THE REDENTORE CONVENT GARDENS
Nestled on the Giudecca Island, the Redentore Convent Gardens and Orchard are among the largest in Venice. For the last five centuries, Capuchin friars – a branch of the Franciscan order – have lived on the island and tended its gardens.
The Redentore gardens stretch southwards from the apse of the Redentore Church and Santa Maria degli Angeli, the first Capuchin church and the only one on their property. At the edge of the gardens, pause for a moment to take in the breathtaking views of the Venetian lagoon (photos 1, 2 and 3).
As the number of friars has shrunk over the years, the gardens have grown smaller, and the Capuchins have begun using the land in new ways (photo 4).
The artichoke plot, which was enormous until just a few years ago, has now been scaled back. Artichokes – which we Venetians are so proud of – are grown all across the lagoon; the sandy soil makes for some of the tastiest artichokes in Italy. Though the number of artichoke plants has decreased significantly, the Redentore Garden is still teeming with these tasty treats (photos 5-6).
The Giudecca has always been home to numerous gardens, although many are not open to the public. In the past, every Giudeccan garden would have been chock-full of wild blackberries. Indeed, during one of Venice’s most popular festivals, the Festa del Redentore, blackberries were sold on grape leaves to Venetians and pilgrims alike.
Alas, this tradition has fallen by the wayside, and blackberries are no longer grown on the island. However, a few wild blackberry plants (photos 7-8) – and even a gorgeous mulberry tree (photos 9-10) – can still be found in the convent’s garden.
In every monastery or convent you visit, you’re bound to discover olive trees. Conveying numerous mythological meanings, they have been a symbol of peace and reconciliation since the dove brought Noah an olive branch after the great flood.
Although oil from the garden’s groves is no longer distributed to Venice’s churches – where oil is used to light the oil lamps or during the Christian sacraments – the Redentore’s friars still use this delicious oil during their meals and at the soup kitchen they run (photos 11-12).
The Redentore garden also has no shortage of fruit trees, including three different types of pears – Abate, Williams, and San Pietro pears (photos 13, 14 and 15).
You’ll also stumble across the occasional fig tree (photo 16), a few apricot and cherry trees, and some walnut trees, whose every part – including the walnut shells and husk – was used in olden days.
And of course, no visit to a Venetian garden would be complete without seeing the unforgettable jujube trees. These slow-growing shrubs block the wind (photo 17) and produce the jujube fruits, which ripen in late fall (photo 18). Although few people in Europe are aware of it, the jujube makes for an excellent grappa. As far as I know, however, the friars are not producing their own jujube grappa!
The friars have always shown foresight, preparing for the winter, when the pickings are slim. In the coldest months of the year, the friars enjoy the long-lasting pomegranate fruits (photo 19), which they harvest every autumn. Pomegranates are also highly symbolic – their many seeds call to mind images of fertility, wealth and generosity. Every winter, the friars also tuck into the delicious jam they make from the cherry plum tree (photos 20-21).
In Venetian gardens – and especially convent gardens – you’ll always come across grapevines teeming with white and purple grapes. Since the Franciscans see birds as God’s creatures, they leave some grapevines uncovered for their feathered friends (photos 22, 23 and 24).
This sumptuous kiwi tree is a recent addition to the garden, an expansive companion to the convent’s refectory (photo 25-26).
Rows of cypress trees stand sentinel over the garden, and other ornamental trees and shrubs are nestled amongst its many nooks and crannies. Species like the cheesewood (pittosporum), spindle tree, Mediterranean hackberry, holm oak, mulberry plane and lime trees are well suited for the lagoon’s salty soil.
The garden is also home to one gingko biloba tree (photo 27). Believed to be extinct but rediscovered in Asia in the eighteenth century, the gingko biloba is thought to be the world’s oldest tree, dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. Its two-lobed leaves (photo 28) have fascinated scholars and poets alike; indeed, Goethe wrote a beautiful poem about the gingko for one of his muses, Marianne von Willemer.
For me, this Biloba tree is best understood in light of the garden’s natural surroundings. It represents the union of man and nature – or perhaps man and God. By extension, we can see how the biloba’s leaves convey universal values, portraying unity in diversity as two people come together, a feeling each and every one of us experiences in the many relationships that make up our lives.
Gingko leaves are also used in herbal medicine, drugs, and cosmetics.
Unfortunately, even though other medicinal plants were crucial when the apothecary was still in use, in the garden they are now but a vague memory. However, you can still find the occasional four o’clock flower (photo 29), whose roots were used as a laxative to “void the bowels.”
The flower was dubbed the bella di notte, or ‘beauty of the night,’ since its flowers opened up in the evening and its naturally mottled petals were especially striking before hybrid flowers became common.
The garden is also home to many species of flowers and roses, which I will discuss in a later post. And no trip to the convent would be complete without visiting the vegetable patch, which is brimming with tomatoes (photo 30), lettuce, pumpkins (photo 31), zucchini (photo 32), eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and other herbs.
At times, surrounded by the silence of this majestic place and the beauty and peace it exudes, I dream of becoming the convent’s gardener myself.