Botanical restoration: plans by Paolo Pejrone

The Royal Gardens of Venice are situated in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations: nearly every vaporetto stops in front of them at the historic Fondamenta di San Marco, shaded by a long row of weather-beaten Italian stone pines (Pinus pinea), whose old gnarled roots seem to be playing games with the pavement. Their foliage envelops the Gardens like clouds, shielding them from the salt-laden winds of the lagoon: a place that is extraordinary and unexpected, almost suspended in time, whose essence is authentically Venetian. There for all to see, the gardens nevertheless conserve an aura of secrecy and mystery: almost at once, the old trees, the thick hedges, the long pergola fallen into disrepair were able to spark dreams and demand that we approach this place with careful attention to its history, yet also keeping our eyes on the immediate future, and then beyond. Synthesis was achieved via a conservationist approach to layout and architectural features, deliberately respectful of the historical evolution associated with the site, while a partially innovative and experimental approach was adopted to botanical and gardening renovation.
For one thing, the structure of the garden, despite the numerous transformations carried out over the years, from an original formal layout to the later introduction of English-garden style, and finally a return to Italian-style geometric design, had remained virtually unchanged in its essential components. This consisted in the presence of a longitudinal axis running nearly the entire length of the garden and dividing it in two and, covering this, the renowned cast iron pergola, itself crossed by a number of transverse axes, while at each end of the garden there has always been a naturalized wooded grove. A design that has now become established and philologically correct, it is still functional, extremely simple and logical, child of a Cartesian and empirical conception of the garden, the one adopted by the Habsburg administrators of the Biedermeier period. Structural renovation was therefore kept to the minimum: now and then the edges of borders were realigned; a concrete bunker and two small fountains, also made of concrete, were demolished, as was a round flowerbed that was clearly a later addition; but little else. Most importantly, the perimeters of the lateral areas were redefined – those of the two wooded groves, which over time had blurred, have now been extremely delicately redrawn. In them the botanic component now plays the key role in comparison to architectural features. In the one to the east, it was decided to increase the number of holm oaks to create a compact evergreen hedge with a large botanic niche at its center, thereby closing the view along the pergola. At the opposite end, on the bank to the west, two varieties of bamboo varying in height (Phyllostachys viridiglaucescens and P. metake) were planted: the sinuous curvilinear design creates an amphitheatre-shaped space that is roughly symmetrical to the building. While bamboo is clearly a “new- comer”, its use is, however, in keeping with the curiosity and botanical openness that have always characterized Venice and this garden in particular: the shiny light green leaves and full but never rigid masses confer light, gaiety and a certain mysterious fascination on the composition, in addition to filtering the volumes of the greenhouse, harmonically connecting it to its context.
As paving for the paths that cross the gardens, it was decided to use simple small-grained light-colored river gravel. All the furnishings in them, from classic wood and cast iron benches to wrought iron lampposts were kept, and when needed, restored.
Instead, from the point of view of our botanical choices, the historic lists we found told a tale of special, rare collections, often oddities for their times, symbols of a garden whose plants were meant to represent the absolute exceptionality of the power that owned it. Plants such as mimosas and cactuses, or fritillaries, crinums and amaryllises, can no longer be proposed as they are no longer sustainable, in part for contingent reasons but especially as a question of principle: including them would have produced an anachronistic, fragile reconstruction, out of keeping with a garden open to the public, and ecologically no longer sustainable. We therefore identified species of plants that in addition to being lovely to look at, are vigorous and easier to cultivate, and are in some way connected to that quest and the characteristically romantic nineteenth-century taste that appears to constitute the true style signifier of the place. Our restoration took into account the botanical evolution that has occurred, and we selected varieties and hybrids with analogous aesthetic virtues that are decidedly preferable in terms of maintenance requirements, period of flowering, and ability to resist the brusque, difficult weather conditions of the lagoon. The restoration has sought to be an emblematic manifesto of sobriety and sustainability, achieved without ever sacrificing originality or botanical variety: the Gardens were reimagined as a symbol of abundance and plenty, a rich, luxuriant space filled with flowers and especially with leaves; and with shadows, light and transparencies. Therefore vital, prosperous, exuberant gardens that would also be uncomplicated and sober, in which plants from other parts of the world could be botanical witnesses of openness and welcoming, in harmony with the spirit that has always characterized Venice.
In terms of the specific botanical species chosen, we decided to keep the evergreen hedges along the canal walkways. The compact masses of robust, well-shaped laurels, pittosporums, euonymus and eleagnus, forming what seems almost to be a dune of vegetation, are the outcome of slow botanical accumulation. In the front line of a bulwark against salt-laden winds, their evergreen foliage forms a shield separating the garden from the frenetic comings and goings of the Bacino area, guardians of moments of rest and silence, now rare in a city like Venice.
A few mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus) and harlequin glorybowers (Clerodendrum trichotomum) have been planted here and there to make the composition lighter and livelier, plumbago (Plumbago capensis) has been allowed to climb freely through the evergreens, and small clumps of osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) scent the autumn air, while Beschorneria yuccoides and agapanthuses have been planted in the narrow strip that borders the flowerbed along the inside path.
To emphasize the idea of a green boundary surrounding a green area, thereby protecting and unifying it, large terracotta vases planted with pomegranate, fig, jujube, shiny viburnum, feijoa (Acca sellowiana) and bitter orange trees have been placed along the balcony overlooking Rio dei Giardini, symbolic witnesses of the potted citrus trees that in the nineteenth century were grown in Stra and sent by boat to the Royal Gardens each summer. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) has been planted at irregular intervals between one vase and the next so that its glossy evergreen foliage can carpet some gravel-covered areas, spilling out of the vases and reducing the impression of excessive minerality that the wide avenue risks conveying. Since, due to the curve in the balustrade, the two vases on the sides of the drawbridge are placed further forward than the others in the line, two large cushions of star jasmine have been created around them, linking them to the context and emphasizing their special position. Similar vases holding Pistacia lentiscus and Japanese medlars (Eriobotrya japonica), with large, dark, evergreen leaves and scented flowers that are the color of the moon in winter, highlight the wing of the greenhouse which looks onto the Fondamenta, screening the view of its interior. The central element in the composition is a large pergola, typical of gardens of Habsburg origin and all those in Bohemia and Moravia from which the Empire’s gardeners came. It has been covered with several varieties of Wisteria sinensis and Wisteria floribunda and where the pergola and garden path that leads to the drawbridge intersect at right angles and at either end of the structure, thick clusters of pink-blossomed late summer and autumn-flowering Countess Sarah Bignonia ricasoliana has been used.
In the four central parterres that flank the entry path, there are large clumps of Agapanthus umbellatus and stately Queen Mum Agapanthus, along with Farfugium japonicum, and Dalmatian irises (Iris
dalmatica) and Florentine irises (Iris florentina), all with evergreen leaves, at whose center is a small grove of Tetrapanax papyrifer, a shrub with enormous velvety grey-green leaves, and some rose bushes. The latter were chosen as memorials of the times when there were attempts to cultivate roses in the Gardens. We need not emphasize that the site was little suited to growing roses, considering that the high humidity present in the environment and its salt-laden air impeded healthy growth. Therefore very few roses have been used, but given its strong symbolic value, the variety chosen was Général Schablikine, with deep pink double-flowered blooms, one of the few roses that flower in winter, obtained by the great rose breeder Nabonnand in Cannes. Around these, the remaining eight flowerbeds repeat the underlying theme of the agapanthus and farfugium border, little by little giving way, when the path is shaded by sophora trees, to clumps of myrtle (Myrtus communis) and Hydrangea paniculata. The long pergola will be wrapped with groups of Annabelle Hydrangea arborescens, capable of delicately filtering the shaded path in the rest of the garden, making the space more picturesque and intimate. At their feet, filling the borders along the pathway, Liriope muscari and Ruscus racemosus will create a soft, cool evergreen carpet. Little Gem, a compact variety of Magnolia grandiflora, was originally chosen for planting at the center of these parterres, given that its growth habit would ensure its resistance to the very low temperatures, intense sunlight and winds of the lagoon. Subsequently, however, after trees in the gardens were found to be diseased and unfortunately had to be felled, the question of shade became a problem, not only in terms of aesthetics (expanding the perception of space and creating pleasant contrasts of light and shade), but in practical ones as well. It was realized that ensuring visitors’ enjoyment of the gardens was most critical during the hot summer months: the large pergola did this in the past and will continue to do so, but the wide path towards the Correr Museum had in effect been left without places to shelter from the suffocating heat of the lagoon, as had the path parallel to it that extends towards Fondamenta di San Marco, all extremely hot areas because they are located downwind. In addition, tall trees are fundamental for host- ing numerous migratory and local bird species, which are a source of pride for the Venetian lagoon, a precious symbol of its fragile yet still well-defined ecosystem. It was therefore decided that instead of magnolias, a deciduous tree, Sophora japonica, would be planted as the noteworthy height it reaches and its soft, spreading foliage made it ideal for our objectives. The choice was a logical one as very old trees of this species were already in the Gardens.
It was thus possible to obtain a homogeneous arboreal component of great impact: with their soft, light-colored foliage, brilliant autumn coloring, and plentiful summer production of white flowers, the trees are perfectly integrated in their context and its history, witnesses of the garden’s rich botanical past and its openness to the Orient. Completing the composition, in the outermost lateral flower-beds there are other specimens of Clerodendrum trichotomum.
Tall trees have been used in other places in the garden. While work was being done on the site, as new spaces emerged in their definitive form, two camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) and two Pterocarya fraxinifolia were added to the original project. The tall camphor trees with evergreen leaves have been placed near the back of the building used by Compagnia della Vela, the city’s sailing club, so that they shield it from view and fill in gaps in the green screen composed of a majestic old sophora tree and ancient holm oaks.
Finally, Pterocarya fraxinifolia trees, a species in the Juglandaceae family native to the Caucasus, were planted in a parterre for which there was no plan to use sophora trees, a playful variation on the homogeneous composition of the tall trees used in the rest of the garden, which in no way contrasts with the sophoras as they, too, are an emblem of the eclectic nineteenth-century garden of which the Royal Gardens of Venice are a clear and important example, at least as far as plant species are concerned. The Pterocarya is an extremely vigorous deciduous tree with attractive shiny pendulous catkins that are brightly colored in autumn, with bright acid green flowers in late spring.
Finally, completing the whole, widespread use has been made of scatterings of naturalized flowers grown from bulbs, principally tulips and narcissuses.
It was decided not to include grassy areas and inside each of the flowerbeds the space not occupied by plants has been reduced to the minimum. Our objective was two-fold, first to confer richness on the garden; secondly to reduce as far as possible the amount of space requiring weeding. All of us who worked there hope that the reborn Royal Gardens of Venice will be worthy not only of their own history, but will also be capable of meeting the many challenges that the years we live in, and especially those to come may bring, so that they truly become a virtuous example of how the public and private sectors can and must work together to safeguard our vast, priceless artistic and natural heritage to benefit us all.