The monumental complex of Valsanzibio with its garden – one of the most important existing historic gardens in the Veneto (and perhaps of Italy) – was brought to its contemporary magnificence in the second half of the 17th century by the Venetian nobleman Giovanni Francesco Barbarigo, assisted by his sons Antonio and Gregorio. Actually, it was the latter, the first-born Gregorio – cardinal, Bishop of Padua and future saint – that inspired the symbolic meaning of the plan drawn by Luigi Bernini, top Vatican architect and fountain expert. In fact, the then Catholic cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo – in consequence of a solemn vow made by his father in 1631 – desired that the garden of Valsanzibio be like a symbolic garden; an emblem of the journey of man from falsehood to truth; from ignorance to revelation.
The magical, allegorical garden they created – virtually unchanged through the centuries – consists of about 70 statues, engraved in Istria’s stone largely by the Merengo, and of as many different minor sculptures that integrate into a world of architectures, streams, waterfalls, fountains, small ponds, water games and fish ponds (‘peschiere’), between hundreds of different trees and shrubs, extending over an area of more than 10 hectares. Furthermore, within the monumental complex and as important stages in the journey of man to Salvation, there is a Boxwood Labyrinth (‘Labirinto’), a Hermit’s Grotto (‘Grotta dell'Eremita’), the Rabbits’ Island (‘Isola dei Conigli’) and a Monument to Time (‘Monumento al Tempo’).
The initiate’s journey begins at the ‘Diane’s Pavilion’ (or ‘Diane’s Doorway’; ‘Peschiera di Diana’) – the monumental main entrance by water to the Barbarigo estate in the 17th and 18th century. Here there was a landing place for boats coming across the ‘Valle di Sant’Eusebio’ (Valley of Sant’Eusebio) – from which the name (in the local patois) of ‘Val san Zibio’: in those days it was a fishing ‘valley’ extended over several miles, but today this area is limited only to the small pond (the so-called ‘Paludo’), preserved to mirror the elegant pavilion. The ‘Diane’s Doorway’ is greatly decorated with water fountains, low reliefs and statues, on top of which dominates a statue of Diane-Moon, Goddess of the Hunt, voted to nature and to the wild animals, as well as to prodigies and mutations.
From here, entering the garden through the ‘Sileno’s Archway’, one walks the ‘Decumano’ – or ‘Fish Pond’s Boulevard’ (‘Viale delle Peschiere’) –, close to the fish pond known as ‘Diane’s Bath’ (or ‘River’s Fish Pond’; ‘Peschiera dei Fiumi’ or ‘Bagno di Diana’), to the ‘Rainbow Fountain’ and the ‘Wind Fish Pond’ (‘Peschiera dei Venti’). Once arrived at the center of the garden, near the ‘Pila’ or ‘Conca Fountain’ (‘Fontana della Pila’), where the ‘Decumano’ intersects the Main Boulevard (also called Central Boulevard or ‘Cardo’), if you turn left into the ‘Cardo’ you will walk close to the labyrinth on your left-hand side – an essential stage on the journey to Salvation – and, on your right-hand side, pass by the ‘Romitorio’ (or ‘Hermit’s Grotto’): an allegorical place where you can meditate on the revelations realised during the initiate’s journey through the labyrinth. At the other end, instead, if you turn right by the ‘Pila Fountain’ into the Main Boulevard – or ‘Gran Viale’ – towards the villa, you will walk alongside the Rabbits’ Island on your left-hand side and flank the ‘stanza’ (room) with the Monument to Time on your right.
The ‘Rabbits’ Island’ – or ‘Rabbits’ Warren’ – is the only such feature still present in an existing historic garden. It is a symbol of immanence; that is, the condition common to all living beings, limited by the confines of the body and trapped within the boundaries of space and time. On the opposite side of that same Boulevard, facing the ‘Rabbits’ Island’, is the monumental statue of Time – its flight across space interrupted –, which symbolizes instead the transcendental condition in which the human spirit can rise above the limits of time and space. Proceeding along the main path between Immanence and Transcendence, and among the statues and the fountains that frame – even symbolically – both the Rabbits’ Island and the Monument to Time –, one finally reaches the ‘Fountain of the Tricks’ (‘Fontana degli Scherzi d'Acqua’), enlivened by statues and water games or jokes, all with precise symbolic meanings.
The ‘Gran Viale’ (or ‘Cardo’) comes to its end by a fountain near a staircase, the so-called ‘Fountain of the Lonze’ and ‘Stairs of the Sonetto’ (‘Fontanella delle Lonze’ and ‘Scalea del Sonetto’) –, thus reminding of Dante, as the steps are inscribed with the verses of a sonnet in which the meanings of the garden are being revealed at different levels. This staircase finally leads to the square in front of the villa (not accessible to the general public); here, eight allegories of the garden’s – and of its owner’s – qualities surround the ‘Fountain of Ecstasy’ (or ‘of the Mushroom’, or ‘of Revelations’; ‘Fontana dell'Estasi’, ‘del Fungo’ or ‘delle Rivelazioni’): final goal in the emblematic journey of human perfectibility – a theme which we have symbolically covered throughout the garden.
The Garden of Valsanzibio has preserved all its exceptional original features – from an architectonic, sculptural, hydraulic, and even vegetational point of view – intact; they have been left unaltered only thanks to the unceasing and careful attention received first of all by six successive generations of Barbarigo, since the garden’s very creation in 1669. At their extinction, in 1804, the nobleman Marco Antonio MIchiel was appointed heir; he was succeeded in 1835 by the equally passionate Counts Martinengo da Barco, and 40 years later by Counts Donà delle Rose.
Since 1929, three successive generations of Pizzoni Ardemani have enjoyed the property of the estate and garden. They mended all the ravages caused by military occupation and forced neglect during WW2, and have recently restored all the fountains, fish ponds, water games, cascades and streams – that is, all the thirty-three water features that lend such a special character to this monumental garden, compromised by 80 years of progressive impoverishment of the water springs.
Thanks to all this, in a nutshell, Valsanzibio is today an extraordinary example of symbolic garden, still entirely ‘readable’ in its original plan, as well as a great Water Garden – still completely efficient – and an Italianate Garden (‘Giardino all’Italiana’) dating to the 17th century, absolutely intact in its outline and virtually unchanged over the centuries, for the visitor to enjoy in its many layers of meaning.
The Plants and Trees of the Historic Garden at Valsanzibio
In the 7 hectares of historic garden – and in the adjacent 5 hectares – there are about 300 different types of plants and trees. Even to this day, there are still many trees planted between 1664 and 1669 (about 70% of the plants present today are the original ones!). The garden of Valsanzibio is unique in the world also for its abundance of Boxwood plants (Buxus sempervirens; in the garden there are about 90,000 m² of box alone), for the longevity of the same plants (many Boxwood specimens are more than 350 years old) and for the height that these plants reach in some Boulevards (some are more than 6 m tall!).
There are also 40,000 m² of Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) that, for the most part, are trimmed in such a way as to form tunnels made of leaves (the so-called ‘carpinede’), and line the three ‘Shadows’ Alleys’ (‘Viali Ombrosi’); about 70% of these plants are the original ones, planted between 1664 and 1669, and thus – since when they were planted they were coming from a nursery, and were therefore already 15-20 years old – they are now more than 350 years old.
Normally, all the Boulevards and Alleys in the garden are bordered on both sides with Boxwood plants (the ‘Cardo’ or Main Boulevard, the ‘Decumano’ or Water Boulevard, and the so-called Venetian Alley or ‘calle veneziana’) or by Hornbeam trees (the three ‘Shadows’ Alleys’), with the sole exception of the Rainbow Boulevard (‘Viale dell'Iride’), which has its southern part bordered with Boxwood plants, while the northern side is lined with different species of Maple trees (Acer sp.). The Venetian Alley – bordered with century-old Boxwood plants, about 5/6 metres tall – is unique in that it reproduces with tall Boxwood espaliers the typical Venetian passageways, enclosed between tall buildings, as you can see them in the city by the lagoon: the ‘calli veneziane’, precisely. This unique feature – that you can admire only in Valsanzibio – runs the east-west length of the garden in its entirety for about 500 metres, and is less than 1,5 metres wide.