Giardini Reali, Venice

Close to Piazza San Marco in Venice there is a space that is almost unknown and forgotten, hidden from view by a series of kiosks selling souvenirs. Neglect had made it an unattractive spot, where plants had grown untrammeled and the beautiful cast iron pergola, partly collapsed, had become dangerous.

The place in question is the Royal Gardens of Venice, created at the behest of Napoleon, who had the old 14th century granaries knocked down to give way to this green area within the lagoon. It is a space surrounded by water, overlooked by the Museo Correr, the imperial rooms of the Royal Palace and the historic Marciana National Library.

Its cast iron furnishings are unique and include great shelters with imposing cast iron brackets, original lamp posts specially made for the garden and a long pergola with 23 arches supported by cast iron columns, originally covered by climbing plants. An enchanted space, much appreciated by Empress Elizabeth (“Sissi”) of Austria, who stayed there in 1856 during her visit with her husband the Emperor of Austria. Until a few months ago, the garden presented a dismal appearance to tourists: broken lamp posts, the pergola closed for risk of collapse, and everything covered by weeds.

An ambitious project by Venice Gardens Foundation has restored the gardens and all the structures within them, with financial support from Generali insurance company. Restoration of the cast iron parts was entrusted to Neri S.p.A. We relate below the fascinating story of this rescue operation, from a census of the many elements to identification of breakages by sandblasting, closure of holes, welding the broken parts and the creation of support surfaces for final assembly.

One of the most delicate interventions regarded the columns supporting the pergola. These were in two parts, joined by a central ring decorated with rosettes. All the columns were damaged at precisely this joint. The cause appeared to be the screws and the corresponding holes that served to hold the two parts of the column together. Vibrations and movements over more than a century had led to the vertical breakage of these rings. It was therefore necessary to remove them from all the columns and create a model with which to create a new casting that would guarantee maximum mechanical resistance.

Once the new castings had been lathed and inserted in the columns, a perfect joint between the two parts was obtained.

Some of the columns were irremediably compromised and a new model had to be created to reproduce them. The best conserved column was chosen and equipped with lateral “gates” in wood to allow the casting. Lastly, the “core box”, which reproduces perfectly the inner form of the column, was created. Using the external model and the core box, the parts needed to complete the pergola could be cast.

The closure caps of the columns were particularly damaged. At some time in the past, those that had snapped had been crudely repaired with iron rivets. This time, the broken parts were welded together and a counter-plate was applied below.

Not all the parts had been saved, however. Four were missing or were irretrievably broken. As with the other parts, the best conserved items were chosen and used as a model for new castings.

The 23 arches of the pergola were originally linked by a decorative upper strip – to all effects lacework in cast iron – which connected the columns. A census was made of all the items and they were evaluated on the basis of their state of conservation. Incomplete parts capable of retrieval were welded and restored to their original form and dimensions. Missing parts were supplied by castings from new models.

Restoration was concluded by painting the single artefacts. They were all protected with an immersion-applied undercoat that would preserve the columns, interiors included. This immersion was followed by hand painting of the final coat and definitive coloring.

The furnishing of the Royal Gardens also included a number of slender, elegant lamp posts. It was necessary to cast 9 new ones, for which the foundry set up a model derived from the best conserved exemplar. Here, too, a core had to be designed and formed to create the hollow interior. This was a highly complex operation on account of the notable length of the model.

The casting pattern for the lamp posts, including the lateral decorations and the hollow interior, was obtained in the foundry with great mastery and much patient manual work. Finally, the cast iron was poured into the shaft containing the mold for the lamp post. A long process that had to be performed 9 times over.