Flee­tothe coun­try

Head north out of Venice for long hori­zons and few tourists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - STAN­LEY STE­WART

STAND­ING on the Rialto Bridge, I have a bit of a melt­down. Venice is not at its best — hot, smelly and full to the brim. In the Doge’s Palace, I was over­whelmed by a bat­tal­ion of Ja­panese. In the Ac­cademia, I was shoul­der­charged by Rus­sians with a keen in­ter­est in Ti­tian.

Now there are no tables at my favourite res­tau­rant — it has found its way into an Amer­i­can guide­book. I have had enough. I need to get out.

I hop on a train across the bridge to the main­land, hire a car and flee, a refugee from mass tourism.

It is a great tradition, this flight from Venice into the plains of Veneto and be­yond to the Dolomites. Vene­tians do it all the time. This is where they fled from the Turks in the 16th cen­tury, from whor­ing English­men in the 18th, and from ev­ery na­tion­al­ity of tourists in the 21st. This is where the great Vene­tian fam­i­lies, ea­ger for a bit of terra firma, took their hol­i­days. This is where they dreamed of a house in the coun­try.

North­ern Veneto helped to make Venice — iron from Fel­tre, wood from Bel­luno, pros­ecco from Val­dob­bi­adene for the belli­nis in Harry’s Bar. Shaped by the ar­chi­tec­tural ge­nius of the 14th and 15th cen­turies, the small, walled cities of the re­gion are el­e­gant en­closed worlds. Ar­chi­tec­turally, lit­tle has changed, be­yond the in­tro­duc­tion of a few branches of Benet­ton, since the scaf­fold­ing came down 600 years ago.

The el­e­ments are sim­i­lar to Venice — log­gias, ar­cades, cob­bled al­leys, Re­nais­sance palaces, splen­did pi­az­zas — but here you get them as they were meant to be ex­pe­ri­enced, not with heav­ing crowds of Ger­mans, but with a scat­ter­ing of el­e­gant Ital­ians. There are tables at the restau­rants, there is soli­tude in the basil­i­cas and in ev­ery town there is a hand­ful of master­pieces that would be star turns in any of the world’s great gal­leries.

In Tre­viso, you even get canals. Not the slack wa­ter of Venice, but brac­ing cur­rents that surge be­neath the town bridges, spin­ning wa­ter­wheels on the canal-side houses. In the old cen­tre, cafe tables spill into the sun in a col­lec­tion of gor­geous in­ter­lock­ing pi­az­zas. I or­der a cap­puc­cino. The waiter doesn’t speak English. For the first time in a week, I feel I am trav­el­ling.

There is a splen­did Ti­tian in the cathe­dral, but the most star­tling mas­ter­piece here is by Tom­maso da Mo­dena. In the colos­sal 13th-cen­tury church of San Ni­colo, a pri­est waves me to­wards a clois­ter. I push open an an­cient door and step into the chap­ter house, a sin­gle me­dieval room. Round the walls are the por­traits of 40 em­i­nent Do­mini­can fri­ars, seated like school­boys at their desks in robes and wide-brimmed hats. Each is an in­di­vid­ual. Here are the early stir­rings of the Re­nais­sance. Tom­maso was es­cap­ing the iconic and the ide­alised for the par­tic­u­lar, the hu­man. One monk sharp­ens his quill, an­other blows ex­cess ink from his nib, an­other gazes di­rectly at us, rather cross at be­ing in­ter­rupted. I am face to face with the 14th cen­tury.

About 30km to the west, in the old walled city of Castel­franco, I seek out one of the most mys­te­ri­ous painters of the Re­nais­sance. Only half a dozen paint­ings can be defini­tively at­trib­uted to Gior­gio da Castel­franco — known to us as Gior­gione or Big Ge­orge — and even some of these are in doubt. All of them have in­flu­enced painters and cap­ti­vated crit­ics for cen­turies. One is here in the cathe­dral in Castel­franco, Big Ge­orge’s home­town.

The tech­nique in the Castel­franco Madonna is stun­ning, from the han­dling of the fig­ures to the melt­ing dis­tances of the land­scapes. But, as with all of Big Ge­orge’s work, it is the at­mos­phere that is so strik­ing, the haunt­ing, dream­like qual­ity of his char­ac­ters, locked in their pri­vate worlds.

Half an hour away, in Venice’s Ac­cademia, vast tribes of tourists are fight­ing for a glimpse of Gior­gione’s The Tem­pest. Here in Castel­franco, seated on a com­fort­able bench in a side chapel, I am alone for half an hour with this paint­ing, in­ter­rupted only by a woman who comes in to light a can­dle and pray for her late hus­band’s soul.

Many of the great Vene­tians — glam­orous mer­chants who ruled the Adri­atic and cre­ated a global trad­ing em­pire — nur­tured a cu­ri­ous am­bi­tion. They wanted to be farm­ers. Af­ter a bad morn­ing among the crowds of the Rialto, you can un­der­stand them. They longed for open air and long hori­zons. They came into the Veneto to buy land and plant crops.

When it came to build­ing their farm­houses, they turned to a favoured ar­chi­tect, An­drea Pal­la­dio.

All across the Veneto, Pal­la­dio built the most beau­ti­ful houses in Europe. Not con­tent with a fa­mous ar­chi­tect, the folks at Villa Bar­baro got Paolo Veronese in to the paint the walls. Among fres­coes of mytho­log­i­cal gods and al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ures, the walls are lit­tered with play­ful visual il­lu­sions as char­ac­ters step in and out of imag­i­nary doors.

But my favourite pal­la­dian villa is Villa Emo. The fres­coes may not be in the same league, though there is a lot of fetch­ing nu­dity. But the bath­tub is longer than 2m, for me a deal­maker in a house. Stand­ing in the cen­tral hall, with tall dou­ble doors open on ei­ther side and the long per­spec­tives of the gar­dens, I need only an

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