Noble families in Italy’s Veneto region are opening their villas to tourists
PICKEDout by the sharp light of an early summer’s day, Villa La Rotonda looks unnaturally perfect, its shallow dome echoing the low hill on which it stands, an exercise in pure geometry, a cross on a square on a circle, milky pale as if carved out of ice-cream.
The house has stood since 1567. It sits just outside the small northern Italian town of Vicenza, in the Veneto. This is the region that surrounds Venice, its capital, forming a lush agricultural plain in the shadow of the Dolomites. From Venice, it stretches towards Verona and Milan in the east, and south towards Bologna.
Vicenza is a pleasant little town, but if it weren’t for the works of Andrea Palladio, a miller’s son from Padua who, inspired by the architecture of ancient Rome, created the Rotonda and scores of other buildings in the town and across the Veneto, it is doubtful many tourists would search it out.
Palladio designed some of the most eerily perfect buildings ever constructed. For centuries architects, artists, poets, and wealthy tourists have come to revere them and gone home to imitate. His influence survives not just in mansions such as the White House but in countless town halls, libraries and museums across the world.
Villa La Rotonda is the most famous of his villas; Villa di Maser, on the outskirts of the village of the same name, and where Palladio died in 1580, is perhaps even more beautiful, cut into a hillside with breathtaking views and interiors covered in ravishing frescoes by Veronese. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites, but there are dozens more scattered across the Veneto, and literally thousands by other architects. ‘‘Perhaps the art of architecture has never reached such a height,’’ the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his notebook when he came to La Rotonda in 1786 on a personal pilgrimage.
Goethe evidently managed to get inside, since he described the domed central hall as ‘‘of the most beautiful proportions’’. Many pilgrims have been less fortunate. Most of the privately owned houses have never opened to the general public, and the ones that were open kept odd and unpredictable hours, with no central information point to help plan visits.
But this year, a new initiative has launched to promote these treasures, with private, public and commercial owners co-operating for the first time. A Ville Venete website now details the project of ‘‘opening up’’ the houses, and so I managed to get into several Palladio villas across the region, some of which host guests for overnight stays.
I strolled at dusk through a private wood scattered with carved stones from older buildings right back to the Romans. I tried not to stare too hard at sideboards covered in photographs of half the titled families in Europe that I recalled vaguely from Hello! magazine’s royal wedding spreads; stood in frescoed halls just as the Venetian aristocrats once stood gazing at their vines and fields stretching to the horizon.
I even stayed in a huge frescoed room in another palace, Villa Corner della Regina, near Treviso, a charming town bypassed by millions of tourists every year on their