Heritage trail

Published : Nov 12, 2014 12:30 IST

The Cathedral of Piazza Duomo in Vicenza, erected in 1430 in Gothic form with chrome marble and blind arcades and attributed to Domenica da Venezia.

The Cathedral of Piazza Duomo in Vicenza, erected in 1430 in Gothic form with chrome marble and blind arcades and attributed to Domenica da Venezia.

THE quotidian commute that tends to keep our senses mostly dormant because of the monotony of familiar sights and sounds often makes us forget that journeys can transport our sensibilities to infinite wonder. I had this realisation as I travelled across the north-eastern part of Italy, in its slightly lesser-known region—as opposed to the usual, enticing blinkers that Indian tourists are familiar with. If you visit this region, it will offer you a combined promise of superlatives: unending scenic beauty, dense historical grandeur, a plethora of architectural marvels, a rich treasure of visual art, a wide spectrum of—often regional—gastronomy and a range of wines and grappas for the oenophile’s delight.

I reached Venice’s Marco Polo airport (via Istanbul) in an early afternoon on a comfortable Turkish Airlines flight from Delhi. However, instead of succumbing to the obvious lure of heading for Venice, I swerved my journey towards Vicenza, known for its generous repository of both nature and culture—a scenic countryside and mountains with sprawling stretches of cultivated land on the one hand and elegant art, architecture and urban design on the other.

City of Palladio

The registered English-speaking local guides in this Veneto region are well-informed and friendly and they can transport you to different times and nourish your interest in history or in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance art and architecture. The origins of Vicenza date back 3,000 years, and since the early days the city has taken an active part in the making of Europe. Although many legendary artists and unknown masters, specially during the Renaissance, dedicated their gifts to enrich the glory of Vicenza, it is Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) who remains the architectural legend here for his prolific creations. In fact, Vicenza claims to have the highest number of architectural works designed by him. These include 23 monuments, palaces, public and religious buildings in the town centre and 16 villas in the province. In fact, the term “Palladian” has been a ready reference to relate not only to Palladio’s oeuvre but also to those like the 18th century villas whose architects were inspired by his conceptual designs and teachings. In fact, UNESCO inscribed “Vicenza, City of Palladio” on its list of World Heritage Sites in 1994. After two years, the site was expanded to include the Palladian villas outside the core area and accordingly renamed “City of Palladio and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto”.

Why was Palladio’s architecture so highly favoured by the Italian gentry? The primary reason was that his style is the epitome of powerful symmetry without being ornate and the materials used by him were often not expensive. Many of his buildings were made of bricks covered with stucco, and this stuccoed brickwork was invariably used in his villa designs to realise his notions of the Roman villa. His success and influence were born out of the combination of aesthetic quality and the expressive social ethos of the time. This manifested itself in three major types of construction: the urban palazzo, the agricultural villa, and the church. And, of course, in the exquisite theatre, Theatro Olimpico, which was his swan song creation in 1580, the year of his death at 72.

I began my Palladian trail at Vicenza’s historic city centre. At Piazza (Square) Matteotti stood Palazzo Chiericati, which has been turned into Vicenza’s Town Museum. Although it is considered the most spectacular civilian residence designed by Palladio, what struck me was its simplicity, if not austerity, of appearance compared with the great monuments in Rome and Florence. The museum had one of the greatest art collections of the Veneto region, including an overview of the art scenario of the 16th century that suggestively evoked the relationship between the figurative arts and the architecture of the times.

As I turned away from this building, I saw the time-tested ramshackle Pallazo del Territorio, inside which lay hidden the magical theatrical space of Theatro Olimpico. It was designed with an elliptical auditorium, framed by a colonnade, with a frieze being crowned by a row of statues on the top. The stage itself held layers of decorated walls with panels and bas-reliefs—and with five openings at the proscenium plus inner passages inside the stage that let loose a stimulating mental game of perspectives.

Most of Italy always dwells between its glorious past and trendsetting present, and Vicenza, especially, fits into this pattern. However, before I ventured to step on to the spacious Piazza dei Signori, the site of splendid architectural feats, I stopped by the goldsmith laboratory of the grand designer and artisan Daniela Vettori in the historic Palazzo Gualdo Cevese in Via Paolo Lioy. The designer said: “My early studies in art led me to fully hone my artistic skills in modelling silver and gold in order to extract the silvery reflections of the moon and the golden rays of the sun. I re-elaborated ancient jewellery techniques in a very personal way with the use of fire to transform the precious metals and also with wax with which I model my ornaments by hand.” The charm of the precious gems with rather unusual forms of the ornaments have made Vettori a trendsetter in this domain (www.danielavettori.com).

The most impressive square in this historic city is doubtless the spacious Piazza dei Signori. Two notable architectural constructions, Palazzo del Monte di Pietà and Basilica Palladiana, stand there almost face to face. Completed in the mid-16th century, the former has balconied mezzanines with rows of shops in the long stretch of its ground floor (this phenomenon of chic boutiques on the ground floors of historic buildings are a common sight in Italy), while the latter accommodates in itself the Pallazo Della Ragione of the late Gothic period, with its loggias built by Palladio—the work began in 1546 and ended in 1614, 34 years after the architect’s demise.

Along with art and architecture, Vicenza could well be a coveted destination for golfers and for oenophiles too. My brief visit for an early dinner invitation that evening at the Golf Club Colli Berici compels me in retrospect to recommend this game field, which lies hidden from outside amidst lush natural beauty. Moreover, its big restaurant has master chefs who cater to both non-vegetarian and vegetarian taste buds (www.golfclubcolliberici.it).

Next day, I headed for Bassano del Grappa and dropped by at the renowned Poli distillery, that produces the typical grappa of the region. Jacopo Poli, the present helmsman of the enterprise, explained that “the quality of a grappa depends primarily on the quality of the grape marc. It is the skins of the grapes that are vital in the production of grappa which form a spongy mass rich in aroma and full of sugary alcohol.” He also added that “although grappa is known worldwide as a perfect grape-based Italian brandy of sorts, what is not so well known is that it can also be mixed with other culinary ingredients to prepare delectable dishes—for example, in pastry-making”. The adjoining Poli Grappa Museum is a veritable storehouse of information on everything about the Italian grappa, explained in booklets and on hanging boards, in Italian and English. The museum also presents classified varieties of grappa, stored in bottles of different shapes and periods.

Winemaking has also been done in Italy over generations by families like the Zonin family, which began winemaking nearly 200 years ago. Casa Vinicola Zonin is one of the largest family-owned wine companies in Italy and one of the most important in Europe. Among its nine wine estates spread over a total of 4,000 hectares, and located in seven wine regions of the country, I visited the one in Gambellara in Vicenza. What was most rewarding about the visit was that I got a chance not only to taste the varied home-grown drinks, but also to learn much about producing and preparing them from the exhibits and literature at the estate’s museum.

The Chess game

With a mighty castle and a hilly backdrop in the distance, the grand square of the walled town of Marostica looked stark and empty as I spotted only a lone toddler being helped by his mother to feed a trailing pigeon. I was informed by a local guide that every other year in September this square actually resembled an enormous chessboard, with live and throbbing people, horses and so on used as game pieces, and a throng of onlookers witnessing the event. The story behind the chess game dates back to 1454 when Marostica belonged to the Venetian Republic. Two noblemen fell in love with the same girl, the daughter of the lord of Marostica’s castle, and as was the custom, they challenged each other to a duel to win the girl’s hand. The lord, however, forbade this fatal encounter and decided that the two rivals should instead play a game of chess, and while his daughter would marry the winner, the loser would marry her younger sister. This game turns resplendent against the nocturnal sky as a host of entertainers and fireworks add colour to the game—while the kings and queens, rooks and knights, bishops and pawns from opposite directions engage themselves according to the decided moves of the two impersonating suitors.

My next visit in Vicenza, to Bassano del Grappa unfolded the region’s spectacular beauty of water and rock. River Brenta runs along the valley of Valsugana as it flows further down to Padua and along a canal towards the lagoon near Venice. And the rock in question is the hilly region of Monte Grappa. The name has nothing to do with the drink. It is here that the solid wooden bridge Ponte Degli Alpini, designed by Palladio in 1569, connects the banks of the Brenta. It was rebuilt towards the end of the Second World War after it was destroyed by the retreating German troops. It was destroyed again in 1966, by a flood in the Brenta. However, the disasters have left no mark on its impeccable appearance. Bassano is a sleepy town with picture postcard houses, often with ornate designs drawn on the façade.

As I moved along, I halted at the Santa Maria Annunciata church and there were a myriad of other churches and chapels on the way.

Among Vicenza’s countryside dwellings, Villa Valmarana “Ai Nani”, built in 1669, is one of the most significant. The name (Ai Nani) refers to the tragic legend of dwarfs whose statues stood along one side of its outer wall. It is the tale of a dwarf princess who lived secluded in the pre-existent castle with all her dwarf servants. One day, upon seeing a beautiful prince in the garden, she became aware of her handicap and flung herself from the castle’s tower out of self-pity. As a punishment for their negligence, the dwarf servants were petrified and placed along the surrounding wall of the villa. In 1720, the Valmarana family became the owners of the villa. They commissioned the architect Francesco Muttoni to make changes and ornamental embellishments to it. In 1757, Giambattista Tiepolo was commissioned to fresco the edifice. His depictions of scenes from European mythology abound in the villa’s spacious halls. The villa now includes an owner’s residence, a guest house, stables, and a splendid garden that surrounds it, stretching along a longitudinal axis matching the natural profile of the Berici hills.

From Vicenza, I headed for Verona, which stands at the intersection of many layers of history. As the bus took me to the heart of Verona, at the spectacular Piazza Bra, I felt the pulse of this ancient city. The enormous first century Roman amphitheatre Arena, which could once host more than 30,000 spectators, stood majestically. However, the frozen time on the circular façade seemed to pulsate as I saw the Arena gearing up for a series of events of operas and classical orchestral music, a rich blend of refined entertainment, history and nature —surely intended to promote tourism and seasonal employment.

Apart from the architectural grandeur of the Arena, there were also a few other Roman edifices along my way in Verona, including Ponte di Pietra (Stone Wall Bridge) and the splendid San Zeno Basilica, flanked by tall, beautiful bell towers. Like some other Veronese churches, this one is built with alternating layers of white stone and bricks. Verona was accorded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 2002.

Verona is the backdrop against which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. Juliet’s House in the downtown area has become a haunt for youngsters. The local tourism industry has managed to keep the romantic legend perpetually alive. To go there, I began my walk through Porta Borsari, an archway at the end of Corso Porta Borsari. Italy’s clear sky with sharp sunlight created a playful contrast of designs as shadows of buildings fell magically on the façades of adjacent ones. Another marked feature of most Italian cities that I know is the vibrant market area stretching along the vista of the broad pavement in the middle of the road. My present itinerary saw no exception. When I reached the House, I saw a crowd striving to enter its portico. Its inside walls were covered with love-message graffiti in many a language which, I was informed, were washed clean every night for the next day’s writers to scribble on.

The building, which belonged to Juliet’s Capuleti family, was of medieval origin but of no special look, save the famous balcony jutting out from above towards a cluster of small shops and a bronze statue of Juliet by the boundary wall. In this courtyard was a throng of love-pilgrims, waiting for their turn to do the popular practice of stretching up to the statue to touch her right breast and have their photos taken.

The wine-producing zone of Valpolicella, specially at the Tommasi estate, and the precincts of Castello Bevilacqua, a castle with over 700 years of history, are worth a visit. Both are in Verona. Valpolicella is a significant centre of winemaking. Here the eponymous red wine is made from three grape varieties, best exemplified at the Tommasi viticulture estate whose vineyard reportedly extends over 135 hectares in Verona alone.

Romain Maitra is a Fulbright Fellow in Visual Arts at CUNY, New York, U.S.; art and design critic; independent curator of contemporary art; international travel writer; columnist on society and culture; ex-research fellow, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris; and ex-consultant, Sector for Culture, UNESCO Headquarters, Paris.

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