Contarini dal Zaffo Garden in Venice
It’s been 500 years since Gasparo Contarini, one of the enlightened intellectuals of the 1500s, decided to build his own palace in the north of the city. One of his main ideas was to have a large garden with a “Casino” (=small house), typical in the Venetian tradition, to host friends and, in his case, the city intellectuals.
One of the main issues at the time was that of Church Reform, to which Gasparo committed all his strengths albeit with little success. His dream of avoiding the rift between Lutherans and Catholics will be destined to remain such, with the well-known consequence of the division of the “only” church into two different ones.
Among the most prominent intellectuals who spent time in the casino and discussed various current issues, were also Titian and Aretino.
They were called “spirits”, i.e. “elected spirits”, and the (relatively) “small house” is still called “Casin dei Spiriti”. In popular belief, however, the noise of the backwash recalled the noise made by ghosts, so the step from “intellectuals” to “ghosts” was a short one.
In honour of this popular tradition, the most recent owner Mr Eggs organised parties in which he demanded that his guests, including waiters and everyone who took part, followed this theme both in costumes and behaviour.
Yet he was also the one who, despite loving the garden dearly, had to give up taking care and keeping it in good state due to the size.
Selling the original Contarini palace proved difficult, so Mr Eggs had to divide it into two and two different buyers became the owners.
Both properties can be seen from the door. The one on the left is called Casa del Cardinal Piazza and the garden has recently grown into a wood with tall thick trees. The other, on the right, known as Piccola Casa della Divina Provvidenza, Cottolengo, grew more into a garden with lawns and scattered trees. It is incredible how nature can change so quickly in just a few decades.
In this post, I will only examine the property owned by the Cottolengo nuns which includes the casino and the interesting 18th-century fresco of the current chapel (photos no. 1,2,3,4,5).
The garden changed and is no longer the formal Italian garden that could be seen in a lovely late 18th-century view by Francesco Guardi, but is rather eclectic. It has an absurd 19th-century hill from the Romantic period with a pool at the centre filled with water-lilies and “ornamental” goldfish which are obviously different from the many species found in the Venetian lagoon (photo no. 6).
The concern about raising some places to isolate them from high tide is immediately evident and was already an issue with the previous owners.
The nuns manifest their devotion to the Madonna with roses; there is therefore a beautiful row of white Kosmos and red Sevillana roses all along the path running parallel to the jetty (photos no. 7, 8) and, in addition to the many others spread everywhere, there are also many groundcover roses adorning the path, such as the white Penelope (photo no. 9) and the pink Satina.
In winter, when roses are obviously resting and deprive us of their blossoms, Nandina takes over, a plant with lovely long-lasting red berries (photo no. 10).
Buddeleia, which can be found here in a variety of colours both in the garden and former vegetable plot, is not very common in Venice also due to the limited size of our gardens. This flower is commonly found along ditches, but not in my city. There is also the perfumed Philadelphus (photo no. 11), often chosen for bridal bouquets, that is here placed directly in front of Jerusalem Sage (photo no. 12).
But the garden is also home to an ancient type of rose, i.e. Rosa Chinensis Mutabilis (photo no. 13), which is as light as a butterfly and whose colour, as reflected in the name, changes several times during its lifecycle. It is one of the first Chinese roses introduced to Europe in the 1700s and was hybridised with some of our own for a longer blossoming period.
The way the space is currently organised shows only traces of the original 18th-century garden depicted by Guardi: the path that formed one of the arms of the ancient Latin cross is clearly visible (photo no. 14) with its opening towards the current jetty on one side and a large aedicule part of the recent corridor on the other (photo no. 15).
The passage was built to divide the two properties and make them independent (despite the overall appearance) but, most of all, to connect the main palace building with the casino (the building mentioned above found at the end of almost every garden in Venice, often much smaller than ours and used as a library, tearoom, venue for non-official meetings, etc.).
The nuns currently live in the Casino, while the Palace is destined for non-self-sufficient elderly ladies.
There are two smaller flowerbeds at the centre of the two large ones, surrounded by the same red and white roses found along the path. They surround two typical local trees, a jujube and a pomegranate tree (photo no. 16).
Along the corridor walls, there are other Mediterranean plants such as the silver ragwort and cotton lavender which, with their silvery tomentose leaves that hold dew during the night, guarantee the right level of humidity during the day (photo no. 17).
There are also lovely myrtle plants (photo no. 18) and countless hydrangeas, which are always difficult to grow in Venice due to the lack of iron in the soil.
And now a few words on the part that was previously used as a vegetable plot (photo no. 19): there is a large Southern magnolia and four lovely pruned yews. Yews are dioecious trees (males and females) and the difference can be clearly seen during two seasons of the year, as the female trees have light green flowers in spring and red arils which are particularly popular with birds in autumn.
In this area, we also find a lovely tree with long white spikes called Prunus lusitanica (photo no. 20).
Among the colourful hidden hydrangeas that decorate these flowerbeds, there is the beautiful Ayesha, with sepals shaped like small cups or spoons (photo no.21), the purple coloured Merveille Sanguine (photo no. 22) and Suor Thérèse (photo no. 23), whose white colour is symbolically fitting for nuns.
There is also a tree that has nothing to do with Venice and which no one knows how it came to grow here: Araucaria (photo no. 24), originally from South America (Chile) and, more precisely, from the area where the Araucanians used to live.
Near the small area now used as a vegetable plot (photos no. 25, 26), there is a pear tree and a large fig tree as well as a few peach and apricot trees. The plot produces artichokes or tomatoes, a few courgettes and salad heads depending on the season and there are also a few chili pepper plants (photo no. 27). Until a few years ago, entire areas which are now lawns, were still used to grow different tomato varieties.
The nearby flowerbeds are delimited by various flowers such as dwarf daffodils, tulips, crocuses, etc. depending on the month and year.
The bases of the statues, which disappeared during the period when the garden and palace were temporarily abandoned and for sale, are still scattered all over the garden.
We cannot leave the plot without looking at the north lagoon from the casino terrace, which offers breath-taking views: the Prealps can be seen on clear days (photo no. 28) and the mainland can normally always be seen with the airport to the west, islands such as Murano (photo no. 29) and S. Michele, the only cemetery in Venice (photo no. 30) to the north and the Arsenale walls to the East.
Despite the fact that nature and life have evolved, traces of the men of the past and their often wise choices, and of our history – the richness of which is still fondly recalled in our babbling – still remain.