The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto by Jenny Condie and Alex Ramsey reviewed by Rory Stuart

November 21, 2013

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Everyone is now totally exhausted after all that debate and discussion on Clumping and Mingling and on Britain’s blooming Blooming. Time to think holidays. Gardens. Italy. Sunshine. So here’s Rory:

Anne Wareham, editor

PS Sorry – there were too many references to manage links to them all. I got overwhelmed.. Try Google?


Rory Stuart:

The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto by Jenny Condie and Alex Ramsey

This is a big, beautiful book. How could it be otherwise, given the sumptuous subject matter and the unsurpassed skills of Alex Ramsay as a photographer of gardens? Every page has at least one illustration, and very often the photograph (often of a building or a piece of sculpture, not a garden) occupies the whole page.

But is it a book you will want to buy? If you are looking for a guide book to these gardens, this is not the book for you. Only 20 gardens are dealt with in detail, and of these only three are in Venice itself. Then there is only a small section of practical advice on how to visit the gardens. If you are looking for a guide book,  Mariagrazia Dammicco’s A Guide to the Gardens of Venice is more thorough and more practical.

But if you are wondering whether to visit this area and these gardens, this is the book for you. It is inspiring, if not (detestable, over-used, flatulent word) inspirational.

The section of the book on Venice itself deals with the Giudeca in one chapter, and is good on the history of that island. We hear, briefly, about the modern hotel gardens at the Cipriani and the Bauer, the second (for me) more interesting than the first. She gives due attention to Carlo Scarpa’s modern masterpiece at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia, an extraordinary example of how a small public space can be ingeniously developed.

Palazzo Querini Stampalia

Palazzo Querini Stampalia

The two other gardens that merit extended essays are at the Palazzo Barnabò, right on the Grand Canal, and the Palazzo Soranno Capello with its extraordinary spring show of bluebells. Oddly the author doesn’t mention the interesting 19th century garden at the Hotel Palazzo Rizzo Pataral, and the Fortuny garden is also overlooked. Clearly, as she says in the introduction, it was hard to decide which gardens had to be omitted.

By page 63 we have left Venice and set foot on ‘terra ferma’ to explore the remaining 17 gardens. Jenny Condie tells us a great deal about the families who built the villas in the Veneto, particularly about how they made their money. And this economic information is spiced with some entertaining gossip, for example about Casanova at the Palazzo Barnabò.

When she turns to the gardens, they are described more often than analysed, and the beautiful photos do a great deal of the work, making some of the written description redundant.

Villa Valmarana Scagnolari Zen_copyright Hans A. Rosbach

Villa Valmarana Scagnolari – don’t bother?

Sometimes the background story seems to be the reason for the garden’s inclusion in the book; the Villa Valmarana near Padua has an interesting story but to judge from her description and the photos, it appears scarcely worth a visit today.

Condie writes well about the history of the Botanical Garden at Padua, as she does about the economic history of the whole region. She emphasises how Palladio’s villas were not just elegant summer homes but places adapted to the practicalities of farming; there were barns in the wings that spread symmetrically from the classical central part of the villa, and there was space in the attics for drying the crops.

The same eye for hard-headed practicality is seen at the Villa Barbaro, Maser; the author traces how the water source fed first a nymphaeum, then a fish pond, the kitchens, a water trough for animals, various fountains, and finally irrigated the orchard.

Giardino Giusti in Verona from Wikipedia

Giardino Giusti in Verona – why Goethe’s?

She deals, of course, with famous gardens such as the Giardino Giusti in Verona (where she might have explained why one of the cypresses, boring like awls into the sky, is called Goethe’s cypress), and then she has chosen an interesting variety of less well-known gardens, from that of a 19th century philanthropist, the Ca’ Dolfin Marchiori at Lendinara near Rovigo, to the modern developments at the Villa Emo with its fashionable wild flower meadows.

One of the pleasures of the book is the attention the author gives to smells and sounds, parts of the garden experience that are too often ignored. We get a real sense of what it is like, for example, to live though a Venetian winter. Just occasionally the prose lurches into the most vapid kind of garden lyricism – “Clambering over a low marble balustrade which seems only with difficulty to restrain the vegetable growth within, pink roses seethe like a tide towards the water” – but, happily, this is not typical of the book as a whole. Much more grounded, and much better written, is her interesting and detailed account of how the Venetians collected and purified their rain water.

And if this book does tempt you to visit this fascinating, flat land in Italy’s north-east, will you see the gardens in the flattering light that we enjoy in Alex Ramsay’s photos? I hope so.

Rory Stuart 

Rory’s latest book is “What are Gardens for? Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking about Gardens” published by Frances Lincoln, and it is reviewed here.

Rory Stuart portrait copyright Rory Stuart







Jenny Condie and Alex Ramsay (photographer)

(Frances Lincoln. £35)

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