One of the symbols of Padua, Prato della Valle is a large monumental space with a central island laid out with trees and lawns. Known as the Isola Memmia, in honour of the podestà who commissioned the project, that island is surrounded by a canal that is decorated on both banks with lines of statues depicting illustrious figures of the past.
Even in Roman Padua this area was one used for commercial and recreational activities: it was then home to a vast theatre – the Zairo – whose foundations were unearthed during work on the canal around the Isola Memmia, and a hippodrome used for horse racing. In the Middle Ages, fairs, public festivities and competitions were held here; it was also where large assemblies of “all freemen of the Padua area” were held. As early as 1077 it is known to have been home to an open market.
Up to 1767, this area was owned by the Abbey of St. Giustina, but then it was declared to be communal property by the Venetian Senate; it was at this point that Andrea Memmo, the Venetian Superintendent in the city, undertook a radical project of land reclamation. The aim was to create a new centre of commerce within the city that might also be used for fairs and other public events. On the newly created Isola Memmia, pavilions were erected to stimulate the establishment of a permanent market. Eventually, however, these would be replaced by trees, giving the central part of the square the air of an English park. The buildings around the square make the whole place a very original and unforgettable piece of urban planning.
The final layout was inspired by the great tradition of patrician parks and gardens exemplified throughout the Veneto. Here, for the first time, however, that park became a public space – a neoclassical project of urban design and environmental development.