One of the delicious pleasures of being a frequent traveler to Italy, is the opportunity to escape the well-beaten tourist trail and explore the quiet corners and less traveled roads of this beautiful land. Driving about an hour north of Venice, my husband and I were headed on just such an adventure. We were on the Palladian trail. Namely, Andrea Palladio, the renowned 16th century architect, whose splendid villas still survive in this region.
In the waning glow of the Renaissance, five hundred years ago, the great and opulent city of Venice, had reached the summit of her power and wealth. Nearby, close to the Northern Adriatic coast, a cluster of country houses, unique and graceful, began to appear. These bucolic villas of exterior porticoes, classic columns and unerring proportion, were powerhouses. The disciplined, almost austere outward elegance coupled with sumptuous frescoed interiors, declared to all who passed, “We are noble; we own this land and more…much more.” Eighteen of these villas, within a fifty-mile radius, still survive. All were designed by Andrea Palladio, who remains to this day, one of the most influential architects of the Western World.
Villa Godi (1537) was the first of Palladio’s villas and it was here, to the village of Lonedo, that we were headed one fine Italian afternoon. The house is now a state owned museum and world treasure with the hours of operation for weekdays, weekends and holidays clearly printed. Italians love official signage, but unlike tourists, they never take it seriously. In Italy, schedules are, as they say, “variable,” merely a suggestion. So just to be safe, we called Villa Godi from our hotel. “Si, si, today is a day when the villa should be open, but Signora, mi dispiace, we have made a special accommodation for a small French tour group; the house is open for them alone.” Perhaps he heard the disappointment in my voice, and being a man, an Italian man, who enjoyed pleasing women, even one he did not know, he said that if we arrived soon, we could informally join the group.
The road to the Villa was longer than we expected, and by the time we arrived, the French were long gone and the caretaker was securing the iron gates. More than the tip we offered him, I think he sensed our admiration for the villa and its architect, and it was this that won him over. “My husband too is an architect,” (true) I said. “We’ve traveled all the way from New York just to see Villa Godi.” (exaggeration) Civil servants are different in Italy. It was the momentary camaraderie with a stranger that seemed most important to him.
He grinned and left us in front of the house, at the foot of the grand staircase. We climbed the steep steps of the central frescoed portico, and entered through tall, substantial wood doors. We were completely alone in this marvelous space, like two children left unsupervised in some forbidden grownup place. There was a quick rush of excitement. Our voices and footsteps echoed off terrazzo floors and frescoed walls, resonating through the enormous space around us. Very large chandeliers of colored Murano glass hung from thirty foot timbered ceilings. As we wandered from room to room, slowly taking it all in, the formal architectural simplicity and restrained use of ornament unfolded around us like a Venetian fan.
Only the frescos, covering every wall from floor to ceiling, seemed almost too sumptuous. Perched on ledges, entering through doorways, peeking from behind heavy draperies, were members of the Godi family and figures from Roman mythology. All were at least life size and painted in elegant three-dimensional trompe l’oeil. We lingered in this unguarded splendor for some time, enjoying the solitude and the treasure of this great villa. Palladio’s 500th birthday was commemorated three years ago, but on that fine afternoon at Villa Godi, he was with us, alive and well.
Photos by Jane Hope Fox