Thursday, 8 December 2011

Padua Botanic Garden

I'm sometimes asked for a list of my favourite gardens to visit in Europe. One that quickly comes to mind is the Padua Botanic Garden in northern Italy, near Venice. Although I have only visited the Orto Botanico di Padova twice - once in high summer and once in deep winter - this institution ticks all my garden history boxes.

An aerial view of the Orto Botanico 
While the botanic garden at Padua was not the first to be established (Pisa is one year older), it is recognised as the oldest in the world set in its original location. A fine example of the High Renaissance interest in science the garden was set up by Padua University to teach medical students about therapeutic plants used in healing. At the time the study of botany was an essential part of medical training, a coexistence that continued up to the middle years of the 20th century.

I found this early photographic view
of the gardens in a Padua antique shop

Another early view of the gardens this time showing 
the glasshouse surrounding the 'Goethe palm' 
The oldest plant in the garden is a Chamaerops humilis var. arborescens, planted in 1585, commonly known as the 'Goethe Palm', because the German poet and philosopher mentioned it in his essay The Metamorphoses of Plants (1790). This semi-hardy palm is situated in a purpose built glasshouse (see above). Many other trees in the Arboretum date from the 18th,19th and 20th centuries.

During the warmer months of the year
many of the frost tender plants - such
as these succulents - are moved outside

In 1997 the institution was listed as a UNESCO World heritage Site on the following grounds: 'The Botanical Garden of Padua is the original of all botanical gardens in the world, and represents the birth of science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. It has made a profound contribution to the development of many modern scientific, notably botany, medicine, chemistry, ecology and pharmacy.'

Within easy reach of Venice Padua is well worth a visit. Although badly damaged by bombing in World War II the city is filled with many wonderful historic buildings. Personal favourites are the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Apollo Chapel) decorated by Giotto, and the 13th century Baptistery decorated with frescoes by Giusto de Menabuoi.

I would love to hear from readers who share my enthusiasm for this garden and city.

Further reading in English: The Botanical Garden of Padua 1545-1995, edited by Alessandro Minelli, Marsilio, Venice, 1995
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