The Padua Botanic Garden, Italy
There was a time when the botanical garden at Padua was the biggest in the world; when it was the greatest in the world; and when it was the only one in the world.
None of those things is true these days.
But like the soil in the garden that brings life to the rare and exotic plants, the idea behind the site at Padua was to be the foundation for all future botanical gardens around the globe.
It was the first to ever be created and it changed the way humans and plants interacted when it was opened in 1545 in the north-eastern Italian city.
The Padua Botanical Garden was created for scientific research – the same thing it is still used for today. Back then it was mainly about medicinal uses for the plants but over the centuries it has played its part in the evolution of botany, pharmacy, medicine and ecology.
When UNESCO listed the site on the World Heritage List, it said the garden “represents the birth of science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture”.
That’s a pretty impressive description for what could be mistaken for a small park.
It’s not a big site, you see. I’ve been to some botanical gardens around the world that are large stretches of land with carefully landscaped terrain, small forests, and lakes. Not this one.
The main part of the garden is only 86 metres in diameter. Within that area, half the space if probably taken up with paths. There are no rolling grassy hills or shaded paths for joggers. This is, and has always been, a pure scientific research centre.
That’s not to say it is not beautifully designed. Although there have been additions over the centuries, the original layout has been preserved.
The centre garden is in a vaguely circular shape with two large paths cutting it into quadrants. That is then surrounded by a ring of water.
The design represents our world – the water is symbolic of the barrier which separates Earth from the rest of matter; and inside that barrier are collected specimens of the most impressive plants that make up our natural world.
The world’s first botanic garden
Padua is not a particularly busy city. There is a nice, slow rhythm to the way of life. But you can still notice the change in the atmosphere when you walk into the garden. It is like stepping back to 1545, when everything first came into being.
The workers who are tending to the gardens don’t have any mechanical equipment. To water the plants, one man walks with a bucket to a fountain in a stone wall, collects the water that is flowing out the head of a statue lion, and carries it back to pour. He repeats the motions over.
Everything is quiet, shielded from the traffic noises by subsequent additions to the garden that include a ring of rainforest-style plants. Students walk through with notebooks, tourists take photos and some elderly locals sit on the benches and pass time. No one makes much noise, though.
Even the tour groups that come here are respectful. Actually, a tour is a great way to discover Padua and I would recommend one of these:
It’s strange to think what an impact this small garden had on science. We take botanical gardens for granted these days, but it’s important to remember there was a time when it was quite a radical suggestion to create something like this. We are all better for it.