Carlo Catani: An Engineering Visionary

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Carlo Catani, an Italian migrant from Florence arrived in Melbourne in 1877, he became chief engineer of Melbourne’s Public Works Department in 1882. As chief Engineer for over four decades he had a brilliant and remarkable career. Catani came to Melbourne with two of his best friends (they also made a lasting impression on Melbourne in their respective fields of astronomy and water management). The engineering trio were unusual immigrants, since at the time Italian migrants came from working class backgrounds, whereas the three friends were professionals with tertiary qualifications.

Catani and his friends arrived during the Boom of the 1880s and 1890s, when many public projects were developed and Melbourne became known as “Marvelous Melbourne”. Catani directed many projects for Melbourne and elsewhere in Victoria, but his most significant achievement was the design of the Catani Gardens.

Catani based the wedge-shaped design of Catani Gardens on seaside gardens he had seen In Italy, in particular the foreshore gardens in Naples. By reclaiming the foreshore the gardens transformed a wasteland into an elegant park. The Catani Gardens are bounded by Pier Road on one side, and by Beaconsfield Parade and Jacka Boulevard on the other. The Catani Gardens plan is curvilinear and serpentine with paths fanning out of its central axis. In fact, the original design had more curving paths and palms – they were reduced when Beaconsfield Parade was widened. Catani’s great civic vision was much appreciated at the time as it is today.

Carlo Catani’s vision and contribution to St Kilda went beyond engineering achievements since Catani had a strong aesthetic sensibility, as one historian commented he had “an eye of genius”. His design for the Catani Gardens is painterly in the way he developed the outline of the gardens with geometric sections formed by circulating paths. The painterly element was created by his choice of contrasting plantations of trees. For instance, the three distinct types of palm trees are linear in form, while the cypresses are painterly. The cypresses were planted in picturesque groups and resemble similar compositions painted by Claude Lorraine, the most popular landscape artist of the eighteenth century.

Like an artist, Catani paid a lot of attention to all the materials used on this site. He chose lava rock for the retaining wall that runs along Pier Road facing the beach. Rockeries were planted with native shrubs and bushes next to the wall. The design was enhanced by planting a variety of Palm trees: Canary Palm Date trees rise like sentinels on either side of the central path. Mexican Washington Palms defined by their long, slender trunks stand on the perimeter of the gardens facing Fitzroy St. Altogether there are more than a hundred palms. There are also a variety of picturesque Cypress trees: Monterey and Golden Cypresses that create a painterly effect beside the central path facing the seashore.

Catani Gardens has been a favorite site for festival events such as the Melbourne Beer Fest on March 5th when the whole site was crowded with booths and tents serving more than two hundred and fifty types of beer and over fifty craft beers. The garden was brimming with activity, people were gathering around the beer stands like bees buzzing around a hive. A band was droning away in the background contributing to the festive ambience. On the 19th-20th March thousands of people descended on the gardens for the annual St Kilda Food Festival.

Catani would have been pleased with this public display.

(591 words)

Dr Henja Indyk

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