16th, 17th, and 18th Century Italian Gardens and the Grand Villa Estates Built Upon Them
Anthony Ambrosius Aurelius
“Northern Italy was by far the wealthiest part of Italy and 500 years ago, it was one of the most powerful and wealthy regions in all of Europe, with highly productive agricultural lands and well established commercial links across the world. The north of Italy is where most trade has taken place throughout Italy’s long winding history with a lot of this wealth being related to plants, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The influences which helped define Italian gardens in the north were quite different from the rest of Italy, spanning from the 16th century, into the modern day. From the early Medieval period onward, a crucial center of northern Italy’s wealth was the independent republic of Venice in modern day Venice, Italy. As Europe’s most important trading hub, Venice dominated critical trade routes reaching toward the east for centuries, with ships importing valuable silks, gold, and spices among other valuables.
From the early 16th century onward, goods began to flow in from the new world. Merchants and sailors returned with exotic plants and fruits (e.g. potato or tomato etc.) from distant corners of the world (e.g. China and Chile etc.). Tomatoes were introduced in 1548 and assumed to be poisonous, not considered an edible food in Italy until the 18th century because of their relation to nightshade, a powerful and deadly plant when consumed.
In Padua, Italy, 50 kilometers inland from Venice in the wealthy hinterland of the Venetian republic referred to as the “Veneto”, the Orto Botanico, (pronounced “or-tow bow-tan-ee-ko”) created at the University of Padua in 1543, is believed the be the oldest botanical garden in existence. The Orto Botanico was originally setup to collect what were referred to as “samples” which was the term used to describe “medicinal plants” during the era. Members of the public were quick to steal and resell many of the plants growing within the Orto Botanico which is why a circular perimeter fence was installed around the garden.
Scientists were laying the foundation of the study of botany in Padua, studying new and indigenous plants alike so that they could be utilized safely and effectively as medicine. This was”