Of course, a great many gardens in Venice are secret – that is, invisible to the normal passer-by in the calle. But the garden of Palazzo Soranzo Cappello is probably the most famous secret garden in the city (with the ‘Garden of Eden’ on Giudecca in second place). We had been trying to get into the gardens for some years, especially as my book, The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto (2013) says that all you have to do is go into the portego and ask the porter for permission.
Been there, done that – the front door is (in our experience) never open, so the chances of getting a cheery smile (or even a gruff nod) from a porter seem remote. However, this year, St Dorothy, patron saint of gardening, clearly interceded for us, as we found a website which said that in the very week we were in Venice, for two days, there would be entry to the gardens plus guided tours, all free. This seemed to good to be true, not least because there are several other websites giving completely different and more negative information.
So I did what you do these days – I went to their Facebook page and in my best Italian asked them (‘they’ being the Soprintendenza area metropolitana Venezia e province Belluno Padova Treviso) if they were indeed open on Friday 13 September, and they came back immediately and said they were. Friday therefore found us at their door at 10 a.m., and we had a little mooch round before joining the guided tour at 10.30. The other members of the party were four Italian ladies, and the guide was also Italian, naturally, but he most kindly spoke slowly enough for me to understand his talk.
From the outside, Soranzo Cappello looks like ‘just another’ palazzo, by a side canal between San Simeone Piccolo (the large church) and San Simeone Grande (the small church), and it was built in the sixteenth century by the Soranzo family. But as you walk through the doors of the portego, and enter the ‘courtyard’ (the first ‘room’ of the garden), you realise that, by Venetian standards, you are in a very large garden indeed.
The courtyard is surrounded by statues of the canonical Twelve Caesars of Suetonius, and is divided from the rest of the garden by a low parapet topped by an ironwork grille, the straight path which divides the garden being flanked by statues of Hercules labouring.
Our guide (whose name I regret I don’t know, as he was responsible for the restoration and replanting) explained that it was vital (given the limited resources available) that the garden should be very low-maintenance, and especially that it should not need watering or weeding.
It is therefore mostly green, but emphatically not laid to lawn. The various grasses are in friendly competition with wild strawberries, cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), clovers, violets, daisies, dandelions – and, in spring apparently, crocus, narcissus, scillas, tulips and fritillaries, which we should all come back and see – if it’s open then, as one of the Italian ladies remarked cynically. (There is an awful lot of lesser bindweed, but apparently this is pulled up every so often, so that it doesn’t submerge everything else.)
Also in spring and summer, roses, jasmine and Clematis armandii, which clothe the high surrounding walls, are in full flower, but we were of course too late – though there were a few second-flowering inflorescences on the wisteria in the orchard.
And there are hundreds and hundreds of irises – now only green leaves (and noticeably less flourishing on the sunnier side of the garden). At the moment, colour is provided by the pale purple of Liriope muscari and the pink and white of Japanese anemones. There is also a spectacular white hibiscus to one side.
Several of the trees have been cut down, and others drastically pruned, to let light in. Those that have remained include Broussonetia papyrifera, the paper mulberry (used for barkcloth in the Pacific and paper in Japan and China), which apparently self-seeds with enthusiasm, and Diospyrus lotus, the date-plum or Caucasian persimmon, of which the fruits (eventually orange) are now at a green, unripe stage. (Whether they are to be identified with the fruits called ‘lotos’ in the Odyssey is a matter of dispute.)
At the bottom of the garden is a wide, shallow portico, with a pediment supported by Doric columns – a nice full stop to the garden and a pleasant place to sit in the shade.
To the right (as you stand in the doorway to the courtyard) is a separate garden which has been restored as an orchard, with pomegranates, cherries and a pergola draped with vines (apparently based on the pergola constructed by Frederic Eden (author of A Garden in Venice, 1903) on Giudecca).
The unkempt former state of the garden can be seen in the ghostly traces of ivy tendrils which have scarred the bark of some of the trees, as well as in earlier photographs like the one above. And it is this earlier, overgrown, tangled, wild garden which is known to anyone who has read The Aspern Papers, by Henry James.
James knew the palazzo and its garden, which was rented by Americans – the painter Eugene Benson, his wife Henriette, and her daughter Julia Constance Fletcher (1853–1938). Henriette had divorced her husband, Julia’s father, and subsequently lived in Venice and London, where Julia, who wrote novels under the name of ‘George Fleming’, was acquainted with a circle which included (as well as James) Kipling, Browning and Walter Pater. (It is also asserted that Siegfried Sassoon’s father left his wife after being smitten by Julia when Siegfried was four years old, though nothing came of the relationship.)
So it is access to this very garden that we have to imagine the doubly anonymous ‘publishing scoundrel’ pleading for, to the elder and younger Misses Bourdereau, when all the time Jeffery Aspern’s letters were his real goal; and it is this garden from which he promised to ‘smother the house in flowers’ – though ‘I was sorry to do this, for personally I liked it better as it was, with its weeds and its wild, rough tangle, its sweet, characteristic Venetian shabbiness’.
Unfortunately, James gives us no more horticultural details, but in spite of long delays on the part of the gardener he hired, throughout July the publishing scoundrel was able to send up a daily armful to the reclusive ladies, though his plan to ‘batter the old women with lilies’ and ‘bombard their citadel with roses’ of course had no effect at all. The end of the story tells us nothing of the fate of the garden, or its younger surviving occupant, but one can assume that after that brief period of resuscitation to a brighter life, it sank back into the green shabbiness which the publishing scoundrel regarded as characteristically Venetian.
Another thing which, sadly, is characteristic of Venetian gardens is mosquitoes. I speak with feeling, as I am currently sitting in a delightful one (our usual, third-floor, apartment being currently unavailable), flapping my hands hopelessly, and increasingly covered in red spots and weals – though normally mosquitoes and midges don’t like the taste of me at all. Back in 1888, when The Aspern Papers was first published, the insects would have carried malaria, so I must be thankful for this quite large mercy …