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Historic Italian Botanic Garden Subject of New Film

26 April 2011

A new documentary film about the botanic garden at the University of Padua in Italy has been produced by Italian Director Michele Francesco Schiavon. The film, Hortus Botanicus Patavinus, is 46 minutes in duration.

Hortus Botanicus Patavinus shows the botanic garden at the University of Padua over the four seasons, and includes images from modernity and antiquity.

Watch the film trailer online (YouTube). The film is produced by Havey Film.  We have included the film maker's accompanying information for the film at the end of this article (see below).

The botanic garden is featured on BGCI's Garden Search, which notes the following:

Orto Botanico Università degli Studi di Padova


The Botanic Garden of Padua dates back to 1545 and is regarded as the most ancient university garden in the world. Since its foundation, it was devoted to the growth of medicinal plants, since they made up the majority of the "simples", i.e. the remedies directly obtained from nature without any further concoction: for this reason it was named "Hortus Simplicium". In 1997 the Botanical Garden of Padua has been included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO.

The garden is a circle with an inscribed square which is in turn divided into four smaller squares by two paths aligned with the four cardinal points of the compass. At present, the oldest plant in the garden is a specimen of Chamaerops humilis var. arborescens planted in 1585. It is commonly known as the "Goethe palm". Other important trees are: a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and a magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) which date back to about the mid-1700s; a tall plan tree (Platanus orientalis) planted in 1680 and its huge trunk was struck by lightning and is now hollow; some swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum) from Florida and a specimen of Metasequoia glyptostroboides planted in 1961. In the Botanic Garden plants are also grouped to form some collections on the basis of their characteristics: insectivorous plants, medicinal and poisonous plants, mediterranean maquis, alpine rock garden, orchids, succulents, hydrophytes, native plants from the Euganean Hills and rare plants from NE-Italy.
Read the full Garden Search entry 


Publicity information by the film's producers

Hortus Botanicus Patavinus captures the four seasons as they unfold and eulogises the wonders of nature on display at the world-famous University Botanical Garden. Protection of the environment and nature’s importance for humanity are key issues in an increasingly polluted and irresponsible world. Nowadays the world’s oldest University Botanical Garden devotes most of its resources to the protection and reacclimatising of endangered Italian plants; a task which unfortunately is becoming increasingly necessary as time goes by.
The Botanical Garden was founded in 1545 by Francesco Bonafede, a professor at the University of Padua. His intention was to open a garden of medicinal plants where the properties of plant extracts could be studied for the advancement of medical science.

Classical texts, especially Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, were the main source for the descriptions of plants and their medicinal properties, but these texts illustrations were often rough and unreliable. This lead to poisonous plants being mistaken for medicinal ones with similar physical characteristics, and patients often perished as a result. On 29th June 1545, the Republic’s Council of the Prègadi approved the opening of a garden of medicinal plants on land let from the Curia of Padua tucked away between the Basilica of St. Justina and the Basilica of St. Anthony. The Republic of Venice’s trade with the Mediterranean soon had the garden brimming with new species of plant. The classical Renaissance architecture and garden landscape are described in the first part of the documentary.

The opening sequence is a subjective shot of the Albizzia Julibrissin section. The camera moves through the compartments giving an insect’s eye view. The shot then pans backs to reveal the garden’s meticulous design and its wealth of symbolism. One example is the layout of the garden, which is designed as a square within a circle to represent perfection and harmony. The film continues with a view from the top of the garden building. The camera then flits to a Bonafede look-alike who recounts the salient moments in the garden’s history.

Some of the original texts from the library archives are featured alongside the illustrations that were used to study the plants before the University Botanical Garden had been opened.
The works of art that adorn the garden are also depicted. There are shots of the busts of famous people, such as Linnaeus, plus statues of King Solomon, the Four Seasons, and Theophrastes, the father of botany. The film also features shots of the water fountains that nourish the plants. Goethe was just one of the many illustrious visitors to the Botanical Garden, and he was inspired to write his treatise on plant metamorphosis by a specimen of Chamaerops Humilis.

After visiting the area devoted to medicinal plants, the next stage is an insight into the current work carried out by the University Botanical Garden. The garden’s experts set out to discover the natural habitat of an endangered plant, Gipsophila Papillosa, which flourishes there.Samples and seeds are taken from the plant, which are then examined under a microscope at the Faculty of Biology at the University of Padua. The images are enlarged and treated with fluorescent materials so that features such as leaf and pollen cell structure can be studied more carefully under an electronic scanning microscope. After looking at the laboratory, the film heads back to an area of the garden where rare plants are housed in a recreation of their natural environment, thus enabling them to germinate and flower.

There is further footage of the area devoted to exotic species, Mediterranean scrub, and the greenhouses.
The insect-eating plants are one of the major collections and a source of endless fascination for younger students. A shrubbery has been planted in front of the greenhouses, while a turbary and an alpine rockery have been made near the orchid greenhouse. A large area is devoted to age-old specimens of trees and a special exhibition has been set up for blind visitors near the main entrance.The plants in this exhibition have descriptions written in Braille.

The first half of the film deals with the history of the University Botanical Garden, but the second whisks the viewer off on a magical journey through the experiences and excitement of a year’s hard work. The four seasons flow seamlessly into one another against a backdrop of music and comments recorded while the film was being made. The film captures the wonderful world of nature as it unfolds against the unique setting of the garden.

This documentary was filmed entirely in 35 mm, which enabled the breath-taking colours of each season to be vividly brought to life on camera. The director portrays warm autumn shades, winter whites, blue spring skies, and lush summer greens in order to immerse viewers in the breath-taking beauty of the plant kingdom.
We can learn so much about ourselves by simply stopping to watch. Observing in silence is a sign of respect for a world that has been long forgotten by our alleged civilisation.

In Bonafede’s time, plant extracts nurtured hope for a return to health and the discovery of new species inspired great minds to research. In the old days, the plant kingdom was not exploited merely for commercial gain, but was regarded as the only way to save lives, a noble gesture which drove researchers to learn, discover and experiment. What would those pioneers of medicine have to say about the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources that has put the survival of humanity at risk?

No solution has yet been found to this frequently recurring issue. Nuclear testing is just one example of the dangers to which we expose nature, with no thought for the consequences. At the end of a year’s work, this documentary casts a hopeful eye towards humanity in the quest for a seed of ecological conscience that may lead to our salvation.

The final sequence shows a Passiflora, which symbolises Christ’s passion and the sun, an optimistic glimpse of a world in which humanity and nature have patched up their differences and live in harmony, which was Francesco Bonafede’s wish 450 years ago.

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