Today’s post was supposed to be set in Vicenza, the city of Palladio. That’s what I wrote at the end of last week’s post and that’s what I thought I was going to do. I even did a bit of work on it, but then I got stuck and after a while I put it aside. Blame it on the blizzard outside my window if you like. The snow was falling so heavily, at one point I could barely make out the buildings across the street.
When Pablo Neruda said, ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming’, he was of course speaking metaphorically and had obviously never experienced the perfidies of a Toronto spring. However, he did have a point. Spring will come. Eventually. But in the meantime, what is a poor garden lover to do? I’d been to Allan Gardens I don’t know how many times in the last few weeks. I’ve got three pots of herbs – time, basil and oregano – sitting by the window, already straining towards the light. My olive tree is covered with blossoms – am I supposed to pollinate them by hand ? And the plumbago I whacked back last fall is sending out long, spindly shoots – and one lovely, powder blue flower.
The only thing that’s left, as far as I can see, is to have a look at another garden. If you’ve been reading the posts in order (which many of you, it appears, do not) you’ll know I’ve been on a green binge lately. With apologies anticipatamente to those of you who were looking forward to a slightly broader palette, apart from a few white roses and a couple of black swans, the garden I have in mind is essentially in the hue of green. But don’t let that put you off. It’s astounding what can be done with one colour, water and a lot of Istrian stone.
In 1631 a virulent plague swept across Europe. Francesco Barbarigo, head of an ancient Venetian noble family, abandoned his palace in Venice and fled to the relative safety of Valsanzibio, one of the family holdings in the hills near Padua. When the plague was over, rather than returning to Venice, he stayed on to oversee the transformation of the gardens surrounding the villa, his way of fulfilling the pledge he had made to the gods for having spared him and his family. When it was finished, he invited friends and dignitaries who would arrive by boat from Venice and dock at the Portale di Diana.
But the marshy lake has long since been drained and it was only as I was driving by – there are no signs of course – that it occurred to me the ornately decorated structure, an incongruous sight, here by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, was part of the garden I’d come to see. It’s called the Giardino di Valsanzibio.
Nowadays a gravelled parking lot replaces the elegant 17th century landing and visitors enter the garden through a decidedly unadorned opening in the stone wall. Which means that instead of the grand water features that greeted Barbarigo’s guests, our first view of the garden is of the very tall, very dark green, impenetrable walls of a labyrinth. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for finding my way to the centre – surely the whole point of a labyrinth. The dull brooding clouds – it had rained on and off during the hour-long drive from Vicenza – may have added to my lack of enthusiasm, but… this is one of those moments when you need to remind yourself that you have crossed the Atlantic, travelled thousands of miles, endured countless hardships – OK, take out the hardships – to get here. So out came the wretched rain jacket I had optimistically shoved to the bottom of my backpack after Lake Como and then I started my solitary journey down the dark, lonely path.
A touch melodramatic, but there wasn’t another soul in sight, and I started to feel more than a bit rattled after wandering down the paths for a while without getting any closer to the centre. Which is exactly the point. Barbarigo’s garden was meant to represent man’s mortal journey from ignorance and sin to revelation and ultimate salvation. The labyrinth is the physical embodiment of that tortuous journey, with trabocchetti (trah-bok-ket-tea), blind ‘T’ alleys and dead ends that symbolize the seven deadly sins. Most importantly, according to an article I read later, was to avoid the allettante strada di pigrizia (alluring path of sloth) which will lead the unwary traveller to a dead end in the north-east quadrant, forcing the errant soul to ponder his sins as he retraces his steps. Technically, this means that in English Barbarigo’s labirinto is not a labyrinth – it’s a maze (more on that when we get to the ‘labyrinth’ at Villa Pisani).
Over 6,000 boxwood sempervivens, some of them 400 years old, line the paths. When the garden was first opened to the public there were a lot of maleducati who pushed their way through the walls and damaged the plants, but after a campaign of public education, visitors are now much more respectful.
With a sigh of relief I walked out onto the refreshingly wide open Gran Viale, the major north-south axis. The first fountain marks the intersection with the Viale delle Peschiere (Avenue of the Fish Ponds), the arrival point for Barbarigo’s 17th century visitors.
Continuing up the slope I came to a small, circular pond surrounded by four bare-bottomed cherubs. It’s called the Fontana dell’Iride. Presumably, when the sun shines, rainbows appear in the water that spurts from the jugs they are holding.
Further up the slope the gods of the winds struck dramatic poses above a waterfall. This is the Peschiera dei Venti. Pond of the Winds.
Beyond the Goddess of Fertility is one more pond. A wonderfully bucolic scene, but I didn’t dare linger. The clouds hadn’t darkened, but they neither had they got any lighter.
As I walked around the garden, I was often mortified to find myself gawking. Yes, staring openly and stupidly. This was clearly not one of those gardens that lend themselves to an intuitive visit. Which leads to the interminable debate as to whether the purpose of a garden is beauty or meaning. For the Venetians, this was a non-issue. For them, beauty and utility – or meaning – were not only mutually computable, but also desirable.
Next along the avenue was a delightful little fountain with a strangely ominous name – Fontana delle Insidie. At first glance there seemed nothing even vaguely insidious about it, but even before I found out it was also called the Fontana degli Scherzi I was delighted to realize that at least here I knew exactly what was going on. In my visits to gardens around Italy – especially Tuscany and Lazio, I’d seen quite a few of these things. Sometimes they’re called Giochi d’Acqua, but they’re all the same thing – hidden spigots that shoot out jets of water on unsuspecting passersby.
Long after my visit I was drawn to read, again, ‘What are Gardens For?’ by Rory Stuart. It is a small book, nothing of the coffee table extravaganza about it, but over time it has become one of my favourite books on gardens. Unlike many other garden writers, Stuart does not tell us this is beautiful, this is not; he does not cajole or berate us into his way of thinking; instead, as promised in the subtitle, ‘Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking about Gardens’, he presents garden designs and styles and ideas about gardens and then raises questions for our consideration. One of those questions, it seems to me, could well be asked with regard to a visit to Valsanzibio – ‘Does it matter that, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’? (Chapter 6, Style and Meaning, p.99). I had arrived as the ignorant wanderer Barbarigo had in mind. All I knew was that it was one of the great – although, like Giardini Giusti in Verona, not especially well-known – gardens of the Veneto. As I’ve said before, my preferred approach to a garden visit is to do minimal research beforehand. Just enough so I don’t miss significant but less obvious elements. And so I know how to get there. Like Valsanzibio, many historic gardens are no longer on the beaten path and can be surprisingly difficult to find. However, looking back, I think this is one of those cases where the more we know in advance, the more enriched our visit will be.
I would have loved to visit the garden on a sunny day. The dark greens of the boxwood against a clear, sapphire sky, dappled light, shadows, sparkling water, mini rainbows, would have really brought it to life. But then again, without what I’ll euphemistically call the ‘distractions’ of other visitors such weather inevitably attracts, there was something – I’m hesitant to call it spiritual – about my solitary journey through the garden.
Next – Vicenza, City of Palladio (this time, for real!)