as the city of canals and bridges. However, the more than 500 gardens largely exceed the 403 bridges in the city. Just like me, you might be surprised by this high number. Many of these gardens are invisible as they are hidden behind the facades and walls of the palazzos. Luckily, some are always open for the public. Others can only be visited at special occasions (such as the Festival dei Giardini) or as part of a tour. The majority is however completely private.
For this post, I first selected 3 gardens which are restored thanks to Wigwam Club Giardini Storici Venezia. These can only be visited as part of a guided tour. I also added 3 other gardens which can be visited freely. Finally, I give you a glimpse of what you can expect at the Festival dei Giardini which takes place the first weekend of October.
Scuola Vecchia della Misericordia
The original site of the Scuola della Misericordia is ideal to start your discovery of a green Venice. In the 15th century, it was used as housing, a hospital and the church of Santa Maria Valverde. In 1532, the charitable activities of the Scuola moved to a new building on the corner of the Fondamenta della Misericordia. This Scuola Grande della Misericordia was designed by Jacopo Sansovino (more info in my post ‘Scuole grandi combine social history and art in Venice’). In the Napoleonic era, early 19th century, the owners of the Scuola Vecchia added a private theatre to their residence.
In 1920, it was acquired by the artist and art collector Italico Brass. He renovated the building and added a tower with panoramic windows on the top floor. The structure reminds me of the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (see ‘The 5 most stunning rooftop views over Venice’). The other part of the house also has a wide panoramic view. The view on Cannaregio and the lagoon must be amazing. The site is now owned by the Ministry of Culture. It houses a laboratory where art works of the Galleria dell’Accademia are restored.
The Scuola Vecchia doesn’t have one, but two beautiful gardens. The first part is the courtyard of the former convent of Augustinian monks. The garden in the back has a great historical value. Many aromatic herbs and old plants date from the medieval period. One of these is the fragola nero, a berrie which tastes like strawberries. There is also a beautiful wooden ‘jeloria’ with Arabic influences. This hide-away for women is the perfect spot to read a book while enjoying a view on the garden. The garden has been restored thanks to a Danish mecenas of the Wigwam association. In 2017 for instance, the original 2 lines of red roses were replaced by a mixed border projected by Gottardo Bonacini, landscape architect and vice president of the Wigwam Club.
DID YOU KNOW? The Persimmon fruit tree is one of the most ancient trees cultivated by men. It originates from China and was imported in France and Italy around 1860. The golden orange fruit tastes delicious. I took 2 seeds from this garden with me, so I will try to grow it in my garden at home.
Visits are only possible with a private tour organized by the Wigwam association.
Address: Cannaregio 3599
Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo
This garden is only steps away from the Misericordia and faces the northern lagoon. The patrician residence was built in the 16th century by the Contarinis, one of the famous Venetian families. The house in the front was used by the family. Their artistic gatherings, such as with the painter Tiziano and the poet Pietro Aretino, took place in the backyard. At the end of the 19th century, the gardens were restored by the new owners, the Johnston family from England. It is now a Cottolengo nunnery for 24 nuns and a retirement home for 24 women.
The front area of the garden belongs to the retirement home. It has a small pond with waterlilies and is decorated with several statues. There is a variety of trees such as topiary yews, cypress trees and a pomegranate tree but also some concord grapes. I wouldn’t mind spending my old days in this relaxing environment. The second area is reserved for the nunnery. It is well-trimmed and has a small vegetable garden. The most impressive part however is the wide view on the northern lagoon with San Michele and Murano.
INSIDER TIP: The book ‘The undrowned child’ of Michelle Lovric is set in this quiet environment. It’s for young adults, but if you love Venice, it’s certainly interesting to read.
You can only visit these gardens as part of a tour organized by the Wigwam association.
Address: Cannaregio 3539, Fond. Gasparo Contarin
Palazzo Rizzo Patarol / Grand Hotel dei Dogi
The largest private garden in Venice measures approx. 2,000 m2. It is also located in Cannaregio, near the Madonna dell’Orto church (see also ‘Where to find the most stunning masterpieces of Tintoretto’). The palazzo with the impressive garden was in first instance created by Lorenzo Patarol. He documented his knowledge in a herbarium which is now owned by the Museum of Natural History. It lists more than 1,200 species of flowers and insects. Paratol planted flowers which thrive in the salt water of the Venetian lagoon such as pure white roses and rare lilies. Unfortunately, mid 19th century, the new owner Giovanni Correr destroyed most of the trees to transform it into a Romantic garden. The garden is now part of the Grand Hotel dei Dogi.
In 2001, the Wigwam association and the hotel started a project to reconstruct the garden in its original state. The current arrangement of colourful flowers is already part of this project. The Rosa Canina, one of the original roses, is on their wishlist, but hasn’t been replanted yet. Besides the flowers, you can also admire 2 tall Trachycarpus Fortunei (a kind of palm tree), bagolaro or nettle tree (one of the most popular trees in Venice) and many other trees and bushes. The large trees, such as the 4 which are intertwined, date from the mid 19th century. There is also a madonna statue, a cave-ice house and a small fountain.
If you really want to enjoy this garden to the full extent, you should book the suite at the end of the garden. This loggia in Palladian style looks out onto the garden on one side and on the lagoon on the other side. Alternatively, if you have dinner or a drink at the hotel, you can also enjoy a view on the garden.
Address: Cannaregio 3500, Fond. Madonna dell’Orto
INSIDER TIP: Visit the Laguna Fiorita while you are in Cannaregio (Fond. dell’Abbazia 3546). This flower shop and nursery is not your typical tourist shop. It is however perfect to escape the hussle of the calle and to experience Venice through the eyes of a flower-loving Venetian.
The Royal Gardens are located in the touristic heart of Venice, near Piazza San Marco. The entrance is however hidden between the stalls in front of the bacino di San Marco. The 5,500 m2 garden has been created by Napoleon and the young Viceroy Eugenio di Beauharnais. They wanted to use the Procuratie Nuove building as the site of the Royal Palace. The original design started from a garden with geometrically shaped flowerbeds. In 1808, the ancient granaries were demolished, which at that time were being used as barracks. From 1815, a greenhouse and a neoclassical pavilion, the Padiglione del Caffè, were added. In the late 19th century, the iron and cast iron pergola was built. In 1920, the Royal Gardens were handed over to the city council and opened to the public. You might remember that the tourism office was located in the coffee house. Unfortunately, over time, the garden lost its grandeur. It was often used as a picnic spot or meeting point for school groups.
The garden is currently closed for the public as it will be restored in its original state. This does not only include the trees and the plants, but also the pergola, the coffee house, the greenhouse and the drawbridge. From a botanical point, the flowerbeds will remain nearly unchanged with large groupings of agapanthus, farfugium and iris, plants with evergreen leaves, as well as panicled hydrangeas and autumn-flowering camellias. There will also be dwarf evergreen magnolias, Chinese rice paper plants with enormous velvety grey leaves, hybrid continuous-bloom Chinese roses as well as masses of narcissi and tulips. complete the work. The large pergola will be decorated with rare varieties of wisteria.
The Royal Gardens were due to open again later this year, but the plans are currently on hold. As soon as I have more information about the opening date, I will add it here. I really look forward to relax at this green oasis in Venice. Although, due to its prominent location, it will probably always be quite crowded. The restoration is organized by the Venice Gardens Foundation, a member of the Association of International Private Committees for the Safeguarding of Venice, and sponsored by Generali. You can read more about this type of financing in my post ‘Discover how Venice finances its cultural heritage’.
Address: San Marco
The sculpture garden at Arsenale Nord is one of the best hidden attractions for the Biennale visitors. Even though I crossed the dock to Arsenale Nord many times for the Biennale exhibitions, I discovered it only for the first time in 2015. I just never wandered around as I wrongly assumed that the area to the right of the former warehouses was private and not accessbile. I guess not many other visitors of the Biennale are aware of this either and hence miss this hidden green oasis. On weekdays, you can also visit it for free via the Bacini vaporetto stop or via a walk on the metal walkway attached to the walls of the Arsenale.
The garden is decorated with several modern art sculptures such as the ‘Man who measures the clouds’ of the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. If you love contemporary art, it’s certainly worth a visit. When I visited it, the garden looked neglected and some of the sculptures were overgrown. However, this created a special atmosphere and made it look like I found a hidden treasure. The garden is currently undergoing restoration. Make sure to check the progress of the project on your next visit to the Arsenale. The project is led by Antonietto Grandesso, who is a director at Thetis and member of the Wigwam Association.
DID YOU KNOW? The shipyard of the Arsenale used to be the largest industrial center in Europe. You can read more about its history in my post ‘The fascinating transformation behind the Arsenale walls’).
Address: Castello, Arsenale Novissimo
The vineyard in Mazzorbo is a beautiful example of the restoration of the historical heritage of Venice, and more specifically the winemaking tradition. The wall surrounding the 2 ha vineyard and the 14th century belfry dates from the 18th century. The Dorona vines originate from the 15th century but they were originally not planted here. After the 1966 flood (more info in my post ‘Acqua granda: The story of an eventful day in Venice’), most of the fields in the Venetian lagoon were destroyed. Thanks to a team of agronomists and experts in lagoon history, the last 88 vine plants that survived the flood have been found at several locations in the lagoon such as Torcello. The sweet gold grapes are now used for the Venissa wine, cultivated by the Bisol family which are historic winemakers from Valdobbiadene.
From the vaporetto stop at Mazzorbo, you can already see the bell tower of San Michele Archangelo on your left. You are free to walk through the vineyard and the vegetable garden, which is maintained by retired volunteers. The vegetables and herbs are used for the kitchen of the restaurants of Venissa. It’s a pleasure to walk around in the vineyard as it’s so different from anything that you experience in Venice itself.
INSIDER TIP: While you are in Mazzorbo, take your time to cross the bridge to Burano and to stop at Torcello as well on your way back to Venice. You can find some inspiration in my post ‘Don’t forget Mazzorbo and Torcello when visiting Burano’.
Address: Fond. S. Caterina 3, Mazzorbo
Festival dei Giardini
The Wigwam Club Giardini Storici Venezia was launched in 2000 and wants to increase the awareness about historical gardens in Venice. One of their annual events is the Festival dei Giardini which always takes place on first weekend of October. They also organize private tours to the gardens. If you are interested in this, you can contact Mariagrazia Dammicco for more information.
Details of the 2019 edition aren’t available yet, but in 2018 there were several guided visits such as to the Scuola Vecchia della Misericordia, Palazzo Nani Bernardo, Palazzo Grimani ai Servi, San Francesco della Vigna, the San Clemente island and Palazzo Pesaro Papafava. Reservations are necessary so make sure to follow the instructions on the website of the Wigwam association. A voluntary fee of 10 euros is suggested.
INSIDER TIP: The book ‘A guide to the gardens of Venice’, written by Mariagrazia gives you a wealth of information about 60 gardens in Venice. The book is very interesting and I can certainly recommend it.
In one of my next posts, I will talk about parks in Venice and on the lagoon islands. If you don’t want to miss this post, you can subscribe to our biweekly newsletter. In the meantime, you can already read about the largest park in Venice in ‘San Servolo: A green Island with a medical history‘ or discover the agricultural island on ‘Sant’Erasmo: A walk in the vegetables garden of Venice‘.
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