As I’ve mentioned – more than once, I know – I had a lot of rained out days on my last trip to the Veneto, which is one of the reasons I decided to go to Puglia on my next trip.(Leaving soon!) Puglia is the ‘heel’ of Italy. If it isn’t hot and sunny there, climate change is coming on a lot faster than the experts are letting us know. So I was dismayed when Fiorelisa from the B&B in Vicenza wrote it was a good thing I was leaving later in the month. Her sister had gone to Puglia at the beginning of May and it was one deluvione after the other, or what the computer gnomes insist on calling ‘delusions’.
I checked out the weather on the Italian TV and sure enough, an ‘anticiclone africano‘ had been wreaking havoc up and down the peninsula and was expected to ‘conquistare nuovamente l’Italia’ (conquer Italy again), although the announcer hedged his gloomy forecast by adding ‘non vuole avere pretese di certezze’. (it – the forecast – did not wish to have pretensions of certainty). He referred to the obnoxious weather system as what sounded like ‘kah-ron-tay’. I googled what I thought was a fair approximation and to my surprise was directed to a website about Greek mythology. Caronte is Charon, the monstrous ferryman of Hades who transports the damned across the River Styx. He also appears in La Commedia Divina by Dante, the Italian equivalent of Shakespeare as far as mandatory school reading goes, so presumably is well-known to Italian weather watchers.
In any event, between Charon and Medusa, another anticiclone, a whole swath of the Veneto will have to wait alla prossima. Nel frattempo – in the time between – I dug up some photos – so much easier when you’re doing it virtually, rather than rummaging through shoeboxes – from the trip I had taken years ago. Hopefully they give a sense of what one can see when there are no Greek gods or monsters messing with the weather.
A word of advice: if you want to experience all the liquid treasures of the Veneto, it’s important to pace yourself. Apart from Prosecco and Soave and Pinot Grigio, there are endless varieties of reds and then, for the brave, or those who don’t know what they’re getting into, there is grappa. I’d developed a liking for the clear elixir during my younger days in Tuscany, so was delighted to learn that a unique bridge designed by Palladio was in the town of Bassano del Grappa. Although the bridge has had to be rebuilt a few times since 1569 – always true to the original – the seemingly simple design is in reality another example of the architect’s brilliance. The unusual footings and the slight flexibility of the wood make it remarkably resistant to spring floods caused by melting mountain snow. In addition to Palladio and grappa, the town is also known for the terrible loss of life and devastation wrought by World War I. Hemingway derived much of the content for ‘A Farewell to Arms’ from his experiences as an ambulance driver in the region and in 1928 the town, which had traditionally been known as Bassano Veneto, was renamed in honour of the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives on Mt. Grappa nearby. World War II was just as tragic and again the townspeople felt compelled to make another name change – Palladio’s Ponte Vecchio was rebaptized Ponte degli Alpini in honour of the Alpine troops who raised the funds and rebuilt – one would hope for the last time – the landmark bridge.
I did not spend the whole trip in the vineyards. I also saw quite a few villas. Some of them were private and not visitabile. I had a feeling some of the people who commissioned them were not interested in Palladio’s concept of the country villa as a simple place to escape the stresses and trappings of city life.
If the villa below looks familiar, you may have seen the 2002 thriller, Ripley’s Game. I haven’t. The trailer was already more than I could handle. Although it was clear even from that brief glimpse that John Malkovich does a brilliant – brilliantly creepy – portrayal of the nefarious Mr. Ripley, who is clearly as wealthy as he is nasty, given that he is the owner of Villa Emo.
Unlike Villa Capra, which, at an easy 10-minute walk from the centro storico of Vicenza is virtually unmissable, even for those of us who have a knack for getting lost, Villa Emo is in a tiny frazione – which technically means ‘suburb’, but ‘fraction’ gives a much more accurate sense of the place – called Fanzolo di Vedelago. A name which is as impossible to remember as the place itself is to find. As one visitor commented, ‘take a good map; Italians road signs are what you expect them to be: unreliable.’ By the time I found the villa, the doors were closed. I leaned over the chain, took a few photos of the posters – probably all I would have been allowed even if it had been open – looked around a bit and then headed back to Asolo and a nice glass of Prosecco on the terrace. Villa Emo was one of the villas I had been hoping to visit on my return trip. If only because of the back story. It all began at the end of the 15th century when, as I’m sure you’ll remember, ‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ and instead of India, discovered the New World. ‘Discover’ is of course not what he did, nor was the land mass he did NOT discover a ‘new’ world, but I’m trying not to digress. Columbus’ non-discovery was followed five years later by another discovery. Vasco da Gama managed to find a safe route around the Cape of Good Hope and sail all the way to India. As I recall, these events were presented in History class as unconditionally positive advancements in western civilization. I wonder if the teachers of the time – it wasn’t that long ago – realized what they were doing. In any event, as we all now know, those discoveries led to disaster for many, Venice included. Almost overnight the Most Serene republic became redundant as the link between Europe and the Far East. The lucrative monopoly on world trade that had been the basis of its enormous wealth, all the taxes and tariffs the Venetian merchants had been collecting for centuries, evaporated, not unlike what happened to mortgages in the recent economic meltdown, except that there were real goods involved in the Venetian catastrophe.
Faced with mounting bankruptcies, unemployment and food shortages, the Venetian governors did not exactly bail out the big players, but they did offer subsidies to encourage the (still rather wealthy) Venetians to start farming, not just as a hobby, but as a serious financial enterprise. One of the first to take up the challenge was Leonardo Emo. This Leonardo – a second Leonardo would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps – was already heavily involved in farming. Shortly after losing the lock on international trade routes Venice was dealt another blow. It was defeated in the War of the League of Cambrai (a warning in case you’re interested in Cambrai; I had a quick look and from what I could tell, when it comes to international relations in the region, the borders may be different now, but the events and betrayals and intrigues were no less complicated). After the defeat, the obviously far-sighted Leonardo Emo had purchased several plots of land in the area around Fanzolo. And although he wasn’t adverse to using his aristocratic status and connections when it suited him – a little chat with the Doge resulted in rights to an offshoot of one of the canals, thus ensuring a plentiful supply of water – unlike most of his peers, he took a real, hands-on approach and was directly involved in the day-to-day running of the farm. One of his most important innovations was to plant maize, one of the many new exotic plants brought back from the recently discovered New World. The new variety of corn produced much higher yields than the traditional millet and eventually would lead to one of the staples of Venetian cuisine to this day – polenta.
I’m sure it’s not part of some deliberate plot to confuse tourists, but I have noticed that as if to make amends for the scarcity of road signs, Italians are overly generous when it comes to naming the sites those tourists would like to visit. When you’re dealing with a site that is as easy to find as La Rotonda aka Villa Capra Valmarana aka Villa Capra, it’s not really an issue. But many sites are not so conveniently located; they’re in the middle of nowhere – or what strikes my Canadian eye as nowhere, which means that I end up standing in front of a place wondering, anxiously, if I’m where I want to be.
My favourite Palladian villa lies midway between Asolo which, as I’ve already said, is an absolutely charming, hilltop village and Maser, a nondescript village in the valley. So what is it called? Villa di Maser. EXCEPT when it’s called Villa Barbaro. Barbaro is the name of the two brothers who commissioned the villa. After Palladio’s mentor, Trissino, died in 1550, a number of wealthy Venetians, no doubt anxious to have a villa designed by the already famous architect, continued to sponsor and provide the connections Palladio needed. Among them were the Barbaro brothers, one of whom was a cardinal who took Palladio back to Rome several times so he could continue his studies. The exterior is as elegant and as simple as Palladio believed a country villa should be, but when it came to the interior he definitely did not get his way. Every square inch of the interior walls is covered in frescoes by Paolo Veronese. The marble floors are a work of art too, so be prepared to line up until a pair of felt slippers is liberated from a previous visitor and then it will be your turn to shuffle along the gleaming floors.
The two storey middle section is the residence. The wings are very lovely, very elegant farm buildings. The barchessa (bar-case-suh), was where all the tools, farm machinery, and some crops were stored. A quintessentially Palladian union of beauty and utility.
One day I visited the most grandiose – notice I did not say beautiful or charming – villa in the entire Veneto region. It was built over a century after Palladio’s death and there is nothing Palladian about it. That was fine with me because I had come not for the villa – actually it’s more a palace – but for the garden, one of the most magnificent in northern Italy. In fact the original owner, Alvise Pisani, was so keen on the gardens he insisted they be completed before work on the palace began. A decision he may have come to regret. It took several years to create the garden and another fifteen for the palace, which was completed in 1735. Pisani died six years later.
Not surprisingly it’s called Villa Pisani. What is surprising and can take an unsuspecting visitor on a wild goose trail is that it is not the only Villa Pisani. There are two others, both of them by Palladio. But the best known and most visited is the one in Stra, about 30 kilometres from Venice. I was happy to find these old photos. On my return visit, it had rained so heavily that even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have ventured out into the garden. To protect it from the tromping feet of the hordes it was closed for the day.
Alvise Pisani was head of one of Venice’s oldest and wealthiest aristocratic families. Befitting his status he was awarded the plum job of Venetian ambassador to the court of Louis XIV which allowed him five years in which to enjoy the pleasures – excesses might be a better way to describe what went on there – beloved by the Sun King. When he returned to Italy, he was determined to build a palace and gardens as magnificent as those at Versailles. As grand as it is, the building in the photo above is not the palace. It’s the scuderia (skoo-deh-ree-uh). The stables. The long pool between the stables and the steps of the palace, which is where I stood to take the photo, looks as if it’s part of the original design, but it’s a later addition, from the early 1900’s when an engineering school that had taken over the palace created it to test naval manoeuvres in the build-up to World War I.
I don’t have any photos of the palace. It’s enormous. Not as big as Versailles or the Reggia di Caserta near Naples, (‘Versailles all’italiana‘, Feb. 1, 2015), but with 144 rooms it’s still enormous. Everyone at the time would have understood the significance of the seemingly random number. The palace was meant to symbolize Pisani’s election to the most powerful position in Venice. That of Doge. The 114th Doge. Size isn’t the only problem if you want to take a photo of the palace. As you can see in the map above, it was built close to a bend in the canal, where all of who’s who in Venice would see it on the way to their country villas. But nowadays, after centuries of urban sprawl, it’s impossible to get far enough back to get a good look at the whole thing, let alone a half decent photo. The interior, as you would expect, is lavishly decorated (lots of Tiepolo), but I didn’t spend much time inside. I can only take so many of these power statements. Feeling slightly guilty, I made a bee-line for the garden. Somehow gardens, even ‘power’ gardens, don’t have the same effect.
For most visitors the highlight of the garden is the maze. Luckily – the garden is enormous too – 11 hectares (27 acres) – like the Medici’s had done in Tuscany, Pisani made sure there was lots to hold his visitors’ interest along the way.
Not far from the Goddess of Spring a small moat, bordered with irises and other water-loving plants, surrounds a gentle rise. On top is a small, square structure. Palladio had no hand in the garden’s design but given his views about beauty and practicality, I’m sure he would have loved the concept. This is the ‘Coffee House’. Here Pisani and his guests would while away hot, summer afternoons, maybe even have a caffè – although why Italians call places like this ‘Coffee Houses’ is a mystery to me – cooled off by air wafting up through holes in the floor. From the ice room below.
In the map of the garden you may have noticed that in the English version #2, which is where we’re heading, is listed as ‘maze’, while in the Italian it’s labirinto. English has two words for these ‘doodles on the earth’s skin‘ as the universally acclaimed Canadian author, Carol Shields, described them: ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’, but Italian, which usually suffers from an unwieldy embarras de richesses when it comes to words, has only labirinto. This translates into a bit of a linguistic anomaly, in that Italians are missing a word they really could use and we English speakers have two that we often (incorrectly) use interchangeably.
No matter what you call them, mankind has been making intricate, enclosed pathways since prehistoric times, as guides for ritual dances, or symbolic traps for evil spirits. Perhaps the most famous never existed. The one from Greek mythology in which Daedulus imprisoned the dreaded Minotaur. During the Middle Ages, when the devout were expected to go on long pilgrimages to sacred places like Rome or Santiago di Campostela in north western Spain, the labyrinth acted as a symbolic pilgrimage for those who weren’t able to embark on the real thing. But, and here is where the labirinto/maze issue comes up, those spiritual pathways of the Middle Ages were, strictly speaking, labyrinths. The design was always essentially the same, consisting of a single, continuous path that could be embarked upon at one entry point only, which represented birth, and led the pilgrim inexorably to the centre, which represented God.
However, during the Renaissance, the focus shifted from concerns with the afterlife to the celebration of the joys of earthly existence. Interest in the religious nature of the pathways faded and they were redesigned with all sorts of confusing branches and dead ends. In other words the labirinto was transformed into a maze. And the sole purpose of the newly designed mazes was to entertain. They were little amusement parks where one could while away long, summer afternoons getting lost and found, especially found, because it soon became clear that they were the ideal setting for secret, amorous encounters.
When I arrived at the labirinto/maze on my first visit to Villa Pisani, the entrance – the one and only entrance – was locked shut. CHIUSO. In my travels around Italy I’ve come across a few strange things and I know eating is a big part of the culture, but a maze that closes for lunch?!
I read the plaque by entrance…
…walked around a bit, stood on the fence to get a glimpse and then I left.
On a carefully timed return visit I learned the reason for the lunch break. This maze is one of the largest and most challenging in Europe. It’s said that Napoleon got lost in it and Mussolini and Hitler – this was the unlikely setting for their first meeting – avoided the potential humiliation altogether. The boxwood ‘walls’ are very high and very dense. During opening hours, a garden employee joins the statue of Minerva – Goddess of Wisdom – atop the tower. I spent a fascinating half hour up there chatting with the guard on duty the day I visited. All the while she kept an eye on the people moving along the paths below and when they looked up – as they ALL eventually did – she pointed them in the right direction.
Next – A Slow Boat to Venice