One of the joys — and there are many — of my hanging my hat in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy is the easy access I have meandering back in time to discover life as it was around the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
In its heyday, when the Lion of St. Mark roared and everyone listened, the Doges and aristocrats of La Serenissima built like crazy their sprawling, warm-weather estates in the countryside of the Republic that enhanced the coffers of the money-mad merchants of Venice.
When documented and tallied, there were over 4,300 Venetian villas dotting the Republic’s landscape, but only 22 still stand today that were designed by Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, better known as Palladio, the most influential individual in the history of western architecture.
These 22 manors, each one a stepping stone through the High Renaissance period, are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site catalogued as City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto.
With the aid of my car’s GPS, along with willing curators and owners clutching keys, I’m framing (photographing) as many of these fine examples of Palladian real estate as I can, one front gate at a time.
“Arriving at destination,” Ms. Garman announces as I come to a halt in the parking lot just down the street from Via Roma 35 in Piombino Dese. It’s the address of Villa Cornaro, the fourth stop on our Framing Palladio photo-shoot series, following Villas La Rotonda, Poiana and Saraceno.
Here to greet me on the front steps are Carl and Sally Gable, an American couple from Atlanta, GA who just happen to be the proud owners of Villa Cornaro — only the sixth family to hold the deed to this architectural masterpiece that’s been standing for 462 years — and who have graciously agreed to show me around their May-to-September humble abode.
In search of a traditional, two-story, clapboard holiday home in New Hampshire for their extended family, the Gables took a dramatic right turn in the mid 1980s and headed over The Pond when they spotted an “unusually unattractive ad,” as Sally describes it, in the New York Times for a Palladian villa for sale in the Veneto by its then owners, fellow Americans Richard and Julie Rush of Greenwich, CT. Lots of financial intrigue and Italian bureaucracy ensued, with the Gables finally taking ownership of Palladio’s capolavoro (masterpiece) in 1989 and adding “ora Gable” (now Gable) to the bronze nameplate on the property’s main gate.
Located about 30 km (18 mi.) from Venice in the province of Padova, Villa Cornaro was designed by Palladio in 1551 for Giorgio Cornaro, the younger son of a wealthy Venetian family who was a Procurator of San Marco — the second most-prestigious life appointment, just below a Doge of Venice — and the brother of Catherine Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus. The initial, move-in construction of the villa was quickly completed in 1553.
A design challenge from the start, the land to support the new villa was narrow, bookended by a barchese (barn) and a pre-existing villa; so, Palladio had to think outside the box and design upward, not outward like he did with his previous villa projects.
The result was the introduction of the first-ever, two-tier, projected portico-loggia at the front of the villa, which steps out from the main structure.
According to my host-guide, Carl, “Palladio anticipated change in the concept of residences, away from the fortress and towards comfort, function, and interaction with the surroundings. His introduction of the double portico-loggia motif was striking, flexible and subject to infinite elaboration and permutation by subsequent generations of architects.”
Among those who absorbed the Palladian design was Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, who selected Villa Cornaro and its double-loggia motif as his initial model for his personal Virginia estate, Monticello.
This elegant, innovative paradigm shift greatly influenced Western architecture for hundreds of years, becoming a dominant theme in Georgian, Adam and Colonial American architectural styles.
The interior space of approximately 20,000 ft2 (1,858 m2), consisting of 14 major rooms and 4 minor ones, a cantina (cellar), a granaro (granary) 160+ windows and 44 pairs of shutters, is a harmonious arrangement of the strictly symmetical plans on which Palladio insisted without exception.
Before I’m given a look around, I’m handed a pair of oversized felt slippers to put on to help protect the original 16th century wood flooring that covers part of the ground level. To be honest, I feel as if the Gables are putting me to work buffing the floors as I begin sliding from room to room.
On both the main and piano nobile (noble floor) levels, rooms of inter-related proportions are composed of squares and rectangles, each flanking a great hall, resplendent with four free-standing columns, that frames the exterior vistas at both ends of the manor.
The rooms are adorned with an 18th century fresco cycle of 104 New Testament-themed panels, with their surprising freemason symbolism, painted by Mattia Bortoloni, along with a private, family portrait gallery of stuccos by Camillo Mariani that include full-figure statues of Doge Marco Cornaro and the aforementioned Catherine Cornaro.
Unfortunately, I’m only given the green light by Carl to take two interior photos, one of the formal dining room and the other of the Queen of Cyprus statue.
Outside, I’m free to shoot at will and capture the beauty of Villa Cornaro’s exterior, from the small, labyrinthine front garden to the spacious, you-can-see-forever backyard with its grass-covered brick footbridge that crosses over what used to be, as Carl describes it, a peschiera (fishpond) — and will soon be again as a nearly two-year project to restore it is in its final stages — and a wrought-iron gate with decorative brick pillars marking the end of the property line.
The scenes are so atmospheric that I’m almost tempted to ask the Gables if they’d consider taking me on as a renter. One of the broom closets will do just fine.
“Villa Cornaro,” as Carl points out, “is unique among the still remaining Palladian works due to the extent of its original tile and terrazzo floors and the original exterior intonaco (stucco-like material) that covered the brick substructure of Palladio’s country villas.”
Add to that, the south facade bears original graffiti recording family member births, deaths and honors from the 1600s, along with a note from a cousin recording his 1690 escape to Piombino from Venice to avoid “contagion” from the plague. Yikes!
My visit now over, I’m invited to sit a spell under the lower rear portico and enjoy the serenity of this grand Palladian villa as the late afternoon sun warms my face and a glass of sparkling Prosecco, bearing the Villa Cornaro name, cools my palate. Priceless.
The villa is open to groups of ten or more year-round by appointment only. To book, email email@example.com or call +39 049-936-5017. Visits by individuals are limited to the May-September period on Saturdays only from 3:30-6:00 p.m.
For more information on Villa Cornaro, visit the official website by clicking HERE, or read the book Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House by Sally and Carl Gable.
©The Palladian Traveler