…I’d be a cart driver’, is how Fiorelisa put it. Actually she had said, ‘Se mio babbo fosse stato una ruota, sarei una carrettiera’. She had been telling me about life in Italy when, out of the blue – or so it seemed to me – she asked what I did. Caught off guard, I muttered something about what might have been if only I had started a decade or two earlier, but she was on to me.
I was in Vicenza – not to be confused with Venezia, as a friend of mine once did when she booked a rental car – for four days. Months earlier, when I was planning my trip, I had figured that would give me plenty of time to visit three gardens and several of the Palladian villas the area is known for. Three days probably would have been enough, but I wanted to leave myself a little wiggle room in case of a bit of rain. I had booked a room in a small B&B, splurging for the double with a balconcino overlooking the river. The B&B was delightful. The room was delightful. The owner, Fiorelisa, was also delightful. What was not delightful was the weather. Whenever the sky showed the slightest sign of lightening up, I would dash out. Even so, as you may have seen in my most recent posts, that lovely Italian cielo sereno (in Italy the sky is not just blue, it’s serene) was a rare sight. I made it (barely) through the Giusti Gardens in Verona. It rained on and off as I wandered around the Gardens of Valsanzibio. And it started to rain a quarter of an hour into my visit of the Botanical Gardens of Padua (post to come).
All of which meant that, apart from Villa Capra on the outskirts of Vicenza, I never made it to any of the country villas Palladio is so famous for. The only consolation was that I had visited them years ago. As to all the degustazioni (wine tastings) I had been looking forward to along the Strada del Prosecco, let’s not even go there.
In the gardens at Trauttmansdorff (The Garden in the Mountains, March 6, 2016) I had seen several of those inspirational/aspirational signs. (What is the difference anyway? You can spend a lot of time meandering around the depths of the Internet on that one, but I’ve made a resolution. No more digressions. We’ll see how that turns out.) One of the signs read – ‘The tourist travels to see what he planned to see; the traveller to see what is there.’ Another minefield for the digression-prone. It’s amazing how huffed up people can get about which category they belong to. Comunque (comb-uung-kway), it wasn’t a bad thought to keep in mind, given what the weather was doing to my itinerary. Since much of what I had planned was off the agenda, the least I could do was be open to what was possible. So against form, I started to linger over breakfast.
The first morning I met the two other guests. A mother and daughter from Sorrento. I’ve travelled many times to the south and never had any problems understanding the locals. But I really had to strain to understand these two. They had come up to northern Italy – which is unlike the south in so many ways it might as well be a different country – to take care of some kind of administrative affairs. And to shop. On the day I visited Valsanzibio, they had a quick coffee, a bit of the (delicious) crostata Fiorelisa had made and rushed off to the weekly market. With suitcases. They were going to buy clothes. Apparently a lot of clothes, which struck me as odd. Surely the clothes in the southern markets would be less expensive and more suited to the local climate. In any event this left me with Fiorelisa, who kept me company while I waited for the rain to stop. This cheered me up immensely and chatting with her over breakfast each morning became one of the highlights of my stay in Vicenza. Although they weren’t really chats. For that I would have had to contribute much more than I did. But I don’t think she minded. She seemed happy to tell me about life in Italy and I was only too happy to sit back and listen.
She told me how the B&B By the Bridge came about. Almost on its own. Organicamente. A friend from Paris had stayed with her. Then a friend of that friend. Others followed, until one day she asked herself, Perchè no? Why not? One of her sons was concerned – it is a very elegant, beautifully decorated home. But she had a keen instinct for taking the measure of a person and wasn’t worried. Over the years she has happily welcomed hundreds of strangers, whose glowing entries in a guestbook and rave reviews on the Internet make it clear how happy they were to be her guests. Even on the rare occasion when things don’t start off well. The story she told me of one young guest provides a glimpse as to how she makes this happen. A young woman showed up and and when Fiorelisa showed her the room, was very unhappy. For some reason, she didn’t like it. Since Fiorelisa doesn’t want to have someone in her home who isn’t happy, she urged the young woman to leave. No deposit would be charged. But later that night Fiorelisa got a call. It was the young woman. She was very sorry, didn’t know why she had reacted the way she had and started to cry. Fiorelisa took pity on her and said of course she could come back. She stayed on for five nights and was, in Fiorelisa’s view, un’ospite gradita. A lovely guest.
One morning she talked about pensions and the challenges associated with looking after the elderly. And about milk quotas imposed by EU bureaucrats in Brussels and farmers being forced to throw out their milk. ‘I contadini s’impiccano’, she said. She repeated the startling phrase to make sure it sunk in. They don’t really hang themselves of course, but the situation has obviously become dire for small farmers in the region.
Things didn’t sound much better in the olive oil industry. I was astounded to learn that even if the label on a bottle of olive oil indicates d’origine europea, some of the oil in that bottle may not be from Europe at all, but from Africa. The previous year’s harvest had been so poor, unscrupulous producers had added Moroccan oil – not the stuff for your hair of course! – to allungare their supplies. For the rest of the trip I looked very closely at the labels on olive oil bottles.
Another development that seemed unfortunate to her – and to me – was the way family-run operations were being driven out of business by chains that use a roster of part-time employees to stay open at all hours. Years ago, all the alimentari in the city closed Wednesday afternoons. This gave the families who ran the small grocery stores a bit of a breather before the busy weekend. Everyone who lived in Vicenza knew this and planned accordingly. I have read countless rants by tourists who, in their apparently relentless desire to buy things, have been thwarted by the ‘bizarre’ opening hours of small stores in Italy. Which begs the question as to who or what is ultimately being consumed. Fortunately, there are the nipotini (grandchildren) to bring joy and to distract you from pensieri. Technically pensieri are ‘thoughts’, but I have noticed that, for the most part, pensieri are viewed as being more dark, than philosophical in nature. Where we might worry about something in English, an Italian is likely to be in pensiero. And if things are really bad, may have mille pensieri per la testa. A thousand thoughts in his or her head.
One late afternoon, when I returned from yet another soggy outing, the sun came out. I had been looking forward to a bit of a lie down after tromping around all day, but I knew any pleasure that might bring would be totally nixed by the thought – one of those pensieri – of wasting a moment of good weather. I set out for the centro, across the bridge and into a marvellously pedestrian-only zone. Another foretaste of Venice.
Vicenza (vee-chen-zuh) was not Palladio’s birthplace, but it is where he spent most of his life and where many of his works are located. So in 1994, when UNESCO decided to create a new World Heritage Site dedicated to his works, they called it ‘Vicenza, City of Palladio’. The name had a nice ring to it, but it soon became apparent that there was a problem. Although Palladio designed many churches and private urban residences, twenty-three of which are in Vicenza, it is the country villas that form the basis of his extraordinary and long-lasting fame and influence. And these villas are spread around the Veneto, outside the borders of the UNESCO site. So two years later, after what must have been some very interesting discussions, the geographical boundaries of the site were redrawn and it was renamed ‘City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto’. But as I strolled around, I saw more and more things that made me think not of Palladio, but of Venice. It was uncanny. It wasn’t just the gothic windows. Even the tower next to Palladio’s Basilica looked vaguely familiar.
When I got to Venice I realized why. The brick and stucco façade, the winged lion, the arches, the copper dome had all been borrowed from the tower that stands guard over Piazza San Marco.
At the far end of the piazza were two columns, almost twins of those in Piazza San Marco. The only difference is that in Vicenza, next to the winged lion, Christ the Redeemer replaces San Todaro (St. Theodore), the Greek warrior and original patron saint of Venice. But you have to look very carefully to see the difference.
I shouldn’t really have been so surprised. Vicenza is even closer to Venice than Verona. Only 60 kilometres away. And it was under Venetian rule for almost four hundred years, from the beginning of the 15th to the end of the 18th century. Fortunately for the citizens of Vicenza it wasn’t one of those ‘foreign ruler takes all’ type of situation. In fact, Vicenza prospered and to this day is one of the wealthiest cities in Italy. It certainly is a lovely city to visit and a wonderful base for exploring the Veneto. I’m surprised it isn’t overrun with tourists. But then I’d been to the region several times before and the closest I’d come had been Villa Capra. Perhaps Venice is just too tantalizing.
At the opposite end of the piazza one building caught my eye. It was on its own, like an island, unconnected to the other palazzi, and it had a lot of exposed red brick, which struck me as odd, given the elegant design. I would soon learn what that was all about.
As I got closer I recognized one of the plaques that are in front of all the buildings designed by Palladio. #7 on the Itinerario Palladiano was the Loggia del Capitaniato. The suitably grand residence of Venice’s envoys.
We look at old buildings like this and consider them masterpieces. Complete and perfect creations. And then we find out that, in one way or another, things aren’t exactly hunky dory. The Eiffel Tower for example. The Parisians of the era howled and wanted it torn down as soon as the World’s Fair it was built for ended. I’m not a fan of ‘The Crystal’ as Libeskind’s addition to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto is called. Apart from serious problems with condensation caused by all the glass, I don’t think it ‘goes’ with the style of the building it was attached to. As for the Palazzo del Capitaniato, although there doesn’t seem to be anything amiss aesthetically or structurally, it is unfinished. There were supposed to be five, possibly seven arches across the front.
I was so focused on the ornamentation on the upper level I hadn’t noticed what was going on below.
It was hard to appreciate the finer points of Palladio’s design with all the ground level action so I headed over to the Basilica Palladiana on the other side of the piazza. Fiorelisa had already given me the heads-up about it not being a Basilica. Id est (I looked that up by the way – had always wondered what i.e. stood for. Two years of Latin and if it ever came up, it sure didn’t stick. It turns out a lot of people get i.e. mixed up with e.g., so I also learned what those two letters stand for – exempli gratia. Free example. Much more gratifying than ‘that is’.) In any event, the Basilica Palladiana is not a church building. It was built in the 15th century to house the local government and, until Palladio came along and renamed it, was called the Palazzo della Ragione. The Palace of Reason. (There’s an idea. Start one of those online petitions to change the name of City Hall. Who knows? It might help.) In any event, at the end of the century there seems to have been a lapse in reason and it was decided that the red and yellow marble façade needed a bit more pizzazz. A two-storey loggia was built around the entire building. Whether the addition was considered a success or not is unknown because it collapsed two years after the opening ceremonies. Over the next 40 years the Town Council held competitions and consulted the best architects of the time, including Sansovino, Protomaestro of San Marco, which would turn out to be a happy coincidence for Palladio. Sansovino, like Palladio who would one day succeed him, was keen on the architecture of ancient Rome, and as one of the most powerful architects of Venice, with years of experience designing sculptures and buildings in Florence and Rome behind him, had won over the ostentation-loving Venetians to the relative restraint of the Ancients. So when Trissino, Palladio’s powerful Vicentino mentor, (more on him in the upcoming post) proposed Palladio as designer for the new loggias, he was speaking to the converted.
So why the confusing name? That was Palladio’s idea. The basilicas of the ancient Romans were great buildings with long arcades where the courts, public meetings, sometimes even indoor markets were held. With Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century and the subsequent spread of Christianity, the leaders of the new faith looked around for suitable buildings in which to hold their ceremonies and realized that the layout of the ancient Roman basilicas would easily lend itself to their needs. Rather than trying to confuse us, Palladio had simply taken the word back to its roots.
I took a few photos of the Basilica, but the light wasn’t good and besides I got distracted.
There was a lot of fussing with the bride’s gown, and then a few shots of the happy couple pausing to gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes before they continued up the staircase. At least I think that was the story line. If so, it seemed to me there was a problem with the closed gate. But maybe I wasn’t looking at things in the right spirit. I have to confess it was a challenge, especially when the photographer motioned for them to sit down, presumably for more of the gazing genre shots. ‘What about the dress?’, I silently shrieked.
I left the sposi and continued my passeggiata.
On my way back to the Basilica I passed by a tiny piazza with a winsome sculpture of a girl balancing on the end of a teeter totter.
I was so focused on trying to find an uncluttered background I didn’t notice the real live bambina holding down the other end of the teeter totter.
When I got back to Piazza dei Signori, I caught a glimpse of the newlyweds. Photo shoot over, they were probably heading to the ricevimento where friends and family would already be gathered. As I watched them make their way along the arcade I was reminded of the time I tried to enlighten a fellow Canadian traveller about Italian wedding customs. We were in Asolo, a lovely hilltop village not far from Vicenza and a popular destination for weddings. She was aghast when I explained that the couple coming out of the church would have previously been married in a civil ceremony in the city hall, which they may well have walked to on their own. Terrible! she exclaimed. It was no good my pointing out how happy the bride and groom looked, not in the least traumatized by the ‘terrible’ custom that had been imposed on them by their society and religion. I really do think some people would be better off staying closer to home.
Later, on my way back to the B&B I passed by the staircase again. And, it pains me to confess, my immediate reaction was – Terrible!
Next: Villa Capra and beyond