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Villas Revisited

When you set off on the Palladio trail in search of cinquecento beauty, you have to be willing to blinker out a little modern ugliness. The late 20th century has made the Veneto wealthy, but at a cost; in the north, especially, factories dominate the landscape, and traffic can be as bad as on the Montauk Highway in July. No matter. Andrea Palladio always counted on a controlled view, designing many of his villas to be seen only from the front. Some can be appreciated from both front and back, but very few are presentable on all four sides. These days, when you select your vantage point, you may need to screen out the highway signs by the gate.

The Palladio trail begins an hour from Venice, in Vicenza, a small but still handsome city, thanks largely to the many surviving stone palazzi by Palladio. The showiest building in town, the Palazzo della Ragione, was Palladio's first grand commission, awarded in 1545, when he was already 37. Oddly, the palazzo (known informally as the Basilica) is less a building than a skin or buttress to support a collapsing congeries of buildings and loggias. The structure it swallowed is visible in the background of Giovanni Bellini's painting of the pietÀ, which hangs in the Accademia in Venice. As his reputation grew, Palladio received commissions elsewhere, particularly in Venice, but he continued to work in Vicenza. At the time of his death in 1580 he had embarked on the Teatro Olimpico, which became the earliest permanent indoor theater of the Renaissance. Today the theater is best known for its perspective sets, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi for a production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Intended to be temporary, the sets have never been changed.

But among the Palladio buildings in Vicenza, the one not to miss is La Rotonda, on the outskirts of town. Most of Palladio's villas were built as agricultural estates or suburban manors, but La Rotonda is a case apart. More a belvedere than a year-round dwelling, it was commissioned as a party house by a retired monsignor, Paolo Almerico, in 1566. Though it's essentially a cube topped by a dome, it is exceptional in that Palladio gave equal care to all four façades. The views, however, haven't weathered the centuries equally well — suburban sprawl lies beyond the fields to the south and east. Nor has the world inside La Rotonda stood still. Once open to the elements, as indicated by a floor drain in the form of a grinning Dionysian mask, the domed central hall has been overwhelmed not by the weather but by Baroque stuccoists, sculptors, and fresco painters, who fragmented the unity of the space with their scantily draped gods and goddesses striking allegorical poses. Today La Rotonda is owned but not inhabited by a distinguished Venetian family, the Valmaranas; it is open to the public on Wednesdays.

After seeing Palladio's stone-and-brick legacy in Vicenza, I felt the need to connect with him a little more viscerally. Just five miles north of the city, in the town of Caldogno, there is a lesser Palladian villa behind a brick wall on the main street. But there's also — and this is what I was really after — a restaurant, the Molin Vecio, which cooks late-16th-century meals. A venerable wine press dominates one of the four rustic dining rooms. The Molin Vecio stages monthly historical feasts, reflecting the owners' interest in both the region's rich history and its rich food. With one or two days' notice, you can arrange a small feast of your own.

My Venetian friends and I had a four-course "Palladian dinner" at the Molin Vecio, although it was not, I was told, strictly authentic. In Palladio's day all the food would have been brought to the table at once, and there would have been a lot more of it. "In 1998, you can't eat thirty-two courses at the same time," the chef and co-owner, Amadeo Sandri, said, wringing his hands apologetically. A massive man, white-capped and aproned, with forearms the size of hams, the earnest Sandri himself looked authentically Renaissance (until I noticed the sneakers). For the first course he prepared a "friar's omelette": a frittata flavored with six herbs, including saffron, and capon broth, then molded into a dome and covered with a sheet of soppressa sausage. Herbs also starred in the second course, a soup made with borage, mallow, dill, fennel, citronella, and leeks. The main event was a boned quail stuffed with summer truffles. We concluded with a bread pie that the Venetians call a pinza, flavored with raisins and candied fruits, and served with a wine, rosolio, made from roses, that my friends said was popular with grandmothers; they themselves had never tasted it. Sandri had adapted the recipes from antique cookbooks, demonstrating that it can be easier to restore food than buildings.

In Piombino Dese, a town of 5,000 best known for the lamps made here, sits the Villa Cornaro, an imposing house with double-decker colonnaded loggias front and back. Dating to Palladio's "mature" period, the early 1550's, the Villa Cornaro is indisputably the main house on Piombino Dese's main street, close by the train station in a neighborhood that isn't exactly redolent of the Renaissance. The house's function hasn't changed — it was always modeled as a town villa, not a country house — but the nature of the town has. What is remarkable, though, is how the manor retains its native grace. When you stand on the garden side and look out at the plowed fields, the scruffiness of modern life is as faint as the sounds of traffic.

An Atlanta couple, Carl and Sally Gable, bought the Villa Cornaro after seeing it advertised in the New York Times Magazine. Carl, a lawyer, is a Venetophile. When Sally spotted the ad, she was looking for a weekend house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where she'd been raised. "She rationalized, saying it wouldn't take that much longer to get to the Veneto than to New Hampshire," Carl explains. Although it had received 20 years' worth of restoration before the Gables bought it, the house still sponges up most of their extra time and cash. To make the necessary renovations, "we had to learn Italian," Sally says. "Initially I was over there a good deal by myself, but the proportions of the rooms are so exquisite you never feel the place is too big for one person. It's like living in a dream."

Sally was home in Atlanta when I visited Carl at the Villa Cornaro. My first thought upon entering the villa was that Sally had been right. The place is big, in a way that photographs don't indicate: the two main rooms have 30-foot ceilings. Yet, thanks to Palladio's genius for harmonious proportions, you feel enlarged in these lofty rooms rather than dwarfed. The classic Palladian floor plan— small and large rooms radiating from a central sala — is repeated on all four levels, even though the basement and attic weren't intended for the public eye. Remarkably, the patterns in the terra-cotta floors, such as the carpet-size rectangle in the dining room, are Palladian originals. Other parts of the Villa Cornaro have acquired their beauty from later, less notable practitioners. The attic and the garden-side loggias still display graffiti that date as far back as the early 17th century. One terra-cotta-colored scrawl makes you think that Cy Twombly just might have found these light-dappled plaster surfaces irresistible.

The fields behind the Villa Cornaro are the only pocket of green in an otherwise urbanized swath. But if you head down to the southern Veneto, you'll find a rural landscape in Bagnolo di Lonigo that makes a perfect setting for the Villa Pisani, designed as a country estate by Palladio in the 1540's. The present owner, Countess Cornelia Ferri de Lazara, has kept that country flavor. Sisal mats cover the old terrazzo floors, and simple upholstered furnishings mingle with antique wooden chests and chairs dating from the 16th to the 18th century. Examining the evidence on the wall of the map room, I learned that rice fields — mostly labeled PISANI but occasionally bearing another noble Venetian name, such as GRIMANI — once extended for hundreds of acres. (Risotto, you'll recall, is a staple of Venetian cuisine.) Today grapevines snake across the land; much of it has been sold over the years by the Pisanis, and wine is bottled under the villa's name. Stuccoed turrets, which recall (and, some scholars think, may incorporate) the small castle that once stood where the villa does now, flank the three-arched, gabled façade of rusticated honey-colored stone. A huge barn surrounded by a U-shaped farm building once occupied what is now a great lawn. The barn burned down in the 19th century, but a leg of the U-shaped barchessa, as the colonnaded structure is called in Italian, remains. It houses the workshop of Luigi Borgato, who makes grand pianos entirely by hand. Countess Ferri de Lazara also rents out a charming apartment in this outbuilding to those who'd like to live (almost) in a Palladian villa. It has three bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Decorated pleasantly but plainly, the apartment lacks the majesty of the main house, but if you walk the grounds on a summer evening you may well imagine yourself a member of the Italian landed gentry.

An elegant woman with large blue eyes and a generous mouth, Countess Ferri de Lazara frequently visited the villa as a child, when her bachelor great-uncle owned it and it served as a hunting lodge. "It was a very wild paradise," she says, "but architecturally it was spoiled." She and her two brothers inherited the house and eventually she bought them out. Like most of Palladio's villas, the Villa Pisani fell on hard times after the Venetian Republic surrendered to Napoleon. One of Ferri de Lazara's many repairs since she became the sole proprietor in 1990 involved removing the bricks used to partly fill in the window frames (an effort by her ancestors to reduce their share of the Napoleonic glass tax).

To generate enough money to maintain the house, the countess not only receives 4,000 independent visitors a year from spring to fall, but entertains small, elite tours and organizes wedding parties. On the afternoon I visited, she was just saying good-bye to a group from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The remains of a grand lunch littered the large pine table near the Palladio-designed stone sink in the huge, beamed kitchen. "Obviously, we are trying to stay away from mass tourism," she says. "We want to keep it half-private, and that means having a high standard of tourist." She relies heavily on word of mouth to promote her rental apartment, because she wants to feel comfortable when she meets her resident guests in the garden or invites them in for a drink. So far, tourism has made only a slight dent in her privileged sanctuary. "I think the satisfaction is that it is beautiful and quiet," she says of the Villa Pisani, where she has lived for most of the past two years. "When I go back to Milan it's very exciting at first, but there are many ugly things. Here I've had the chance to transform what I don't like."


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