Modern architecture has never been particularly welcome in Venice. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn were all rebuffed in their efforts to add to the city’s historic fabric. Only after heated controversy did a soaring contemporary bridge by Santiago Calatrava open last year over the Grand Canal.
But one latter-day architect, Carlo Scarpa, did manage to put a subtle imprint on the archipelago city—his native town. Scarpa’s idiosyncratic approach veered outside the International Style of Modernism, the dominant mode during his lifetime, tapping sources as diverse as Wright, the Viennese Secession, and Japanese tradition. And in a career spanning five decades, until his death in 1978, Scarpa won a cult following among architects around the world.
He remains little known to the general public. But to tour his works today, almost all of them concentrated in Venice and the Veneto region, is to embark on a journey of aesthetic discovery. I’ve mapped the best route for taking in Scarpa’s unparalleled museums and impeccably detailed spaces, starting in the heart of the old city and then driving to the nearby towns and countryside.
Day 1: Venice and Verona
Soon after arriving in town, I follow the crowds making a beeline for the Piazza San Marco. But I don’t join them at the basilica or the Doge’s Palace, instead heading for a far newer landmark: the showroom Scarpa created for the Olivetti company in 1957. Diagonally across from the celebrated cathedral, it’s a jewel-like temple for secular objects. Scarpa transformed a long, narrow space underneath the arcade along the square’s northern flank into a dazzling, intimately scaled showcase for the display of Olivetti typewriters that, by the middle of the last century, had become coveted icons of modern design. As Scarpa was a Venetian, water played a key role in almost all of his projects. At the Olivetti showroom I find a carved black marble pool in the entryway, as if to echo the fonts of holy water at the basilica. Ahead is a floating staircase of marble slabs suspended from bronze rods, leading to an upper level with balconies along one side. The floors are intricately patterned in colorful Murano glass tiles. The space was until recently a cramped commercial art gallery, but the superb craftsmanship and pure geometry of Scarpa’s achievement shine through.
A five-minute walk from Piazza San Marco is Scarpa’s most important project in Venice, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, in the central Castello district, where the architect remodeled the ground floor and garden of a 16th-century palazzo that now houses an art museum and research library. Just outside, he created a delicate wooden footbridge across the narrow canal between the palazzo and its small piazza. It leads into a series of chambers on the palazzo’s lower level, long prone to periodic flooding; Scarpa’s solution was to leave a gateway open to the canal and add stone-lined channels that allow high waters to course through the building without covering the floors.
Scarpa lined an adjacent exhibition hall with travertine slabs, inserting backlit panels of frosted glass edged in brass as vertical accents. Water is an equally important element in the rear garden, where it flows from a pond scattered with water lilies at one end through a series of hollows, emerging from a spout that pours into a basin.
This tranquil spot feels miraculously far removed from the city’s tourist throngs. But I’m not surprised to see other visitors inspecting the details. One of them, Juan Rivera, is a Washington, D.C., real estate developer who trained as an architect and came to Venice specifically to experience Scarpa’s buildings. “So much comes at you in Venice that’s political or religious,” Rivera says. “Scarpa doesn’t do any of that. He’s simply saying, ‘Look at this—it’s beautiful.’”
With several of Scarpa’s most significant designs waiting for me on the mainland, I head by vaporetto for the Piazzale Roma to pick up a rental car, passing under Calatrava’s glass-and-steel bridge on my way. Any clash between modernity and Venice’s deep-rooted tradition fades as I hurtle in my compact, fuel-efficient Mercedes-Benz B 180 across the causeway that links the islands with terra firma, driving then for a while along the Brenta River before taking the autostrada directly into Verona, arriving less than two hours later. Scarpa’s Museo di Castelvecchio is easy to find—it’s in a hulking 14th-century fortress along the Adige River—and after checking into the Hotel Colomba d’Oro, in the city center, and lunching on veal cutlets at the Trattoria I Masenini, I head over to explore.
At the Castelvecchio I reencounter Scarpa’s emphasis on texture and juxtaposition. From 1958 to 1964 he reworked the museum, which displays medieval and Romanesque art and ancient weaponry, to make its history come alive by revealing the layers of the past. He inserted modern windows behind the Gothic arches and laid new carved stone and grooved concrete floors that resemble plush carpets. The interiors have a spare elegance that renders this one of Europe’s most sublime museum buildings.
Day: 2 On to Asolo
The next morning, I drive about two hours northeast along the autostrada and then on smaller roads through a bucolic landscape to Asolo, the picturesque hill town where Scarpa lived from 1962 to 1972. Asolo proves an ideal base for exploring two more Scarpa designs as well as villas drawn up by that most famous architect of the Veneto region, Andrea Palladio.
Entering Possagno, I make my way to sculptor Antonio Canova’s former home and the adjacent museum, partially designed by Scarpa, known as the Gipsoteca. The building provides an airy exhibition hall of white planes and glass, which harmonizes with Canova’s white casts. As he did at the Olivetti showroom, Scarpa made the best of a narrow plot, designing a cascade of levels that descends toward the cast of Canova’s masterpiece The Three Graces, poised in front of a glass wall with a sparkling pool outside.
Day 3: Tomba Brion
All this painstaking attention to detail reaches its pinnacle at Scarpa’s most elaborate creation, the Tomba Brion. A short drive south of Asolo, at the end of an allée of cypress trees in the village of San Vito d’Altivole, Scarpa drew up a private necropolis on an L-shaped site around the edges of the municipal cemetery. Massive, sloped concrete walls screen out sound and the sight of cornfields and houses beyond. A cubic chapel seems to float in a pool of water at the entrance. The architecture is vaguely reminiscent of Mayan ruins or Japanese temples, but mysteriously reinterpreted in a way that makes the visitor feel altogether transported into some ethereal realm where a serene beauty has banished all other elements.
In a fitting epitaph to my Veneto pilgrimage, I find Scarpa’s grave near a corner of the L shape, inside the public cemetery. It’s a simple marble slab inset with brass lettering and lines that radiate outward, as if beckoning a new generation to follow his example.
Michael Z. Wise is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
For dozens of driving getaways, including wine country weekends, New England foliage tours, and scenic European routes, go to travelandleisure.com/ideas/driving.
Many airlines fly nonstop to Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, located just eight miles north of the city.
Hotel Villa Cipriani Former home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with a garden overlooking the surrounding countryside. 298 Via Canova, Asolo; 39-0423/52341; villaciprianiasolo.com; doubles from $295.
Al Covo Well-crafted dishes like house-made gnocchi with baby calamari and spider crab. Castello 3968, Venice; 39-041/522-3812; dinner for two $130.
Hosteria Ca’ Derton da Nino Excellent small-town fare. 11 Piazza Gabrielle d’Annunzio, Asolo; 39-0423/529-648; dinner for two $130.
Osteria Alle Testiere Tiny, informal seafood spot; reservations recommended. Calle del Mondo Novo, Castello 5801, Venice; 39-041/522-7220; dinner for two $120.
Ristorante al Conte Pescaor Seafood specialties including homemade tagliolini with king prawns and asparagus. San Marco 544, Venice; 39-041/522-1483; dinner for two $100.
Trattoria I Masenini Next door to the Castelvecchio Museum. 34 Via Roma, Verona; 39-045/806-5169; dinner for two $80.
Banca Populare di Verona 2 Piazza Nogara, Verona; 39-045/867-5111.
Fondazione Querini Stampalia Castello 5252, Venice; 39-041/271-1411.
Former Olivetti showroom Piazza San Marco, Venice.
Tomba Brion Via del Cimitero, San Vito d’Altivole.
Venice University Institute of Architecture Santa Croce 191, Venice; 39-041/257-1111.