Giudecca – The SoHo of the Lagoon

By | Category: Travel destinations
Venice from Giudecca

Venice from Giudecca

There is no close season in Venice nowadays. Great gangs of tourists brandishing their selfie sticks clog up the areas around San Marco and the Rialto almost throughout the year and one cannot but wonder if it is under their weight that Venice will eventually sink.

On our last visit however, we managed to enjoy tranquillity while at the same time remaining within a short hop of all the city’s wonders. How?  By staying on Giudecca. Yes, we were well aware that this island  has been somewhat disparaged by Venetians – and not only Venetians,  JG Links, in the 1994 edition of his estimable book Venice for Pleasure, actually describes it as a  “ long narrow and not very interesting island…”  Even now it is not included on all tourist maps.

It will be soon because Giudecca is in the process of transforming itself. Not only can you still experience something of authentic everyday Venetian life as it used to be –  but Giudecca, which is in fact eight little islands joined by bridges, is actually  becoming  fashionable.

One reason for its lack of popularity was that in the recent past it was home to various ugly factories and industrial complexes including a cement works, a big flour mill, a textile factory, a brewery and incinerators. As these were gradually abandoned from the 1950’s onwards it became a bit of a slum, a place to be avoided.

At one time though, it had been a stopping off point for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land and in later centuries it became almost Venice’s little country cousin, full of market gardens and vineyards. A look at de’Barbari’s 1500 map of Venice shows this long thin island, known as Spinalonga or ‘fishbone,’ from its shape, full of  orchards and vegetable plots. In 1529 Michelangelo actually spend time there when exiled from Florence. Many gardens were attached to convents but there were also villas with pleasure gardens to which patrician Venetians escaped from the heat of summer before the craze for this sort of villeggiatura spread up the Brenta Canal and into the Veneto.

Casanova was a visitor and in the well-tended gardens of the Belmond Cipriani Hotel ( open to non-residents)  originally the site of an old botanical garden,  ‘Casanova’s Garden’ is still to be found. Here, even now a little vineyard produces grapes for Casanova Salso, the ‘salt red wine’ so called because the salinity of the lagoon imparts a special flavour. These gardens are adjacent to the Zitelle Convent where, in the eighteenth century, the nuns  took in and taught beautiful girls from poor families who having no dowries might otherwise have fallen into prostitution. The reprobate Casanova reputedly spend many happy hours amusing the young ladies there.

That Giudecca was still a flowery paradise in 1834 is proved by a poem written by Alfred de Musset who visited Zuecca, the dialect name of the island, with George Sand shortly before the end of their affair. He even claimed he wanted to live and die there…

His Chanson ends,

A Saint-Blaise, à la Zueccca

Dans les prés fleuris cuellier la verveine

A Saint -Blaise, à la Zuecca

Vivre et mourir là

Zitelle Church ©Archive of the-Tourist Board of the Province of Venice

Zitelle Church ©Archive of the-Tourist Board of the Province of Venice

Even though in the intervening years the likelihood of gathering verbena from flowery meadows on Giudecca was practically nil, now there is a possibility that it could be done. The Zitelle convent which extends either side of the Palladian church of Santa Maria della Presentazione has recently been converted into the Bauer Il Palladio Hotel & Spa and four large gardens (also open to non-residents) have been created to form a tranquil haven in which  flowers and delicious scents embellish green lawns. In one of the four there is the ghost of an old orchard in which the grass is cut to three different lengths around the fruit trees and tulips and narcissi, fritillary and crocus have been planted to echo the oriental carpet effect mentioned in old documents.

For something on a more domestic scale, Ottilla’s Garden found down one of the long narrow calli is rather a magical place. At one time the grounds of an old furnace, it is the creation of Ottilia Iten who can talk about horticulture in five languages.  Her exuberant garden opens three times a year, in the spring for daffodils, in early summer for roses and in the autumn for asters and Michaelmas daisies but visits can sometimes be arranged at other times.

Giudecca was always an island of convents and gardens and although many convents have undergone a change of use, there does remain some active monastic involvement in gardening.  The Convento del Redentore which dates from 1576, produced masses of fruit and vegetables in the past but now, with fewer monks much of it has been left fallow. Nevertheless if you ring the bell on the door to the left of the church you can sometimes gain access. We saw are olive trees being pruned and quantities of the local St Erasmus artichokes growing while enjoying the company of the kindly Fra Agostino.

At the western end of the island another ex- convent is now the  women’s prison where organic vegetables and fruit are cultivated anew in what  is known as the Orto delle Meravigile. For obvious reasons this is not open to the public but the produce is sold at a weekly street market outside the prison gates.

Another garden not open to the public – and sadly neglected, is the legendary Garden of Eden created by the Frederick Eden, brother-in-law of Gertrude Jekyll and great-uncle of Anthony Eden. It now belongs to the Hunderwasser Foundation. Not far away however, is the neo- byzantine, Villa Herriot which is usually open weekday mornings. It is in fact two little palazzi, home to various institutions, which also has  pleasant gardens.

part of the gardens at Il Palladio

part of the gardens at Il Palladio

In this area too was the small British hospital for sailors founded towards the end of the nineteenth century by Lady Layard wife of the British ambassador and archaeologist Henry Layard and doyenne of Venice’s considerable coterie of British ex-pats of the time. Known as the Cosmopolitan Hospital, it was here the controversial Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo received the last rites – before recovering to write scathing things about Lady Layard.

The Fortuny Factory on the fondamenta san Baigio has a garden open to visitors in which a charming courtyard leads to an attractive area of lawns, pergolas, roses and a small pavilion. It is well worth also peeping into the adjacent showroom, Fortuny Tessuti Artistici, where sumptuous displays of luxurious fabrics, some made to the original designs of Mariano Fortuny and some more modern, are on show. The process by which they are created remains strictly secret and the factory itself is not open to the public.

The Fortuny Factory in fact is one of the last industrial units on the island and to some extent the turning point in island’s renaissance came when the Stucky Flour Mill, a hideous behemoth of a building, was converted into the luxury Hilton Hotel. Other old factories underwent similar mutations; some became affordable housing, some high-end residences but a number have been  given new lives as arts spaces – resulting in Giudecca’s now being dubbed The SoHo of the Lagoon.      The former Dreher brewery is now an art village with studios and galleries including the innovative Spazio Punch which hosts shows and cultural events focusing on art, fashion and design; the former Junghans precision tool factory is now home to the drama school Accamedia Teatrale Veneta  and in the old corn-plaster factory near the Palanca vaporetto stop the British artist Geoffrey Humphreys set up studio in what during an intervening period had been an artists hostel; Fabrizio Plessi the pioneer video artist whose installations focus on water has a studio nearby and Helene Feruzzi, who creates wonderful painted textiles lives in an in old building on the main northern fondamenta. There are also a series of luxuriously restored buildings at the east of the island which have attracted such luminaries as  Elton John, Miucca Prada and Georgio Armani.

the Redentore gardens

the Redentore gardens

One of the reasons Joe Links dismissed the island as uninteresting is the fact that there are comparatively few distinguished historic buildings containing fabulous works of art on Giudecca. Palladio’s Il Redentore,  the most important monument on the island, has been likened to ‘a symphony in stone’ and does have some good paintings in the sacristy. It was commissioned in gratitude for deliverance from the plague in 1556 and effectively comes into its own annually when a bridge of boat is built across the canal to celebrate this fact. St Euphemia, the other church of some importance always seems to be closed, as is the Zitelle church which is now part of the Il Palladio complex.   One building of interest which has reinvented itself successfully is the Casa de Maria built by the Bolognese painter Mario de Maria at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is an iconic building with patterned brickwork and three eye-shaped windows which gave rise to the name Tre Oci, under which it now operates as a very successful photographic gallery.

If  Giudecca less about historic treasures and more about working boat yards, real everyday people who speak a dialect different even from Ventian and amazing views south over the  lagoon it is worth remembering that the riches of  the rest of Venice are only a hop across the Giudecca Canal. Those lucky enough to stay at the swish hotels will benefit from shuttle boats to convey them to and fro but otherwise (and there are several b & bs and a trendy youth hostel) it is definitely worth investing in a vaporetto pass as the island is well served with routes which convey you swiftly across to the Zattere or up towards the Piazzale Roma and the station or even directly out to Murano and other islands.

So for an authentic, trendy yet peaceful experience, give Giudecca a try while it is still comparatively unspoiled.

Story and images (unless cited) ©  Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck










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