Pleasing the Palladian Palate

By Arnold Berke

In the Veneto—the hinterland of Venice in Italy’s northeastern corner—the man of the hour is Andrea Palladio. The man of the year actually, for the world-famous architect was born 500 years ago this November, and his home region, his country, and the outside world are enthusiastically marking the anniversary. From Vicenza, the city where he left so many landmarks, to the countryside dotted with his elegant villas, to Venice itself, home of his great churches, Palladio’s name seems to be on everyone’s lips.

Palladio was born in Padua in 1508 as Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola, a miller’s son. His first job was as a stone cutter there at the age of 13. But he soon fled to nearby Vicenza to learn more about building, eventually winning the patronage of Count Giangiorgio Trissino, who renamed him Palladio and took him several times to Rome. There Palladio studied the ancient monuments, whose architectural vocabulary he would use in new ways. His talents appealed to a growing aristocracy, who commissioned him to design scores of buildings. After Palladio’s death, villas and other buildings in his style continued to appear, and his fame spread abroad, thanks in part to the popularity of another of his great works—a written exposition of his design credo called The Four Books of Architecture. Britain, Russia, and then the American colonies erected grand neoclassical edifices in the Palladian style.

I toured Vicenza and the Veneto recently, taking in many of the architect’s buildings and learning something of the region’s culture. Located 40 miles west of Venice, between Padua and Verona, Vicenza is a regal city with elegant palaces, fine churches, and splendid public structures. Palladio’s most celebrated works there include Palazzo Barbaran da Porto and Palazzo Thiene, built for two of the top noble families, and the Basilica, the original town government seat—a group of earlier Gothic buildings that he slip-covered with two floors of elegant arcades. Add to these the inimitable Palazzo Chiericati, now an art museum, and the Teatro Olimpico, a classic Roman-style amphitheater reborn as an interior space, and you’re on your way to seeing the 20-plus buildings that Palladio contributed to Vicenza. It’s no wonder the city’s main street is called the Corso Andrea Palladio.

Palladio also busied himself designing country villas for an aristocracy that had risen as Venice retreated from dominating the seas to developing its own back yard. The villas crowned estates that mingled working farms with noble living, where storage for crops and equipment might be brought right into the mansion.

One of the most alluring (and photographed) is Villa Barbaro, near the town of Maser 40 miles northeast of Vicenza. It is symmetrical (as are virtually all of the architect’s villas), a temple-fronted pavilion flanked by long arcaded wings. Famous painter Paolo Veronese embellished the interior with stunning trompe-l’oeil frescoes, and the small rear garden features a nymphaeum, an elegantly curved wall populated with classical statues.

The villa list is long, so if you like to tarry in the countryside you’ll find treasure after Palladian treasure to visit (or at least drive by, since some are privately owned). Definitely not to be missed are Villa Foscari (called, romantically, La Malcontenta), with its magnificent portico; Villa Emo, similar to Barbaro but much less ornate; Villa Cornaro, a tall cubic structure with two-story porticos front and rear; and the stately Villa Badoer, framed gracefully by its service wings. Most famous of all is Villa Rotonda, just outside Vicenza. Unlike the others, it was built as a pleasure palace. A cupola-topped square with four identical temple-fronted sides, Rotonda crowns its hill majestically and is visible from many nearby points. If you must see but one Palladio, this is your place.

And don’t forget Venice, with Palladio’s religious buildings—landmark churches like the Redentore, San Giorgio Maggiore, and the Zitelle, with their associated structures (a cloister, refectory, and convent). His proposal for a very classical Rialto bridge over the Grand Canal, never carried out, is a fascinating story in itself.

The Palladio 500 celebration began in 2007 and is generating tours, exhibits, conferences, publications, musical and theatrical performances, and even special restaurant menus. I enjoyed one of the last at the delightful Trattoria Molin Vecio (“restaurant of the old mill”), not far from Villa Caldogno, one of Palladio’s lesser-known houses. The bill-of-fare featured foods typical of the 16th century—fried and marinated trout, risotto with Jerusalem artichokes, and thin-sliced beef with juniper and wild carrots. Who needs tomatoes?

The top draw is the exhibition “Palladio: 500 Years,” running from Sept. 20, 2008 to Jan. 6, 2009 at Vicenza’s Palazzo Barbaran da Porto. The show’s architectural scale models, drawings, manuscripts, paintings, books, statues, and other objects flesh out the story of Palladio’s life and times, his works, and worldwide influence. Among other must-dos are tours of Vicenza’s historic core—if you can get the indefatigable and supremely knowledgeable guide Attilio Pollini, you’re especially lucky—and self-guided driving tours of Veneto villas by Palladio and later architects. (Check out the websites at the bottom for full information.) In the U.S., the architect is hardly being ignored, as historic houses and other institutions pay him homage on his 500th birthday. Palladian-style houses open to the public include Drayton Hall, near Charleston, S.C., and the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, Md. The big exhibition, after leaving Vicenza for a run in London, may wind up on our shores. It’s planned, but not yet scheduled, for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Stay tuned.

Resting Up

For those considering a similar jaunt, let me recommend two hotels well located for touring both city and countryside—each delightful in its own, very different, way.

It may come as a surprise that Italy has suburban commercial strips much like those of the U.S., if at a less punishing scale. On one of them west of Vicenza near the Milan-Venice autostrada, in the hamlet of Altavilla, is the Best Western Hotel Tre Torri. The 93-room hotel is not long on looks from the outside, with its rather boxy, almost industrial, appearance. But don’t let that fool you. Step inside and be surprised at how well the place, completely renovated recently, carries off contemporary design—from the crisp (and very comfortable) guest rooms to the public spaces, especially the lobby with its ingenious use of glass, metal, wood, stone and tile (the latter two no surprise, since this is Italy). Off to one side is a small, stylish bar—they call it the American Bar—that, like the rest of the lobby, carries off with great aplomb what I like to call “happy modernism,” the sort of international-style design that delights rather than challenges you.

The names of two of the Tre Torri’s meeting rooms—Rotonda and Palladio—show how much the locals love and promote the architect. The hotel’s stylish restaurant—called L’Altro Penacio (“the other Penacio”) to indicate chef Enzo Gianello’s nickname and the fact that this is his second local outpost—serves regional dishes. The one that sticks most in my mind is the Veneto version of baccalà, softly luscious salt-cod dumplings accompanied by fried polenta. Certainly not what you’d expect from a Best Western in the States. (For more information, visit www.bwhoteltretorri-vi.it.)

“Business and Romance” is the tag line for Hotel Villa Michelangelo, high up in the Berican Hills just south of Vicenza. It takes but little time there, though, to realize that the latter sweetly trumps the former. Yes, the place is impressively equipped for all manner of workaday—world meetings and social events; you and the boss and other suits could get a lot accomplished there. But let’s face it: The luxury, the elegance, the peace—the views!—that this little Eden serves up are what make it truly special.

The hotel really was a villa, a country retreat built late in the 18th century for nobleman Gaetano Flaminio Tomi. The original house, which includes a period church that is still visible as the reception hall, dominates the elongated ensemble. Many families, uses, additions, and renovations after Tomi, the place was reborn in 1987 as a hotel (renovated in 1997 to provide 52 rooms and suites and slated for further expansion). Modern though it is, Villa Michelangelo boasts much of the original building fabric—exterior walls and window frames, columns and chimneys, beamed ceilings and balconies. I had the good fortune to stay in a former open terrace refashioned into a guest room, with a long wall of windows I could open to the misty evening air. All of this is set into a luxuriant landscape that can ease the worst of travel fatigue.

In this park grows a centuries-old pomegranate. Its branches and fruit inspired the tableware used in La Loggia, the hotel’s restaurant, set into the former portico and opening onto the garden. Here chef Paolo Cecconi and staff excel at risottos, pastas, and other dishes using all sorts of local ingredients and complemented with regional wines. One of the hotel’s packages includes a class in renaissance cooking, a banquet based on that theme, two nights’ stay, and a guided tour of Vicenza landmarks. “The hotel offers the necessary requirements to satisfy a clientele prone to culture,” says General Manager Pietro Rusconi. Should you, God forbid, ever tire of things Palladian, you can swim in the huge and modern pool or play golf nearby. My less-athletic fantasy is to take every unread book I own to the villa, then spend the rest of my days reading them, occasionally gazing across the grounds and down into the valleys below. (For more information, visit www.hotelvillamichelangelo.com.)

One of the many bits of travel literature I picked up on my trip listed regional “sigh-seeing.” This typo summed up my mental state after days and days of touring: pleasurable contemplation of the splendor of Palladio’s masterpieces laced with the wistful realization that I might never see them all.

For further information on the Palladio anniversary celebration, check out these websites:

* http://www.palladio2008.info
* www.andreapalladio500.it
* www.cisapalladio.org

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