Villas Revisited

Villas Revisited

Simon Watson
Simon Watson
As new owners restore the Veneto's grandest 16th-century villas, they are opening their houses to the public — some will even let you stay the night.

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."

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.

If time permits, it's worth making the short drive northwest of Fanzolo to Bassano del Grappa. The town, at the foot of the Dolomites, couldn't provide a more picturesque setting for Palladio's only surviving covered wooden bridge, Ponte degli Alpine, which spans the Brenta. Designed to withstand floods, the bridge did so until an exceptionally bad one in 1748. It has since been rebuilt several times to Palladio's original specifications, most recently in 1948, a few years after it was destroyed by retreating German forces.

If you go to Bassano, known as much for its asparagus and grappa as for its bridge, you must stop in the neighboring town of Rosà, where Italy's outstanding maker of eau-de-vie — and grappa — Vittorio Capovilla, resides. Capovilla works with two 150-liter stills set up in a shed beside his house. One is for the grape pomace that is the source of grappa, the other for the fruits that are distilled into eau-de-vie. Capovilla organically cultivates old-fashioned varieties of apples, pears, peaches, and apricots on five acres of land. Even more remarkably, he scouts out wild fruits, which he harvests with his family. Since he adds no sugar or alcohol to his brew, the amount of fruit that goes into a liter of distillate is determined by its sugar content. Last year he made 10,000 half-liter bottles of grappa and about 8,500 of eau-de-vie.

Beetle-browed but ebullient, Capovilla enjoys meeting his customers and having them taste his 40 types of eau-de-vie, ranging from $20 to $115 per bottle, and 10 grappas, most of them $20 or less. My own tasting notes flicker out after the pear, peach, two varieties of apple, plum, and wild blueberry; in the end, I went home with wild cherry and the exquisite, though expensive, wild raspberry.

Vittorio Capovilla Ca' Dolfin, 12 Via Giardini, Rosà; 39-0424/581-222, fax 39-0424/588-028.

Vicenza is the heart of Palladio country, and a convenient base from which to tour the Veneto. The region is at its most spectacular in spring or fall. If you take the autostrada from Venice and drive like an Italian, you'll reach Vicenza in an hour. Should you prefer to stay in the countryside, you have two choices in buildings designed by Palladio himself.


Villa Saraceno Finale; for reservations, call the Landmark Trust USA, 802/254-6868; $2,000-$8,000 per week, depending on season. This early but remodeled Palladio residence sleeps up to 16 people.
Best Value Villa Pisani 1 Via Risaie, Bagnolo di Lonigo; 39-0444/831-104, fax 39-0444/835-517; about $1,200 a week for a duplex apartment.
Hotel Campo Marzio 21 Viale Roma, Vicenza; 39-0444/545-700, fax 39-0444/320-495; doubles $163, including breakfast. This small, modern hotel is Vicenza's best in-town choice.
Villa Cipriani Hotel 298 Via Canova, Asolo; 39-0423/952-166, fax 39-0423/952-095; doubles from $230. Set on a hillside, this luxurious 16th-century, 31-room villa overlooks Asolo's old town.


Al Molin Vecio 56 Via Giaroni, Caldogno; 39-0444/585-168; four-course dinner for two $60. The "Palladian dinner" must be ordered a day or two in advance.
Cinzia e Valerio Contra Porta Padova, Vicenza; 39-0444/505-213; dinner for two $90. Dine on Venetian-style seafood under canvas ceilings painted blue and adorned with white clouds.
Trattoria Zamboni 14 Via Santa Croce, Lapio (near Arcugnano); 39-0444/273-079; dinner for two $90. This large, plain trattoria, down and then up a mountain from the Villa Michelangelo, serves excellent pappardelle with morels (when in season) and asparagus, and tender venison.
Barbesin 41 Via Montebelluna, Castelfranco Veneto; 39-0423/490-446; dinner for two $60. A favorite with locals, near the Villa Emo and the Villa Cornaro. Try the taglierini rossi, made with local radicchio, and the sliced duck with rosemary.
Le Calandre 1 Via Liguria, Sarmeola di Rubano; 39-049/630-303; dinner for two $125. Ultra-refined Italian dishes in an elegant setting, located incongruously in a strip mall between Vicenza and Padua.

Palladian Villas

La Rotonda 45 Via della Rotonda, Vicenza; 39-0444/321-793.
Villa Cornaro 107 Via Roma, Piombino Dese; 39-049/936-5017.
Villa Barbaro 7 Via Cornuda, Maser; 39-0423/923-001.
Villa Emo 5 Via Stazione, Fanzolo; 39-0423/476-616.
La Malcontenta 11 Via dei Turisti, Malcontenta; 39-041/547-0012.


The Palladio Guide by Caroline Constant (Princeton Architectural Press)An easily portable guidebook that lists all of Palladio's extant buildings, with black-and-white photos, architectural plans, brief descriptions, and useful maps. Double-check opening times.
Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time by Bruce Boucher (Abbeville Press)A well-written and handsomely illustrated monograph.


Select Italy (847/853-1661, fax 847/853-1667) offers a five-day tour of Palladio's architecture, with visits to the Teatro Olimpico and Palladio's first villa, the Villa Godi, in Maliverni. Rates start at $1,200.

Scene in Venice
Palladio's celebrated Benedictine church on the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore is visible from across the lagoon. To visit, fax the Cini Foundation (39-041/523-8540) for an appointment.

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