Contarini dal Zaffo Garden in Venice

Apr 27, 2018 | famous characters, gardens, history, orchard | 0 comments

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).

Photo 1: the eight Doges of the Contarini family, the only one in Venice who had eight members of the family as Heads of State; ceiling monochrome

Photo 1: the eight Doges of the Contarini family, the only one in Venice who had eight members of the family as Heads of State; ceiling monochrome

Photo 2: some “capitani da mar” (admirals), another source of pride for the Contarini family, represented in one of the ceiling monochromes

Photo 2: some “capitani da mar” (admirals), another source of pride for the Contarini family, represented in one of the ceiling monochromes

Photo 3: corner detail of the fresco belonging to the Tiepolo school

Photo 3: corner detail of the fresco belonging to the Tiepolo school

Photo 4: part of the central ceiling fresco with the Contarini coat of arms enriched with the crown (due to the appointment of Giorgio Contarini as Conte di Giaffa, i.e. Zaffo in Palestine, by Caterina Cornaro Queen of Cyprus in 1473). The title made him the first dignitary of the island but, after the Turkish conquest, the title remained an honorific one, albeit extremely sought after

Photo 4: part of the central ceiling fresco with the Contarini coat of arms enriched with the crown (due to the appointment of Giorgio Contarini as Conte di Giaffa, i.e. Zaffo in Palestine, by Caterina Cornaro Queen of Cyprus in 1473). The title made him the first dignitary of the island but, after the Turkish conquest, the title remained an honorific one, albeit extremely sought after

Photo 5: detail of the centre fresco where Venice can be recognised by the Doge’s horn next to the Lion of St. Mark with its long whiskers; in the sky, there are cupids holding the necklace that the Republic would bestow on Contarini’s descendants as further recognition of the title of Count

Photo 5: detail of the centre fresco where Venice can be recognised by the Doge’s horn next to the Lion of St. Mark with its long whiskers; in the sky, there are cupids holding the necklace that the Republic would bestow on Contarini’s descendants as further recognition of the title of Count

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).

Photo 6: view from the hill, to the East

Photo 6: view from the hill, to the East

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.

Photo 7: path with Kosmos and Sevillana roses on the right and Penelope roses on the left

Photo 7: path with ‘Kosmos’ and ‘Sevillana’ roses on the right and ‘Penelope’ roses on the left

Photo 8: Kosmos and Sevillana roses

Photo 8: ‘Kosmos’ and ‘Sevillana’ roses, detail

Photo 9: Penelope roses with their charming golden stamina

Photo 9: ‘Penelope’ roses with their charming golden stamina

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).

Photo 10: Nandina domestica bush with bright red berries

Photo 10: ‘Nandina domestica’ bush with bright red berries

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).

Photo 11: Philadelphus flowers, commonly known as mock orange, used as an alternative to orange blossoms thanks to their similar inebriating scent

Photo 11: ‘Philadelphus’ flowers, commonly known as mock orange, used as an alternative to orange blossoms thanks to their similar inebriating scent

Photo 12: Phlomis fruticosa, commonly known as Jerusalem sage as the leaves and aromatic scent are similar to sage

Photo 12: ‘Phlomis fruticosa’, commonly known as Jerusalem sage as the leaves and aromatic scent are similar to sage

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.

Photo 13: Rosa Chinensis Mutabilis with its simple “ruffled” flowers with colours ranging from yellow, orange and coppery pink to deep purple

Photo 13: Rosa ‘Chinensis Mutabilis’ with its simple “ruffled” flowers with colours ranging from yellow, orange and coppery pink to deep purple

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).

Photo 14: side opening onto the current jetty with red Viburnum tinus berries

Photo 14: side opening onto the current jetty with red ‘Viburnum tinus’ berries

Photo 15: aedicule indicating the path that constituted the short arm of the ancient cross

Photo 15: aedicule indicating the path that constituted the short arm of the ancient cross

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).

Photo 16: inner flowerbed bordered by roses with jujube tree

Photo 16: inner flowerbed bordered by roses with ‘jujube’ tree

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).

Photo 17: silver ragworth in the foreground near a cotton lavender

Photo 17: ‘silver ragworth’ in the foreground near a ‘cotton lavender’

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.

Photo 18: a myrtle, plant sacred to Venus and used for the wreaths of poets who sang about love, always connected to poetry and feasts in general

Photo 18: a ‘myrtle’, plant sacred to Venus and used for the wreaths of poets who sang about love, always connected to poetry and feasts in general

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.

Photo 19: glimpse of the area used as a vegetable plot in the past and now transformed as shown

Photo 19: glimpse of the area used as a vegetable plot in the past and now transformed as shown

In this area, we also find a lovely tree with long white spikes called Prunus lusitanica (photo no. 20).

Photo 20: Prunus lusitanica, also known as Portugal Laurel. The name is reminiscent of “Lusitania”, the Roman province corresponding to Portugal, from where the plant originates

Photo 20: ‘Prunus lusitanica’, also known as Portugal Laurel. The name is reminiscent of “Lusitania”, the Roman province corresponding to Portugal, from where the plant originates

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.

Photo 21: Ayesha hydrangea

Photo 21: ‘Ayesha’ hydrangea

Photo 22: Merveille Sanguine hydrangea

Photo 22: ‘Merveille Sanguine’ hydrangea

Photo 23: Suor Thérèse hydrangea

Photo 23: ‘Suor Thérèse’ hydrangea

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.

Photo 24: Araucaria in the foreground, whose bark and leaf tips are both thorny

Photo 24: ‘Araucaria’ in the foreground, whose bark and leaf tips are both thorny

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.

Photo 25: overall view of the vegetable plot

Photo 25: overall view of the vegetable plot

Photo 26: inner detail of the small vegetable plot

Photo 26: inner detail of the small vegetable plot

Photo 27: Sister Gabriella proudly shows us the chilli peppers

Photo 27: Sister Gabriella proudly shows us the chilli peppers

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.

Photo 28: the lagoon towards the mainland

Photo 28: the lagoon towards the mainland

Photo 29: Murano in the foreground and the church of S. Michele on the right

Photo 29: Murano in the foreground and the church of S. Michele on the right

Photo 30: the island of S. Michele

Photo 30: the island of S. Michele

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.

Loredana Giacomini
BestVeniceGuides
loredanagiacomini@gmail.com

 

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