Part 1 – The City
In travel, as in life, it’s the unexpected surprises that stand out and capture the heart in a way that expected highlights rarely do.
On a recent trip to Venice and Verona, I added, at the last minute – due to the recommendation of both a cousin who lives in Venice and a New York architect – the small town of Vicenza, about which I knew next to nothing, except that it was midway between the two other cities, home of 16th century architect Andrea Palladio, and easy to access by Italy’s excellent railroad system.
It was love at first sight, even on a grey, drizzly afternoon when few people were on the street or perhaps because — in sharp contrast to Verona (wall to wall tourists) –few people were on the street. Within an hour’s stroll, I realized that Vicenza had everything I seek when traveling, authenticity, beauty and breathtaking architecture, all waiting to be captured by my camera. (I never worry about eating well in Italy. It’s a given.)
By the time I’d unpacked, the sun had come out and I was back on the city’s main street (Corso Andrea Palladio), eager to explore in greater depth what I’d just glimpsed.
Over the next few days it became clear that Vicenza is a jewel — one of those small, northern Italian towns where local residents still outnumber tourists and the ancient rhythms of Italian life still dominate the streets, stores and cafes.
Yes, there were the requisite number of modern shops (H&M, Ralph Lauren, etc.) that now seem de rigueur in most Italian cities, but they were tucked away in graceful covered arcades where people ate, chatted and socialized, and citizens of all ages whizzed by on bicycles, oblivious to the weather.
Vicenza is a family town where religion still seems to play a role. I saw nuns and friars strolling about, and observant Catholics waiting patiently in the rain to enter the cathedral.
Palladio – City and Country
The main draw of Vicenza is the architecture of Palladio (1508-1580). You don’t have to be a student of 16th century architecture to immediately feel – as I did – the lightness and intimacy of his style, especially compared to the heavy, massive buildings – gothic, oriental, baroque, renaissance – lining the canals of Venice and streets of Verona. His graceful villas and public buildings, which embodied neo-Platonic ideals of harmony and proportion, are scattered throughout Vicenza and the undulating countryside of the Veneto region.
If Palladio’s work looks familiar, it may be because his graceful vocabulary of arches, columns and domes inspired Jefferson’s Monticello, among others, and thereafter informed our view of classic private and public architecture. It’s an architectural style that invites you into its intimate and well-proportioned spaces.
I began with the Teatro Olimpico, which happened to be almost around the corner from the small, family-run hotel (Relais Santa Corona ) I’d booked online. The Teatro, Palladio’s last work – and a masterwork — opened in 1585, and is the oldest roofed theater in the world. It still hosts music events and is famous for its perspective stage, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi.
Diagonally across from the Teatro is a gorgeous early Palladio building, Palazzo Chiericati, which has been restored and now functions as a civic art gallery. And only a short distance away is the Palladio Museum, housed in Palazzo Barbarano.
The heart of the city – and its main gathering place — is the immense Piazza dei Signori, presided over, on the south side, by the magnificent and beautifully restored Basilica Palladiana, with its two sets of loggias and an inverted ship’s hull roof designed by Palladio. You can get a great view of the city from its rooftop terrace.
However, the best perch for people watching, and observing the sun move from east to west, illuminating the columns and historic buildings surrounding the square, is a café in the Piazza. For only three Euros (the price of a Prosecco and salty nibbles), I sat and watched for hours as multiple generations of Italian families bought ice cream, shared a glass of wine and took their evening and Sunday strolls (fa la passeggiata).
Palladio is particularly well known for his country villas, a number of which are within a car, bus or taxi ride from Vicenza. Professional guides are available but the owner of my hotel graciously suggested that I avail myself of the services of a young summer employee (a student between graduate programs) who would be happy to take me around in her car for a fraction of the cost. It was one of the Relais’s many small courtesies, in addition to a lovely and reasonably priced room, that makes me want to return on my next visit.
Villa La Rotonda (built in 1570), was considered an “ideal villa” when it was designed and constructed, and is now a world famous symbol of Palladio’s aesthetic. Unfortunately, it was closed on Monday, the day of my visit. But I did get to see it from the outside, and understood immediately its relationship, as a model, to Jefferson.
Across the lane from La Rotonda is Villa Valmarana Ai Nani, so named because statues of dwarfs (nani) run along an outside wall of the villa. Though not designed by Palladio it’s worth a visit for its gorgeous Tiepolo (father and son) frescoes, created in 1757, as well as the Villa’s gardens and exquisite views of the countryside.
Visitors to Venice sometimes visit Vicenza for the day (mostly by train) but I’d suggest two or three days savoring the full pleasures of the city – including a jewelry museum and a beautiful Gothic Church with a Palladian Chapel — and surrounding countryside.
Vicenza calls itself “pearl of the Renaissance.” Once you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.
Images by Eleanor Foa Dienstag