Welcome to Padua

On the eve of my departure for Padua I took the few renga lilies that have survived the depredations of some leaf-cutting insect lurking in my conservatory to Moorbank.  It seemed important to leave them in safe hands, where they’d be sure of a stable environment and regular temperature.  I’d always imagined that they’d end up there, an exciting addition (New Zealand native) to the collection under glass.  They had been doing well despite setbacks – greenfly and windburn – which I was pleased I’d been able to overcome.

I wasn’t sure what Clive, the manager, meant when he said he would look after them for just one year.  I was shocked when he explained that the University had made the decision to close Moorbank and it might not be there beyond a year’s time.  I was dumbfounded – sad and cross – not sure what to say or do for the best.  It was a strange, disorientating piece of information to take with me on my first visit – to the world’s first botanic garden, established in 1545.  The superimposition was disturbing – here I was finally embarking on my ‘Grand Tour’ of Botanical Gardens, for which Moorbank had been the seed and inspiration.  Ironic that it was there I discovered how important botanic gardens are for our future in terms of research, conservation and education and now its own future had been curtailed by what it’s hard not to see as a short-sighted management decision, yet another disastrous ‘austerity’ measure.  I am still in the process of assimilating this news and will no doubt be returning to the subject, as will various others who are keen to find some way to keep Moorbank going.

Padua felt like a different world all together – running to a kinder calendar, clock and thermometer.  In the privileged, cosseted position of ‘visitor’, and with the luxury of just one task to focus on, it was easy to feel at home in its daily rhythms, marked by the chiming of the bells at St. Anthony’s Basilica, set at the end of the cobbled street that leads down to the Orto Botanico.

Entering the garden felt momentous, almost ritualistic – so many stations of the cross to pass through on the way – two bridges over shallow waterways grazed by sleepy, semi-transparent fish, two sets of gates, stone pillars, wrought iron, an assortment of signs, a ticket booth (where the attendant sat listening to the Beatles on my first encounter!).  Then, even inside the garden, there is another wall to pass through – tall, circular, red brick – built in 1552 to keep out the thieves who’d taken to stealing the precious plants collected from the Venetian Republic’s trading posts in the Horto Medicinale.

The whole layout  – a typical Renaissance design: a square, divided into quarters, contained within a circle, forming a hortus sphaericus or cinctus – invites a similar response: a conscious, embodied relationship with ‘Nature’, based on the enlightened understanding that the human is part of it – inside and out – and accords to the same principles as everything in the wider universe.  Walking round the garden was an incredibly rich experience – metaphysical, sensual, aesthetic, horticultural, scientific and ecological.  There were an infinite variety of possible routes to take, the structure wonderfully apparent at the end of the season, with many plants at a less lush part of their cycle.

However it was clear right from the start that something very different was going on here from what would be possible in the North East of England.  Two lemon trees flanked the inner entrance at the West Gate.  Exotic Brugmansia grew abundantly in huge terracotta pots.  Cacti and succulents and palms I’ve only ever seen growing under glass at Moorbank stood outside in the open air.  An artesian well allows the garden to be fed and watered by a thermal spring which makes all this work, as well as counteracting the long, parched Italian summers.  While I was there the temperature was falling (still around 20 degrees C most days, but cooler at night) and some of the tender plants in pots were starting to be moved into the shelter of the old 18th century greenhouses.

One of the special attractions for me of the garden in Padua (apart from its place in history and very particular layout) was what is known as ‘Goethe’s palm’.  There was a sense of pilgrimage in seeking it out, following in the poet’s footsteps.  I’ve been reading his 1790 book The Metamorphosis of Plants, fascinated by his careful observations, recording of detail and probing for botanical and philosophical significance.  Goethe visited the garden in Padua on his travels to Italy and refers to this particular palm  – a Mediterranean fan (Chamaerops humilis)  – in his book, as an example of the successive differentiation in the formation of the leaves.  It has its own octagonal greenhouse, built between the wars, which it is now outgrowing.  There is an old sundial, a hollow circle carved in stone, just outside.  Its lines and shadows mirror the form of the palms’ leaves in a manner recalling the Renaissance system of ‘correspondences’ – As it is above, so it is below.  This echo effect spills all over the garden and the effect is of a precious, faceted jewel – profoundly pleasing, stimulating and inspirational.

I spent a delightful morning with the Vice-Prefect, Antonella Moila, and she was able to point out various aspects of the garden I might otherwise have missed.  I was especially interested to broach the big green barriers on the south of the garden to take a look at the new development. Enormous, confident glasshouses rose from a parcel of land bought by the University of Padua from the Jesuit Church.  They were just installing the sun shades the day I was there.  This whole extension, fringed by the Romanesque domes of the Basilica of Santa Guistina, is still in the process of being landscaped so there is lots of mud and machinery and no plants just yet.  But despite delays (the original plans were agreed around 10 years ago), it is hoped the new addition will be open to welcome many more visitors to the garden next spring.  Grafting new onto old, this garden’s history is still in the making.

It made me even sadder about Moorbank being closed – seeing the investment the University of Padua is making in the future of this garden, taking on the demands of change, without forsaking continuity.  At a time of economic crisis, it requires a leap of faith – something perhaps Italians manage more naturally than us.

I could say much more about my week in Padua – and probably will – but I wanted to share some initial impressions for now, as I unpack.  Just before going I decided to leave all my ‘technology’ at home and stick with notebook, pencil and camera.  It was the right decision, I think, allowing an undiluted immersion in the place so that now I have my own deep well to call upon when I come to write about it.  I’m sure I’ll also be talking more about my visit to this enchanting and important garden at my reading at Durham Book Festival on Sunday 29th October (in the Town Hall at 3.30pm).  I look forward to seeing some of you there.

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