Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

I love popular sayings.  The early bird catches the worm.  You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  They have all but disappeared from everyday conversations where I live, but I still come across them now and then as I travel around Italy and while the images can be different, the messages are often the same, so for example, instead of the early bird and the worm, you have ‘Chi dorme non piglia pesci.‘ (He who sleeps doesn’t catch any fish.)  Sometimes I have a hard time getting my mind past the images.  Leaving a luscious cake on a plate strikes me as churlish, pointless self-abnegation, but what to make of ‘Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca’?  (You can’t have your barrel full and your wife drunk.)   Apart from fascinating, these sayings can also be comforting, because if you don’t like the message in one, there’s bound to be another that offers a totally different point of view.  If, for example, your experience is that absence did NOT make the heart grow fonder, there is ‘Lontano dagli occhi lontano dal cuore‘. (Far from the eyes, far from the heart.)


Entrance to Villa Capra, Palladio’s most famous design.

In the case of Andrea Palladio, the father/wheel idea (previous post) obviously doesn’t fit his meteoric rise from miller’s son to sought-after architect of the Venetian nobility, so we need another saying, one that ignores the fruit falling from the tree effect.  I came across one I think works pretty well a couple of days ago.  ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,‘ a point of view attributed to Isaac Newton.  And no, I have not been filling my leisure hours improving my mind by reading the august scientist’s biography. It’s another gem in Will Gomertz’s  ‘Think Like an Artist’.  It appears midway through ‘Artists Steal’ – he certainly knows how to grab a reader’s attention – the chapter in which he gives a slew of examples of how ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal‘, an unsavoury nugget that he blithely prefaces with ‘We all know the saying attributed to Picasso…’.  which was also news to me.  In any event, even if you visit Villa Capra knowing nothing about architecture or Palladio, it will be clear to you that he must have spent a lot of time standing on the shoulders of the ancient Romans.


Early morning in Piazza della Rotonda, Rome.

Over the years I’ve been to Rome quite a few times.  At the end of each trip to visit the gardens of one region or another I stay a night or two.  No matter how beautiful the region – even the Amalfi Coast –  I have always preferred to trade that one last night in paradise for the peace of mind I get from knowing there is one less step between me and the airport and the flight home.  For a long time Rome was a hard sell for me. I blame it on the years I lived in Florence.  My sense is that the Florence/Rome dynamic is not unlike that between Toronto and Vancouver.  But long before I was won over by Rome’s charms, there were some parts of it that I always looked forward to revisiting.  The Pantheon was one of them.  I know nothing about the technical aspects or the specific architectural elements that draw me to it. I just love to sit in the piazza and gawk. But in the mid 1530’s, when Giorgio Trissino first took Palladio to Rome, it wasn’t to give his young protégé the opportunity to simply admire the wonders of ancient Rome, it was so he could study, tease out the long-forgotten secrets of classical architecture.  Whether Palladio would ever have become one of the most influential architects in western civilization if he hadn’t met Trissino is impossible to tell. When you think of the odds – a poor stone mason, born in Padua, leaves his birth place to escape a cruel employer, moves to Vicenza which, it just so happens, is the home of a great and wealthy Humanist – it’s enough to give you the shivers.   And, in addition to introducing Andrea to the ancient Romans and to the wealthy Venetians who would commission those villas, Trissino also gave the architect the name we know him by.  The miller’s son, Andrea di Pietro della Gondola (Andrea of Peter of the Gondola) was given a fresh start, as it were, as Andrea the Wise One, named for Pallas, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

The first time I visited Villa Capra it hadn’t occurred to me to check the opening times. After all, this was one of the most famous buildings in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I avoided Monday, when most of the sites a typical visitor wants to see are closed – even places like the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, as the members of many a tour group have learned on their one-day excursion to the city.  It was a short drive – I thought – from Asolo, another of those hilltop villages that get a lot of hype.  Depending on your interests, this one is either the ‘Pearl’  of the Veneto or the ‘Village of One Hundred Horizons’.


One of Asolo’s One Hundred Horizons.

Over the centuries it has attracted the usual cast of Veep, which, it took me a long time to figure out, is not dialect, but the Italian version of ‘vee eye pea’.  Authors, artists, royalty.  Lots of them have visited or lived here.  Robert Browning.  Eleanor Duse. Ernest Hemingway.  Freya Stark.


Robert Browning Lane.


Roses at the base of an exiled queen’s castle.


Are these windows part of the same apartment?  The geraniums are the same shade, but there are lots of those in the village.  The curtains look similar.  Maybe it’s one of those compromises reached in the interests of marital harmony.  Or a work in progress. Or an architectural statement.

On that first visit – it was June – any artists still in residence were nowhere in sight.  The village was overflowing with cyclists and wedding parties.


By the time I reached the main piazza, after ‘sharing’ the narrow, village roads with the cyclists, I was glad it was late in the afternoon.  A glass – or two – of the local Prosecco would be almost respectable.

It turned out I wasn’t the first driver rattled by the cyclists.  The local authorities had put up notices – in rhyme – directed at the ‘cycling friend!!!’ – interesting use of exclamation points – advising him (I’ve never yet seen a female cyclist in these groups) that if he wants to ‘scalare‘ (climb) the hills of Asolo, he needs to act nicely on his way through the village centre and respect the rules of the road…otherwise he will have to go on foot.


Warning from the grandly named Comando Polizia Locale.

Asolo is also where I had attempted in vain to explain Italian wedding customs to a fellow traveller. (‘If My Father Had Been a Wheel…’, April 24, 2016)


Outside the church, family and friends, armed with paper cones filled with rice, wait for the newlyweds.


The sposi – all smiles – lower their heads in anticipation of the impending onslaught.

On the morning I had decided to visit Villa Capra, I had a lovely breakfast gazing over the village and off onto one of the hundred horizons.   If I had known it would take me an hour and a half to cover the 55 km I probably wouldn’t have lingered over breakfast so long.  I arrived at the entrance to the villa around 11:30 and was greeted, not very warmly, by the custode who advised me that I would have to make it quick because the villa would be closing shortly for the three-hour midday break.  And, he added, since this was Thursday, the interior of the villa was, of course, not visitabile.


Prima colazione.  Serene and delicious.

I walked – tromped – around the villa a couple of times, trying to appreciate the elegant, harmonious elements of the famous villa.  But I refused to try to rise to the challenge when it came to the grounds.  Where was the beautiful garden one would expect to find around the crown in the jewel of a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Instead there were a few bits of shrubbery and some not very green grass.  It was downright scraggly.  I was aware this was pretty harsh and the fact that the interior was not visitabile and I was going to be shooed out after a few minutes might have had something to do with how I felt about the grounds.  But I didn’t think so.   Discovering later that the state of the grounds was deliberate gave me only a vaguely pyrrhic comfort.   The scraggly effect reflected Palladio’s belief that a country villa should be a refuge from the stresses of city life.  (This was the 1500’s!  Who knows what he would have thought of our cities today?)  A place where one could pursue health-giving intellectual pursuits.  And the living space most conducive to such a state of such well-being is one that is open to and in harmony with the surrounding countryside.   There were to be no ostentatious intrusions.  No symbols of man’s dominance over nature. Which, I couldn’t help noticing, eliminates the formal Renaissance gardens that the Medici’s surrounded their villas in Tuscany with, as well as later extravaganzas like Villa d’Este in Tivoli.


Like the Pantheon in Rome, the central dome in Palladio’s original design was open to the elements. Opinions about this changed and eventually the opening was covered over.

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Nowadays with all the buildings cramming into the piazza around the Pantheon it’s not as easy to see the dome as it would have been in Palladio’s day. I didn’t crop this photo so I must have been standing on something. I’ve forgotten what it was. Definitely not on the shoulders of anyone – giant or otherwise.

When I went back this fall I made sure to visit on a Saturday, one of the two days the interior is open to the public. The other is Wednesday, which means I had missed it by one day on my previous visit.  What I couldn’t control was the weather.  The skies were dreary and overcast.  One of those may be redundant, but a villa whose entire design has to do with being open to and part of the elements really needs to be seen on a day when those elements are bello.  Worse was to come.  At the entrance another custode told me I would have to put my camera away.  In my zaino (dzih-no).  Backpack. ‘Come?’ (koh-may), I sputtered, which means ‘Pardon?’ and is a lot more polite than ‘What!?’ which is what might have popped out if I’d been speaking English.  It’s amazing how much easier it is to maintain that thin veneer of civility in a foreign language.  This whole business about no photos drives me crazy.  It’s so arbitrary.  Just a way to get you to buy the (expensive) guide in the inevitable shop.  ‘But I won’t use the flash’,  I insisted.  I know the bright light can damage fragile interiors.  The custode sighed.  The owners – amazingly, the villa is privately owned – used to allow visitors to take photos – senza flash – but people took advantage and used flash anyway.  So they decided on the total prohibition.  It was class detention for grown-ups.  Another thing that drives me crazy.


The ‘bones’ were there, but they needed the sunlight to really come alive.


The view from the loggia on the east side still gives a sense of what Palladio had in mind…


…unlike the view from the north-facing loggia where centuries of urban creep, even if it is unusually attractive, gives a different sense.

I had a look at the guide book as I was leaving.  It was the usual beautiful, full colour thing.  And very heavy.  I was almost at the end of my trip and my suitcase was becoming an issue.  I flipped through the book.  Clear blue skies and shafts of sunlight beamed out of every page. I went over to the woman at the register and showed her one of the photos.  ‘Sembra tutt’un’altra villa al sole.‘ It looks like a totally different villa in the sun, I whined.  She and the fellow by the door she had been chatting with burst out laughing.  ‘Ha ragione, signora,‘ he said.  ‘E’ davvero un’altra villa al sole!’ Being right was no consolation. Adding insult to injury he went on to tell me about a very important group – one of those VEEP’s – that had visited just two days earlier and how he had been at pains to make them understand how lucky they had been to see the villa in all its splendour on a sun-filled day.


A short walk beyond the entrance gate to Villa Capra is the first of the last two places I visited while in Vicenza.

This post has gotten a lot longer than I like – maybe it’s that end of trip syndrome – you feel compelled to jam as much as you can into the last few days.  Pazienza!  I visited two more sites that day – but only quickly because I did not want to get caught in another delusion.  As I wrote that last word the computer gnomes woke up after what has been a mercifully long slumber.  For the record, the recent deluvione was not a ‘delusion’.

As I approached the gate I could see one of those custode turning people away.  Posted opening hours notwithstanding, the entire property had been booked by a wedding party that was expected any minute.  I cajoled, begged my way in, promising to be quick.  Palladio is not the draw here – the villa comes from a later era. Instead it’s Tiepolo – or rather the Tiepolo’s – father and son.  In the Palazzina there are five sale affrescate by Giambattista, the elder and in the Foresteria another five rooms covered in frescoes by father and son.


Both buildings are ‘No Photos’ zones so I had to make do with poster photos.  Reading the Italian translation of what Goethe, one of many illustrious visitors, thought of the frescoes, I got a strong whiff of the ‘faint praise’ strategy.  (I still read German fairly well so I cross-checked the original against the translation in a couple of places, so my translation is a hybrid.) “Today I visited Villa Valmarana that Tiepolo decorated giving free reign to all his virtues and defects. He has not succeeded in the sublime style as he has in the natural, which does have some nice (deliziose) things; all things told however, as a decorator, he is either cheerful (froehlich) or splendid (pieno di fastosità).”   In both versions he is bravo.


I had a quick tour of the Forestiera – from the old French word forestier which comes from the Latin foris meaning ‘away’ – which is where guests stayed, but the Palazzina was all set up for the wedding reception and was off limits.


The Palazzina, an understandably popular wedding venue.


In the distance – and up a much steeper hill than it looks in this photo -the Santuario di Monte Berico.

Apart from the Tiepolo frescoes there is another reason for visiting this villa. The strange statues on top of the wall that faces the road.


Until the 1950’s the villa was the site of a sagra popolare (festival) timed to coincide with another, more widespread festival that was held on the last Sunday in February or the first in March to celebrate the arrival of spring. What was unusual – and by today’s standards, something of an eye-brow raiser – about this sagra was that the protagonists were nani –  dwarves – who gathered to re-enact the tragic story of Layana.

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The villa is called Villa Valmorana ai Nani.  Of the Dwarves.  The first of the dwarves, as the story goes, was the only daughter of a king and queen.  In a gesture of well-meant, but ultimately misguided love, the distraught parents left the villa, got rid of all the old servants and replaced them with dwarves, whose responsibility it was to ensure that Layana never saw another ‘normal’ sized human being and thus never learned the cruel truth of her condition. But, as happens, word got around about a lovely, young damsel held prisoner in the castle and one day a few young cavalieri (noblemen) with not enough to do (that last bit is mine – it’s not part of the official legend) corrupted the princess’s dwarf custodians and managed to make their way into the castle grounds.  At first sight of the princess they fled in horror.  For Layana it was the end of the illusion and all happiness and in despair she threw herself over the wall into the valley.  Her guardians, overcome with remorse, instantly turned to stone.

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It is a strangely discomfiting story.  And the dwarf statues – ometti grotteschi – grotesque little figures as one long-ago visitor put it – are such accurate reflections of the society a princess would have encountered. It does make you wonder.

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There are 17 statues from various walks of life. The dama struck me as the most forlorn. All the trappings of wealth and a royal bloodline will not save her from a tortured existence.


I left the unsettling dwarves and started up the hill to the Santuario di Monte Berico.  It’s not on top of a mountain but it is a good climb and, going by all the joggers who passed by me, a favourite with the fitness crowd.



By the time I reached the top – having discarded a couple of layers along the way – the sky had become menacingly darker.

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Even in the drizzle, the green roof of the Basilica, the building that in many ways launched Palladio’s career, dominates the skyline of Vicenza.


I was surprised to see that the road I had just climbed is called X Giugno. June 10th is the day in 1940 when Mussolini infamously declared war against France and England.

I quickly took a few shots of the church…


…and then one last photo of a statue nearby which, so many months after my trip, turns out to be a fitting note – in North America at least  – on which to end this post.


Grazie Mamma.  A fitting message for Mother’s Day.

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2 Responses to Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

  1. LMSantarossa says:

    Thank you for this lovely post, Donna! I’ve never seen any of these villas so hope to do so next time I’m nearby, which will be the first week in October this year. One of the earliest memories I have are of visiting the “museum” – I doubt it is there anymore – in Monte Berico. As I was only 3, I might have gotten it mixed up with something else but it seemed to me there was a museum that highlighted life-size dioramas of the different tribes or people the missionaries worked with in Africa and South America – people with spears, women and children wearing little clothing. I remember being fascinated. And I remember clearly the very long arcade. The “museo” was a huge room off the arcade.

    • donnafenice says:

      Thank you, Lauretta. You may not have seen Palladio’s villas but you have obviously experienced a side of Vicenza that I don’t know at all. Wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing. Donna

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