Head north out of Venice for long horizons and few tourists
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