Domenico Vandelli, the Luckless Founder of Jardim Botânico da Ajuda

The founder of Jardim Botânico da Ajuda may not be well known, but his influence over the project was immeasurable, and his bad luck a lesson to us all.

Sometimes, even the king of Portugal can’t change a person’s mind. Jacopo Facciolati, one of the most enlightened teachers of his time, when asked by D. José I to become the head of a college for the young nobility in Lisbon, answered back with a long list of scientists whom he would recommend instead. Among many, he suggested Domenico Vandelli – an aspiring Italian botanist, known mostly for his interest in mineralogy and classification of plants. A person who, indeed, seemed to be a good choice to head up Real Colégio dos Nobres.

Once called to Lisbon, Vandelli didn’t think twice. As Pietro Arduino, his close friend, reported in a letter written July 20, 1764: “He left Pauda without any notice, all to his father’s great despair.” What caused such a rush? Why did Vandelli, so abruptly, cut ties with the academic circles that he grew up in?

As a matter of fact, there were a couple of reasons. Among them, a plagiarised dissertation and a stolen description of a sea turtle were casting a particularly long shadow on Vandelli’s reputation. But his infamy had not yet reached Portugal, so there was still a chance to shed the mistakes of youth.

By the end of summer, Vandelli was already in Ajuda, but things didn’t really seem to line up. The inauguration of Real Colégio dos Nobres was postponed, first by a year, then by another. Restless by nature, Vandelli couldn’t bear this inaction. By March 19, 1766, when the official ceremony was about to take place, he was already engaged in a different task: the king of Portugal has entrusted him with the creation of the very first botanical garden in the country.

Vandelli knew that such a project must be approached sensibly. After all, he was just a scientist, not a man of art. So if the old vegetable patch was to become not just a modern and highly functional research center but also a space in tune with the aesthetic sense of the time, he needed help. By the end of 1768, he had sent for Julio Mattiazzi, the head groundskeeper at the Botanical Garden in Padua, making him a generous offer.

The collaboration between the two Italians turned out to be extremely fruitful. In a very short time, a meticulously described bank of seeds was prepared, itself becoming an excellent motivation for organizing new expeditions. Different types of soil were arranged so that even the most demanding plants could be acclimatized to the garden. Finally, the first drafts of design appeared.

As could have been expected, the project was strongly inspired by the garden in Padua. Regarding Vandelli’s somewhat liberal approach toward intellectual property, it would be tempting to assume that such similarities weren’t just a mere coincidence. However, at least in this particular case, any accusations of theft would be pure spite, since the garden in Ajuda has numerous distinctive features.

First of all, it abandons the circular form, in favor of a double-decked terrace opened toward the river. It also introduces a clear division between the scientific and recreational parts, with the former organized on the upper level, while the later, in the form of a beautiful topiary garden, on the lower. One more characteristic is the presence of numerous water tanks and fountains, designed both to celebrate the quality of the mineral springs of Ajuda as well as to display local art. The greatest example of this approach may be Fonte das 40 Bicas with its complex iconographical programme, based on fantastical representations of sea creatures, serpents, and aquatic vegetation.

It should be mentioned, however, that Vandelli himself wasn’t the greatest enthusiast of such architectonic elements. It seems that, deep at heart, he feared that they may take over one day, turning his garden into a purely recreational space. And yet, for the longest time, it seemed that these worries were unjustified. With its museum, laboratory, and professional drawing room – not to mention the impressive collection of over 5, 000 exotic specimens – the entire establishment in Ajuda was regarded as one of the most modern and influential centers of its kind in Europe. It served as an inspiration for many botanists, such as Johann Heinrich Link, the future director of the Botanical Garden in Berlin. It also hosted numerous aeronautical experiences. In 1784 Gazeta de Lisboa reported about the one held by João Faustino, whose machine flew as far as the other side of the river.

Such a good reputation, however, had some drawbacks too. When Napoleon’s troops entered, the Botanical Garden along with its unique collection, became one of the main points of interest. In 1808 general Junot ordered Vandelli to provide Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a prominent French zoologist, with any object he desired. And thus, over 1, 500 pieces – including minerals, plants, and herbariums brought from overseas expeditions – ended up in Jardin des Plantes, Paris, where they can be admired to this day.

Yet it seems that it is Vandelli’s fate that one should actually feel sorry about. After the unfortunate incident with Saint-Hilaire, despite all of his contributions, he was accused of collaboration with the French and, shortly after, was sent into exile. Even though his good name was eventually restored, it’s pointless to look for a bust or an individual plaque that commemorates him. The only monument – and maybe the most appropriate one – that reminds us of Vandelli’s work is the enormous Dragon Tree. A plant that, as humble as he was, he wished to call Dracaena Vandelli.

Jardim Botânico da Ajuda, Lisboa 1999
“Tapada da Ajuda”, in: Parks, Gardens and Geological Monuments of Lisbon, Lisboa 2009

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