Little could John Ruskin have known, when he described Venice as the 'paradise of cities', that one day the Serenissima would have its very own garden of Eden.
In 1884 Frederick Eden, a wealthy Englishman, who was the great-uncle of Sir Anthony Eden (British prime minister from 1955-57), bought an abandoned garden/orchard on the Giudecca. Frederick and his wife Caroline, who was the sister of the celebrated garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, set about creating their very own garden of Eden, complete with a large number of rose-covered pergolas.
In addition to planting flowers and fruit trees, the new owners introduced a small herd of cows. In 1903 Eden wrote a book about their horticultural exploits, rather prosaically entitled A Garden in Venice. For decades the garden was a meeting-place for the Anglo-American colony in Venice and a source of inspiration for a host of writers and artists, including Henry James, Marcel Proust and John-Singer Sargent.
Frederick Eden died in 1916 and Caroline in 1928. The garden was bought by Major James Horlick, who later gave it to Aspasia Manos, the wife of Alexander l, King of Greece (r. 1917-20). Princess Alexander of Greece and Denmark, as she came to be known, would live part of the year in the garden's palazzina. In the 1950s she was joined by her daughter Alexandra, ex-queen of Yugoslavia, who soon acquired a reputation for being somewhat strange and the Garden of Eden began to acquire an air of mystery.
In 1979 the garden was bought by the eccentric Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who had a preference for wild plants and duly allowed nature to take its course. It quickly became a romantic ruin. Since his death in 2000, ownership of the largest private garden in Venice has been uncertain, which only further adds to its mystery.
The Garden of Eden, or the Giardino Edino as it is known in Venice, is situated between the churches of the Zitelle and Il Redentore and the other afternoon, with Venice veiled in light rain, I set off in search of it. I knew that it was closed to the public, but had read that parts of it could be glimpsed, beyond the surrounding brick wall, from the Fondamenta Rio de la Croce.
I discovered that the Garden of Eden, which is dark and full of trees, is flanked by a canal and can only be accessed by a private bridge. It seemed a long cry from paradise.