Italy can be seen as the cradle of botanical gardens, flaunting an ancient tradition of growing plants for scientific reasons (or at least to study vegetable species’ properties and gain useful insight to cure or help people).
Although this practice started as far as Egypt and Mesopotamia, gardens developed hugely in Western Europe during Renaissance humanism. Especially in the many monasteries of the continent, “science gardens” were created to systematically collect rare arboreal essences and find out more about their therapeutic, pharmacological and botanical characteristics.
Indeed, the botanical gardens of Padua and Florence were founded in 1545, followed by the ones in Pisa and Bologna only a few years later.
Follow us on a journey touching six of these wonderful vegetable treasure troves, where research and beauty are synonymous.
Let’s start where it all began: the ancient University of Padua, Veneto, flaunts the world’s oldest botanical garden, founded in 1545. Located in the historical city center, between the Basilicas of Saint Anthony and Saint Justina, it was preserved from radical changes over the centuries.
In recent years, the 22,000-square-meter gardens, with over 6,000 specimens of 3,500 different species, have been expanded with the addition of a Biodiversity Garden, where over 1,000 species of plants from around the world are displayed according to phyto-geographical criteria, so visitors can discover various biomes’ botanical peculiarities.
Botanical Gardens of the University of Padua
Via Orto Botanico, 15
Tel.: +39 049 8272119
For guided tours and information about events:
Tel.: +39 049 8273939
Pisa’s Botanical Garden was actually founded earlier than Padua’s, between 1543 and 1544, but moved to its current location in 1591 – hence losing the “stabilitas loci” required to keep the title of oldest botanical garden.
Extending over three hectares, Pisa’s Botanical Garden is an educational-scientific structure belonging to the city’s university, with plants from the whole world: vegetable creatures of the Mediterranean “macchia” are showcased alongside hundreds of species from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.
Pisa’s Botanical Garden is also home to a very interesting Museum, where you can see paintings of the most famous botanists of the 17th century, splendid botanical models in wax and gesso, and watercolors of the 1700s and 1800s that were created to teach about different plants, but can be considered real works of art.
Florence’s Botanical Garden, officially Giardino dei Semplici (“Garden of Simples”), was founded in December 1545 when the city acquired its lot from the Dominican nuns, in order to create a place where medicine students could study botany, according to Cosimo de’ Medici’s wishes.
Approximately 9,000 specimens of plants live in these two hectares in cold and warm greenhouses, Italian gardens, lawns and flowerbeds. Among the garden’s monumental trees, two “old ladies” stand out: a “Quercus suber” from 1805 and a “Taxus baccata” from 1720.
Now part of the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence, the garden offers visitors an innovative guide through small location-based beacons that connect to tablets and smartphones.
Back in 1770, abbot Giambattista Guatteri, professor of botany at the University of Parma, founded the city’s academic garden, which extends over eleven hectares and has welcomed a number of vegetable species over the years.
Walk in the Italian garden, English garden and Arboretum to see boxwood hedges, elms, poplars, pines from the Sila plateau, chestnut trees from the Balkans, Asian magnolias, ancient roses, and water lilies.
To observe insect-eating species, bonsai, and a huge number of tropical plants, enter the Petitot Greenhouses (named after the architect who designed them in the late 18th century).
Parma Botanical Garden
Via Farini, 90
Tel.: +39 0521 903433
Fax: +39 0521 347011
We now reach Messina’s “Pietro Castelli” Botanical Garden, founded in 1638 and currently annexed to the local university’s department of biological and environmental sciences.
On top of numerous exotic and autochthonous plants – an abundant vegetation of carnivore and aromatic plants, succulents and cycadaceae that seem to overflow from the outer walls – the garden is also home to a rich fauna of reptiles, amphibians, fish and migratory and sedentary birds including jays, wrens, blackbirds, house martins, robins, goldfinches, magpies and hoopoes.
It is a beautiful green heart for the Sicilian city.
Our small survey could not end without mentioning the “patriarch” of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens: the Minerva’s Garden in Salerno, a forefather of modern “science gardens” tied to the city’s illustrious medical school.
It was founded in the first half of the 14th century to grown plants that were a source of active ingredients used for therapeutic purposes, but its architecture was redesigned between the 17th and 18th century and restored in 2001.
The vegetable species here are displayed according to medieval and landscape classifications.