isiting Giudecca on my Venice trip in 2002
I discovered the Garden of Eden. Well, it was actually the entrance (see right) to a garden once owned by an Englishman called Eden. The greenery visible over the walls made it look like an unusual verdant refuge in a city which has precious few open spaces that are not paved over.

When I later came across a tasteful book in Hatchards bookshop in London called A Garden in Venice (Frances Lincoln 2003) I didn't immediately make a connection, and the name of the author, Frederick Eden, struck no chords either. It turns out that this book is a facsimile celebrating the centenary of a book originally published in 1903 by the creator of this garden, who was the brother-in-law of famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Anthony Eden's great uncle.

The book itself might best be described as quaint, with many pseudo-medieval woodcuts beginning and ending each chapter, and quite a few fuzzy and dark old photographs of the garden. (I've scanned examples of both for this page.) It begins with the words The garden in Venice whose story I would tell was once a bank of mud. Unconscious of its sweet destiny ... and so on, in similar fashion, it discusses things like pergolas, boat trips, the acquisition of cows, and how nothing is every truly square in Venice.

The 2003 edition, however, also has a 'Postface' written by Marie-Thérèse Weal which tells us the history of the garden, of its famous visitors, and what they wrote about it.


Eden and his wife Caroline bought the artichoke garden on the, then semi-rural, island of Giudecca in 1884. They transformed the six acres into an English-style paradise, complete with roaming cattle, statues, and rose trellises. It's tempting to think of Gertrude Jekyll helping out her elder sister, but Jekyll's fascination with gardening did not, it seems, develop until years after the creation of the Eden's garden. It was, and remains, the largest private garden in Venice (although its exact size is the subject of argument). When rubble was laid (dumped?) by the authorities to make Giudecca bigger the Edens negotiated for many years and eventually acquired the reclaimed land and so added two acres to their garden.

I have a copy of an article, from the August 1901 issue of Century magazine, called Venice Gardens and written by Lee Bacon. He tends more towards 'poetic' rhapsodising than the providing of descriptive details or any real information. In one less purple passage he tells us that the English gardener, who speaks with a bur and an Italian accent at the same time, told me that the property once belonged to a 'convict.' I surmised that he intended to say convent. Elsewhere he tells us that the Italian actress Duse, fortunate in being a welcome guest, spends many mornings wandering up and down its shady walks. Eleonora Duse was a famous actress of the late-19th Century whose infamous affairs (with celebrated lovers of both sexes) included a long one with Gabriele d'Annunzio, a man of many affairs himself. His novel Il fuoco (The Flame of Life) centres on transparently veiled versions of d'Annunzio and Duse, and has an episode set in the garden. We also learn from the article that the water gates of the garden are blocked most mornings with the boats of the flower sellers of Venice, come to collect their stock for the day. The Article also feature view drawings by Henry McCarter, which I've scanned and included on this page.

The sociable Edens made the garden into the social centre of the British ex-pat society and attracted visitors like Proust, Rilke, Sickert and Henry James in it's turn-of-the-century heyday. Baron Corvo, author of The desire and pursuit of the whole (and something of a side-thorn for the ex-pat society of the time) even offered his services to the Edens as poultry manager during a period of extreme skintness. Jean Cocteau wrote a poem called Souvenir d'un soir d'automne au jardin Eaden, after an argument in the garden between Cocteau's companion and a young American resulted in the friend shooting himself on the steps of the Salute. A then not-unusual occurrence on the Salute steps, by some accounts. In the wake of Cocteau's visit the garden evidently became a renowned gay pick-up spot between the wars.


Frederick Eden died in 1916, Caroline lived on until 1928. The garden was bought by Sir James Horlick, founder of the Horlick’s Malted Milk Company, producers of the famed night-time beverage. He had previously created a celebrated - and surviving - garden on the island of Ghia off the west cost of Scotland. He bought The Garden of Eden for Princess Aspasia of Greece and it afterwards passed to her daughter Alexandra, who became the Queen of Yugoslavia when she married Peter II of Yugoslavia in 1944. She became the ex-Queen a year later when Tito established a communist government. They were a somewhat dissolute and feckless couple, by most accounts, not even able to bring up their son (that's the three of them see photo left) who was raised by granny Aspasia. Alexandra later wrote in her memoirs (For a King's Love, published in 1960) of the depredations of the fifty anti-aircraft gunners who occupied the Garden of Eden during the Second World War, but the damage was soon repaired, the rusting anti-aircraft guns and shell cases removed, and new trees were planted. Having been abandoned by the ex- King in the early 1950s she got something of a reputation as a mad woman, and the garden acquired one for being cursed around this time too. Alexandra died in Eastbourne in 1993. Some sources say that she lived in the garden until her death in 1974, but as they get the date of her death wrong we can hardly even rely on this as a date for her leaving it. Also a man called Martin wrote to me in September 2011 saying that he remembers seeing her in Venice around 1978 - "a tall, elegant, lonely figure walking the calle near the Gritti with long dark hair, a shopping bag and a slight limp" and that she was "often to be seen sitting alone on the terrace of the Gritti around midday, waiting, it was said, for someone to buy her a drink. She was a hauntingly sad and romantic figure."
From 1979 until his death in February 2000 the eccentric Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser lived in the garden, having bought it from Alexandra's son, Alexander, and let it run to romantic ruin. Strangely he claimed until the last that, despite rumours of his paying more than a billion (lire?) for it, he never actually owned the place. Since then the garden has been a locked mystery, with the name Gruener Janura, the company that runs Hundertwasser's estate, on the label on the bell push.

A few years ago an article appeared in the gardening magazine Hortus (Autumn 2003) by John Hall, who had actually managed to get inside the garden on a winter afternoon. He reports that, unsurprisingly, of Eden's high-upkeep original structures very little remains. He paints a picture of neglected paved courtyards, dilapidated pergolas and fallen statues that does nothing to lessen the mystery and romance. "One bare and forlorn trellis-pergola ran down the centre, from nowhere to nowhere. Statues remaining on their piers were not properly aligned, others lay on the ground. The old Istrian stone water gate onto the lagoon, with niches and statues on each side, lay broken on the ground." He also came across the graves of Eden's dachshunds and found "where Hundertwasser lived, an open stone conduit leading from his WC inside ended poised over the first of a descending series of stone basins - his personal ecological sewage system".

Some recent rumours have it that it had been acquired by both a Japanese Company and a Swiss Corporation, but it seems that it's still owned by 'people' from Vienna and regularly visited by their gardener. The Giardino Edino was classed as a monumento nazionale as far back as 1945 and so let's hope we get to see inside it one day. Until then it lives in ruin in our imaginations.

We do now have Google Earth, though, and so in the image below you can see the extent of the place (bottom right) with the gleaming church of the Redentore (top left) included so that you can place it.




Update December 2009
A correspondent, finding this page, tells me that there had been a radio programme on BBC Radio 3 about the Garden of Eden. The details are here. The programme is called Requiem for a Garden of Eden and is the work of Professor Janet Todd. It begins with some history, description and rhapsodising about Giudecca, and evening strolls leading to the discovery of garden walls. Ms Todd then very effectively and romantically covers the ground, concentrating much on Princess Alexandra and her time as the garden's queen.

Update August 2010
In Secret Venice, an excellent odd guidebook, Thomas Jonglez reveals that he has recently been inside the garden. He says that, although not the utter ruin that rumour has it, the garden and house are nonetheless in 'pretty poor shape'. The garden is kept from chaos by gardeners who visit occasionally but do the bare minimum.

Update May 1013
No fresh news, but I have just heard from Elisabeth Pols, another Garden of Eden aficionado, who expresses her intrigue and frustration at exclusion in paint. Click on her name to investigate.


Frederick Eden A Garden in Venice
(Frances Lincoln 2003)

John Hall The Garden of Eden
Article in issue no 67 of the
magazine Hortus (Autumn 2003)

Lee Bacon Venice Gardens
Article from Century magazine (August 1901)

Professor Janet Todd Requiem for a Garden of Eden
Programme on BBC Radio 3 (27th November 2009)

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin