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Villas Revisited

A different approach to tourism has been adopted by the owners of the Villa Emo, another agricultural villa that has sold much of its land to local farmers. Unlike those at Pisani and Cornaro, the frescoed main rooms at the Villa Emo are no longer lived in. The house consists of a central manor with the trademark Palladio temple front and long arcades topped with red-tiled roofs that terminate in dovecotes. According to the present owners, the carrier pigeons once housed here could transport a message to Venice in 20 minutes.

The Villa Emo is a graceful union of form and function. Instead of the stairway that appears in Palladio's architectural drawing, a wide stone ramp leads to the front door. Count Leonardo Marco Emo, the 18th in a line of sons to own the property, says that Count Lunardo, who commissioned the building, considered the dainty stairs inappropriate for a farmhouse. Below the ramp is a broad cobblestoned way that stretches to the front gate and once functioned as a threshing floor. It was here that corn, brought from the New World in the mid-16th century, was first cultivated in the Veneto. That explains the corncobs that recur in Giambattista Zelotti's well-preserved frescoes throughout the main house — and the polenta on your plate. If you're not eating risotto, polenta is the starch you're most likely to find in the Veneto.

In the mid-18th century the Emo family began to use the central manor only on public occasions, and converted the barchesse into living quarters. In 1993, the present count and countess and their three children moved to a nearby house and began transforming the barchesse into a hotel with eight rooms and three suites. The work was completed in August 1997. Is it a sign of strength or weakness in Palladio's design that buildings intended to house farm animals and implements can metamorphose so splendidly?The rooms are light, the ceilings lofty, the bathrooms palatial. In warm weather, tables are set up under the arcade, as if to confirm Palladio's remark that cover from the rain "is one of the principal things required in a villa."

Count Leonardo Marco would like to convert the derelict farm buildings just outside the villa's gate into a hundred smaller hotel rooms, for "a facility that would allow busloads of tourists, to put it brutally." Only by making the villa a thriving enterprise will he be able to bequeath it to his three children. "The spirit of the whole thing is to maintain the monument," he says. "It works as a hotel, but I consider it a monument that offers a lot of services." Stymied by bureaucratic opposition, he has reconciled himself to the possibility of selling the Villa Emo; indeed, at press time, the hotel had been temporarily closed for "reorganization." The count compares himself to the proverbial Venetian ferryman. "I'm like that person who has to carry the wolf, the cabbage, and the sheep across the river, and I have to carry one at a time to make sure that each does not eat the other," he says. "The property, the family, and the monument — they must all be preserved."

I wanted to see the Villa Badoer, which is set up on a plan similar to that of the Villa Emo, but with a grander manor house and curved barchesse (rare in Palladio's executed work). I saw it, but from the far side of a brick wall; it was closed for renovation. I staved off disappointment by visiting the most beautiful of the agricultural villas, the Villa Barbaro, a yellow-and-white edifice that embodies many of the finer points of the Renaissance. It is not only stately and harmonious, it is individualistic, even eccentric. The temple front juts out from the arcades, which end on each side in enormous dovecotes adorned with huge sundials. The building was a collaboration between Palladio and the owners, the brothers Daniele and Marc'Antonio Barbaro, who were practitioners as well as patrons of the arts.

"Palladio and Daniele and Marc'Antonio Barbaro got together and designed this outrageous building, which didn't look anything like a house, with big circles and arches and columns," says Vittorio Dalle Ore, who lives at the Villa Barbaro with his wife. (Her grandfather purchased it in 1934.) "It elicited the same reaction that many people have when they see a modern house today." But no modern house has anything like the frescoes by Paolo Veronese that cover the walls of the Villa Barbaro's public rooms. Here are paintings that complement the architecture brilliantly. They play on Palladio's love of symmetry, so a real door is mirrored by one that has the same pediment and frame, but is all painted — including the gentleman stepping through it. The skylit dining room features a trompe l'oeil pergola with grapevines that begin in the landscapes below and then creep up the walls, interrupted by a painted architrave and a real cornice. In the reception room, Marc'Antonio's wife and her companion parrot look down from a balcony to greet guests as they arrive.

The Villa Barbaro was the first Palladio villa to be opened to tourists, in the 1960's. Its proprietors have devised a quaint method of crowd control. Before entering, you must don felt overshoes, which not only protect the terrazzo floors, but — because the limited supply of slippers restricts the number of visitors — also protect the frescoes from people brushing against them. Through Plexiglas barriers, you can glimpse the parts of the house that are off-limits and furnished with comfortable armchairs. Here, from the looks of it, the Dalle Ores live — as normally as one can in such a residence. Vittorio Dalle Ore tells me that his mother-in-law had decided to open the house on a regular basis to tourists after writing one too many letters for friends of friends who wished to see the villa while she was away. Since marrying into the family, he has studied vineyard management and now supervises the estate's grape production. Despite the visitors who stream through on the other side of the Plexiglas, the Villa Barbaro remains, for its owners, an agricultural estate.

A villa by Palladio is more than a house. Antonio Foscari, who owns La Malcontenta, is emphatic on this point. Malcontenta sits by the weeping willows of the river Brenta, on terra firma close to Venice. Standing on a lofty stone base that protects the house from floods, Malcontenta is "a lordly presence," Foscari says. "It's a theoretical object, not a residence." A scion of the eminent Venetian family that built La Malcontenta (its other name is Villa Foscari), Foscari is an architectural historian of the Renaissance, as well as a practicing architect in Venice who specializes in restoration. The villa passed out of his family's hands after the fall of Venice to Napoleon, and was left in a state of neglect. Later, it was used as a military depot. Brazilian Albert Landsberg, the son of a wealthy financier, purchased and restored it in 1925. Landsberg did not return to impoverished Italy after the war, but his American-born wife, Dorothy, continued to visit the house.

During Dorothy's lifetime, Foscari became deeply involved in the villa's restoration. Once the whitewash that had covered the villa's 16th-century frescoes for many years was peeled away, the colors emerged — a muted version of the originals, but pleasing to the modern eye. Some of the frescoes had actually been removed. Foscari found four fragments and brought them back, mounted on canvas, to hang in a room painted with an ivy-festooned Bacchus bower, in which a beautiful antique bed now resides. He waited eagerly for Dorothy to return from America to see what he had accomplished. When she arrived, he brought her into the chamber. "I had made this gift to the house, this restoration to the house, and she said nothing," he recalls. "An hour passed before I realized she was blind." After Dorothy's death, Foscari acquired the villa in the mid-1970's. He uses it as a country house, but rarely has time to visit. Perhaps a "theoretical object" doesn't invite idle repose.

Touring Palladio's villas in the Veneto, I was struck by how neglected they had been until recent years. Each found a 20th-century protector: Albert Landsberg at La Malcontenta, Count Leonardo Marco's father at the Villa Emo, Vittorio Dalle Ore's mother-in-law at the Villa Barbaro. "In the nineteenth century, people did not think much of these houses," says Countess Ferri de Lazara, herself the savior of the Villa Pisani in Bagnolo. Converted into barns or nurseries, the villas were crumbling unnoticed. Palladio drew his inspiration from Graeco-Roman ruins, extrapolating in his drawings from the bits that survived. Fortunately, we needn't stretch our imaginations as far to appreciate his greatest works.

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