The Discalced Carmelites in Venice and their garden
Let’s pick up from where we left off (read here).
The garden of the Discalced Carmelites was restored a few years ago (2014) and is growing rapidly. It is well-kept, loved and lived in by the friars and can also be enjoyed with a guide by those who wish to visit it (photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6).
It is referred to as a “mystical garden” due to its numerous references to the preachings of Saint Teresa. The term “mysticòs”, i.e. mysterious, refers to a level of knowledge that cannot be explained rationally.
The garden was designed according to numerological studies which will not be discussed here, but it is interesting to know that there are seven sections (remember the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins or the seven – theological and cardinal – virtues?) as well as thirteen olive trees (Jesus and the twelve Apostles). Once completed, there will also be forty fruit trees just like the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai and Jesus spent in the desert.
In the FIRST of the seven sections is a GREEN LAWN, a symbol of hospitality just like a Venetian campo. In Venice, all squares are still called campo (field) because that is exactly what they used to be until a few centuries ago (with the only exception of St. Mark’s Square, where the field was soon covered up with bricks). They were places of gathering, exchange and participation (photos 7, 8 and 9).
The SECOND is a real treasure trove of MEDICINAL HERBS. Curing the body with herbs – a method developed over the centuries and carried out particularly in convents welcoming pilgrims and the sick (starting with St. Benedict in the 6th century) – became especially popular during the Crusades and was never abandoned. Thanks to this long tradition, medicinal herbs have also been important in Carmelite convents.
This section is a testimony to the ancient skill of pharmacopoeia, rediscovered in modern homoeopathy. It is divided into nine smaller sections fenced off by sleepers, reminiscent of when the old garden was taken over by the railway station.
Each sub-section is dedicated to curing different pathologies, i.e. skin conditions (marigold and burdock, photo 10), heart conditions (motherwort and coneflowers, photos 11 and 12), breathing conditions (rhubarb, photos 13 and 14) etc. Among the plants used to make balms, there is wood violet and vervain (photo 15). But the best known is the large section of Moldavian dragonhead, whose properties have been experimented widely over the centuries. The Carmelite friars developed a formulation made with Lemon balm in the 1600s in Paris, France, and another made with Moldavian dragonhead (photo16) in the 1700s in Venice.
Due to the circulation of counterfeit products by other spezierie (apothecaries), the Carmelites obtained a production privilege (=patent) from the government of the Republic (Provveditori alla Sanità – Superintendents for Health) in 1754 and, since then, the production of Moldavian dragonhead has continued, though the distillery was moved.
A bottle of Moldavian dragonhead water is often found in Venetian homes. My grandmother used to carry one with her and I follow her example. It is perfect in case of stress, headache, digestion problems, insomnia, irritable colon, etc.
The THIRD section is a true VEGETABLE GARDEN. In the past, it used to be cultivated for the sustenance of the friars who, just like their eremite predecessors, ate almost exclusively legumes and vegetables (in addition to soft fruit, also grown here but in another section).
Of course the vegetable garden is different from winter to summer (photos 17, 18 and 19), but it is filled with products that are always appealing to look at and nice to eat. Part of it is sold locally “farm-to-table” in the small convent shop.
The vegetable garden fulfils God’s request which already appears early on in the Bible, to protect the land, cultivate it, work it, preserve it and not abandon it.
The FOURTH section is a VINEYARD (photo 20). There has always been one in this garden, but the vines were old and, therefore, Consorzio Vini Venezia – dedicated to safeguarding wine production in Venetian convents – helped to recreate and update the vineyard, thanks to both research and funds. Grapes are so important that the vines also extend along the main axes (photos 21 and 22).
Malvasia, including the very rare Sitges type, is the most popular because it grows well in sandy soil. But there are also other varieties such as bianchetta and manzoni grapes, the kober rootstock and, of course, the variety called terra promessa (promised land) which was imported by a friar at the turn of the last century from that precise location.
The bunches all differ in appearance and flavour. The grapes are bigger or smaller, round or oval, close together or separate.
The wine produced, which I tasted, is very peculiar but interesting and, just like our lagoon wines, unique. Production is limited, but a few rare bottles are sold so that people can get to know about it and to promote the pleasure in actually tasting it. This is why the friars attended Vinitaly 2018, one of the largest events in the world dedicated to wine.
I will not linger on the importance of vineyards and wine which is ever present in the Gospel and Church tradition (see also: Communion under both kinds, Jesus the true vine, etc.) but rather on an aspect I truly like and that is represented by wine, that of “gratuity”. Wine is in fact neither necessary nor indispensable. In addition to adding joy to meals, this “gratuity” can be symbolically extended to everything that improves the quality of life while not being a condition for survival.
The FIFTH section is an ORCHARD (photos 23 and 24). Not only is fruit important in life, but it is a reminder of the generosity of the land and of reproduction. Just as the vines, some trees were already found in the section, while others were in other parts of the garden and were transplanted. Saplings were then added and others will be planted in the future to reach the symbolic number forty e.g. the forty-day flood myth.
The fruits are all connected to the local territory: peaches or nectarines (photo 25), various types of pears, figs, various qualities of apples (photo 26), plums including the gocce d’oro variety (photo 27 and 28), cherries, medlars (photo 29) etc.
The SIXTH section – the OLIVE GROVE (photo 30) believed to be perennial thanks to its resistance and capability to “regenerate” – refers to the sacred symbolism of the Christian and other religions. The olive tree, a Christian symbol of peace (Noah and his reconciliation with God) was precious for the oil used in both the sacred and secular worlds for lamps and ointments and is still used by the Church for all sacred anointments. It was also important for nutrition and remains one of the basic ingredients in many cuisines. In our olive grove, the group of twelve olive trees symbolizes the apostles while the isolated one symbolizes Jesus.
The SEVENTH section, the WOOD, features trees connected to the Christian tradition: the weeping willow is reminiscent of the legend of the willow that lowered its branches to help Jesus when he fell and never raised them again (photo 31). Tamarisk recalls the manna that fed the Jews in the desert (photo 32) and legend has it that Cercis siliquastrum (=with long seedpods), commonly known as the Judas tree, is connected to the betrayal of Judas and maybe to his hanging. Jesus freed it from any supposed guilt by allowing it to cover itself in beautiful blossoms in the spring, earlier than any other tree.
There are other interesting parts of the garden which will be illustrated another time, but the ROSE PERGOLA deserves a mention; it leads to the chapel of the Madonna and is flanked (continuing the theme of the wood) by the flowerbed dedicated to the PASSION of Christ (photo 33) – with its Jerusalem thorn or Christ’s thorn (photo 34) as a precise reference to the themes found in the Church.
The path used to have a central location until the 1800s, when it became the one on the left side. Ever since the beginning, however, the friars adopted a variant with respect to the Venetian tradition, making it end not with a casino (=tea room or library), but rather with the Chapel of the Madonna preceded by a pergola adorned with the whitest of roses (photos 35 and 36).
The mystical garden also holds great charm for those who are not – or not yet – of a mystical nature. It favours the contemplation of the marvels of nature even in its smaller manifestations (photo 37). What is more, in addition to being the perfect occasion to relax, rest the eyes and enjoy the sensory delights on offer, it provides many cues for meditation.