The Botanical Garden of the University of Padua, set up by a decree of the Republic of Venice in 1545, is the oldest in the world. Well, actually, the University of Pisa founded its in 1544, but it moved site twice, and has remained in its present location only (!) since 1591, whereas the Padua garden has remained in the same place for over 450 years, and its architectural layout has remained broadly unchanged. (One assumes that the most potent, grave and venerable Signiors decided that anything that Pisa did they could do better – except making a tower lean, obviously.)
The Padua garden is not associated with any particular botanist, unlike Clusius’ garden at Leiden or (much later) J.S. Henslow’s new Botanic Garden at Cambridge. Intended as a study aid and source of drugs for students of medicine, it was laid out in the form of a large circle enclosing four squares, each square having its own internal symmetry. In 1552, the problem of robbery by night of the precious plants had become such that a high security wall was built round the circle; since then the area of the garden has expanded in different directions, most recently with the terrific series of glasshouses and pools called the Biodiversity Garden.
The architect of the original design may have been Andrea Moroni (c.1500–60) from Bergamo, who was also involved in the proverbially long rebuilding of the basilica of Santa Giustina in a Palladio-like style (with stunning pietra dura altars in most of the side-chapels) in the course of the sixteenth century.
Another possible designer, however, was the polymath Venetian Daniele Barbaro (1513–70), translator of Vitruvius, friend and patron of Palladio, cardinal, and ambassador of Venice to the court of Edward VI of England. (His brother Marcantonio (1518–95) was ambassador to France a decade later.)
September is not necessarily the ideal month for garden visiting in Italy, and at first sight a lot of the beds were looking tired and dusty, but in fact there was plenty to see and admire, both outdoors and in the glasshouses. One of the most interesting areas was a chronological bed listing the plants which were introduced to Italy via the garden. An agave came from Mexico in 1561; lilac from the Balkans in 1565; sunflowers from America in 1568. 1590 was a good year – hyacinth, sesame, jasmine and potato; as was 1642 – bluebell (Hyacinthus non-scripta), milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Parthenocissus, Rudbeckia, Robinia, Ipomoea and poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron). Liriodendron, the tulip tree, was introduced in 1760, Cyclamen persicum in 1812, the Himalayan cedar (still a magnificent specimen) in 1826, and (unfortunately) Fallopia japonica, Japanese knotweed, in 1858.
As well as the Himalayan cedar, other notable trees are the palm (Chamaerops humilis) planted in 1585 about which Goethe wrote, a Ginkgo biloba planted in 1750, and some wonderful magnolias, one a giant believed to have been planted in 1786 (though the one in the cloister of St Antony’s church looks even bigger to me: is it therefore older?).
Inside the Biodiversity Garden, there is pleasing homage, by way of banners, to such giants as Theophrastus, Linnaeus, Goethe, Wallace and Darwin (with an especially pleasing nod to the work of Francis Darwin, botanist son and assistant to (as well as biographer of) the more famous Charles).
Honourable mentions also go to Pier Andrea Saccardo (1845–1920), the ‘Linnaeus of mushrooms’ and author of ‘the bible of mycology’, director of the garden between 1879 and 1915, and Prospero Alpini, (1553–1617), physician, botanist and traveller, who is among the many credited with bringing the pernicious habit of coffee drinking to Europe. The glasshouse range is divided into climatic zones, from rainforest to arid desert, and you can get up along a walkway which takes you above the tops of the trees, and away from the hazards of the forest floor … altogether a fascinating and inspiring experience.