Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), the grand master of architectural order, has left his much-revered mark across Italy’s Veneto region – most notably at La Rotonda and Villa Barbaro. Considered one of history’s most influential architects, Palladio designed numerous symmetrically noble masterpieces across northern Italy’s fertile plains throughout the 16th century. I’m one of his many admirers and have paid my respects to his astutely humanistic design-engineering prowess. But I’ve also had the opportunity to explore the country estates crafted by Palladio’s gifted contemporaries.
The Venetian villa phenomenon was directly tied to the growing noble and merchant classes in this area during the Renaissance. To escape the heat and humidity of Venice, Vicenza and Verona, they hired prominent architects to construct elaborate “rustic” estates that allowed for culture in the provinces, the overseeing of their vast agricultural holdings, and cool breezes. Considering that books have been written on the hundreds of these restored mini empires, and tourist maps drawn exclusively for villa aficionados, these monuments attest to the vast wealth and power of the Venetian Republic.
I restricted my sightseeing to five distinct villas: three in Lonigo, a province of Vicenza; two on the outskirts of Verona. Like churches and castles, villas – with their standard formula of spacious and frescoed living quarters, intimate chapels and sprawling gardens – can induce a certain noble-estate fatigue.
These grand homes all come with a requisite aristocratic name attached. In the case of Lonigo, it’s the omnipresent Venetian Pisani family, many of them doges and cardinals. There’s an interesting twist to the Jefferson Memorial-like La Rocca Pisana designed in 1576 by Vicenza-born architect Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616). It’s often confused with Palladio’s nearby La Rotonda. Both sit on a high hill, exhibit recognizable Neoclassical elements, and feature open-air domes and floor grates modeled after Rome’s Pantheon. Scamozzi’s house, however, is less adorned and of a smaller scale than La Rotonda. Is La Rocca Pisana a form of architectural plagiarism or an example of imitation being the best form of flattery? Most likely, the latter. Palladio began building La Rotonda in 1567 but, upon his death in 1580, Scamozzi completed its construction. He went on to honor his mentor with a series of unpretentious, harmonious country living spaces.
I felt connected to La Rocca Pisana in its respect for airy, open rooms that favor ennobling light sources and satisfying perspective. Its wide outdoor columns frame a heavy door that opens into a gleaming-white foyer leading to tranquil minimalist rooms with mahogany bedposts and armoires, and breezy gossamer curtains. The sound design was not overwhelmed by vast splashes of trompe l’oeil or wide tapestries; the structure was allowed to breathe.
The rustic and unfinished Villa Pisani at Bagnolo Lonigo felt even more unselfconscious. I broke my own rule when I discovered that it was designed by the Padua-born Palladio in 1542, but represents one of his first villas with classical Greco-Roman touches. And his designs were not entirely realized – a Doric portico and large staircase remained on the drawing board. The villa, more accurately a feudal estate, is also built over the ruins of a medieval castle. It’s a lovely combination of a refined country estate and practical functionality that blends in with the existing structure and natural surroundings (a bell tower seemed to grow out of a cluster of trees).
Villa Pisani’s interior emits an embracing warmth through its long-blackened walk-in fireplaces and sturdy wooden tables and chairs in a substantial kitchen. It’s still a functioning farm, with a barn and stables, granaries and wine cellars along the Gua River. Yet the music room of the main house is adorned with frescoes of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – a gracious marriage of labor and aesthetics. This manor house is not to be confused with another Villa Pisani in the nearby town of Stra – an ostentatious late-Baroque mansion with billowing ceiling frescos by Giovanni Tiepolo.
My next venture consisted of a less-secular abode. Villa San Fermo di Lonigo has ecclesiastical origins tied to the Benedictine Order going as far back as the 10th century. Now the home of the missionary Pavoniani Order, it experienced its most elaborate restoration in 1834 when it was bought by a nobleman named Andrea Giovanelli. The villa’s most recognizable aspect: the words San Fermo spelled out in hedges and a long portico topped with reclining nautical gods, allegorical representations of Italy’s rivers. The main entrance appears abruptly off a busy road, but the drive to the actual grounds takes at least another five to ten minutes.
Decidedly religious in feel, a peaceful cloister is attached to a whitewashed chapel lined with busts of popes and a commanding statue of the Virgin Mary. The venerable halls echo with scholarship and impressive collections of rare books. The library’s cupola, however, features those epic illicit lovers Paolo and Francesca swirling around eternity in a perpetual embrace. Today Villa San Fermo di Lonigo is a multi-purpose enterprise: a religious center, a setting for Baroque concerts, a B&B, and a vineyard/enoteca.
I wrapped up my great-house hunting at two estates with more recent histories, that is, more recent in relation to the others. Villa Arvedi, located in Cuzzano-Grezzana (just outside Verona), was designed by G.B. Bianchi in 1650 and purchased by the Arvedi family in 1824. It evokes a jaw-dropping sense of grandeur, with its Baroque furnishings and art work. A chapel contains exquisite frescos by Lodovico Dorigny; a private Baroque church is dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo, a hefty ecclesiastical name associated with the Counter-Reformation.
But Villa Arvedi’s most breathtaking feature is its topiary playground of low boxwood hedges swirled about in the shape of an intricate maze accented by pointy cypress trees. Appropriately, the villa and its gardens are rented for weddings, meetings, and other special events.
In the vicinity of the Valpolicella Classica vineyards, the Villa Novare boasts its own rolling vineyards and cellars as the home of Bertani wineries’ Amarone Classico. So wine tastings are quite popular here, including tours of the hulking barrels and contraptions used to press grapes (one reminded me of a squat, multi-piped machine suited to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory). Built in the early 18th century, Villa Novare was owned by silk merchant Giacomo Fattori and is comprised of an imposing villa, quaint chapel, and a peaceful earth-toned park with weeping willow trees and wooden footbridges surrounding a pond.
The villas of the Veneto, though unquestionably a refuge for the nobles at play, also honored the abundant natural riches of the land.