Giardino chiuso

Day 1. I arrive in Venice, and get to Giudecca easily. My host is waiting at the Palanca vaporetto stop, and we walk briskly to the apartment where I’ll stay for a few nights, alone, before meeting my partners in this art project. Although I haven’t slept in 24 hours, I feel energized – the May sunshine is beautiful after a long Canadian winter and the air is sweet and salty with oleander and brine. I walk.

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My first task is to discover whether anything has changed about the perimeter of the Eden garden since I last saw it two years ago. I head first to the western flank of the garden, along the Rio della Croce canal. Although there is scaffolding and other signs of change, I round the corner to what was, two years ago, and still is the best glimpse possible of the garden from land. Marvellous, as I remember it: tall cypress trees loom at the edges of the red brick wall, while the canal – almost deserted – laps peacefully at the rise of the promenade. Only one figure can be seen. A man in a crisp white and blue tailored shirt is leaving the garden, locking the gated bridge behind him. I hurry up to  him and ask if he speaks English. He says no brusquely, and walks quickly away.

We had been told by the Foundation that owns this land that no-one would be at the garden in May during our visit. As usual, the garden has some secrets to keep.

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I continue along the canal, photographing, looking, smelling, and listening. Some buildings on the west side seem to be in renovation mode. Others appear to be occupied. The western, canal side wall of the garden shows evidence of an intermittent presence in the form of several potted geraniums which, while not flowering robustly, do appear green.

Continuing on my path, I need to explore the northern perimeter of the garden, or as close to it as I can get. I return to the Fondamenta Croce, which is the main east-west artery on Giudecca. From here, I can walk east, crossing the canal, and slip past an iron gate that, despite its heavy chains and padlock, is open. The Calle della Croce is a narrow paved pathway that leads to the abandoned Chiesa di Santa Croce, after which so many routes are named on Giudecca. The church stands immediately east of a disused men’s prison. Their mutual yard is still as leafy and accessible as it was two years ago, but today it feels more isolated – another pathway has been decidedly blocked to the east and I am not sure of the exit to the west. I take a few photographs of this beautiful and stark site, noting the excellent surfaces for potential future projections, and continue on.

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The church yard of Chiesa di Santa Croce, showing the former men’s prison.

Now to the most pressing question in my mind. Is the green, public space that we found two years ago, south of Giudecca’s Quartieri E Centri Civici on Sacca Fisola, still there? Satellite images had suggested to us, prior to this trip, that it was under construction. But, after passing an installation at the Civic Centre, I am happy to find that the green space is indeed still alive and well, and well populated with dogs of every size and kind enjoying the early evening sunshine, as well as their humans.

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Beyond this unofficial dog park, and opposite a grouping of 20th-century housing blocks, can be found the one stretch of the Giardino’s wall that may be touched. With its mix of rough aggregate and pinkish-red bricks, the masonry smells pleasingly of salt, warm mortar, and mossy concrete.

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The sound of boats passing in the lagoon, just out of sight but within earshot to the south, mingles with the relaxed conversation of neighbours easing into their private lives after work. Dogs bark joyfully in meeting their own kind. As I explore the area, a young couple from Belgium approach me, asking if I know where they could find the Garden of Eden. (Not a question one is asked every day.) “You’ve found it,” I was happy to be able to tell them. “It’s behind that wall.” Their faces fell. Giardino chiuso. It is their first holiday without their three children in a long time, and they want to sit in a garden together. Looking at the map they had just assumed one could enter. I explain that there is a bridge, and a gate, but that both are locked. If I had already completed a painting, I would have given it to them on the spot.

We wish each other well and continue on our respective ways.

The sun begins to set. Art lovers come to watch a performance at the nearby cultural centre. Feral cats and crows, as big as the cats, share plates of food put out by a kind soul. It is time to take care of  my increasing fatigue. But it was good to be with the garden again, or at least, to be beside it, to smell and hear it, to find others looking for it, and to watch the birds, insects, and animals for whom the wall is no barrier, cross into that verdant enclosure.

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