Words Tom Weber
For over a millennium, the Most Serene Republic of Venice (La Serenissima) was a wealthy, majestic and innovative maritime power. A leader in trade and diplomacy between Europe and the Orient, Venice uniquely bridged the social, political and cultural divide between the two geographies.
Sadly, like all great powers, the Republic lost its strength, alliances fell apart and, while the rest of maritime Europe headed west following the discovery of the New World, La Serenissima stayed close to home. But in its heyday, between the 16th and 18th centuries, when the Lion of St. Mark roared and everyone listened, the doges and aristocrats built splendid Venetian villas on their estates in the countryside of the Republic.
When the last coat of paint finally dried and the final fresco was unveiled, there were over 4,300 Venetian villas dotting the landscape, monumental agricultural centres of architectural fame filled with great art that collectively became known as Civiltà delle Ville Venete (Civilisation of the Venetian Villas). A particular group of these estates were designed by Maestro Andrea Di Pietro della Gondola, better known as Palladio, one of the most influential individuals in the history of Western architecture.
This collection of villas, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, represents a distinct architectural style known as Palladianism – a neoclassical interpretation of the ancient temples of Greece and Rome – which spread like wildfire around Europe, including Ireland and the UK, and eventually reached North America.
Of all the iconic buildings, churches, residences and monuments across the Veneto region of north-eastern Italy that bear the imprint of Palladio, there is one that fully encapsulates the Maestro’s vision of an architectural design and associated lifestyle: Villa Almerico Capra, better known as La Rotonda.
Considered Palladio’s masterpiece, La Rotonda stands proudly on top of Collina San Sebastiano, a small terraced hill on the outskirts of Vicenza along the Riviera Berica.
Commissioned by Paolo Almerico – a prelate of the Papal Court in Rome, an intellectual, a poet and a member of a refined cultural circle – Palladio set to work on Almerico’s retirement home in 1567 and completed La Rotonda in 1571.
After Almerico’s death, ownership was passed to his son Virginio, who then sold it in 1591 to Odorico and Mario Capra, two brothers of a noble family of Vicenza. La Rotonda changed hands once more when the Valmarana family of Venice took ownership in 1911, and it has remained with them for safe-keeping ever since.
Not long ago, as a resident of Vicenza, I was standing inside the entry gate of this world-renowned landmark, all set for a private tour with one of the owners and the person most responsible for the management and upkeep of the Palladio’s pride and joy: Niccolò Valmarana.
Perhaps the best known and certainly one of the most majestic of the Palladio-designed villas of the Veneto, La Rotonda has a unique temple-like feel that sets it apart. As Niccolò points out, ‘The central round hall, with its impressive domed vault, is framed outside by four, equally-balanced and identical façades, each accented by six Ionic columns that support the airy porticos and wide steps.’
Inside, I attempt to grasp the genius of Palladio, and the precision workmanship of his army of artisan craftsmen. The raising of the villa-temple is all Palladio, but many of the interior decorations – frescos by father-son painters Giambattista and Alessandro Magnaza and Frenchman Louis Dorigny, stuccoes by Agostino Rubini, and ornate marble fireplaces by Ottaviano Ridolfi and Rubini – along with the large barchessa (storage barn) fronting the villa and the wall surrounding it (both designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi), were added after Palladio and La Rotonda’s original owner, Almerico, had left this world. According to Niccolò, it’s doubtful that Palladio would have approved of the ‘upgrades’ to his original design, dismissing them instead as being too over-the-top.
The symbolic centrepiece of La Rotonda’s interior is, believe it or not, a decorative air-duct cover on the floor, directly underneath the frescoed cupola. It is here, on this ornate spot, that La Rotonda’s most honoured guests, noteworthy scholars, intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, nobles or politicos would be positioned to meet those who came to admire and applaud their achievements. As Niccolò explains, ‘Being placed on this ‘pedestal’ was quite an honour for the select few, and indicated, at least for the moment, that they were standing symbolically at the centre of the known universe with all eyes upon them.’
Built without a traditional foundation, La Rotonda has stood the test of time thanks to twenty-six wide arched columns that gracefully flex their muscles underneath the piano terra (ground floor).
Speaking of floors, the one that covers the entire main hall is called pastellone, a mixture of brick dust, lime and red marble. Fitted in a continuous-flow application and hand trowelled by artisan installers centuries ago, it is still in pristine condition as if it were laid down just yesterday. This is because it is fed twice a year with a thorough coating of raw linseed oil which is absorbed into the pavement to protect it from cracking, and which also gives it its illustrious shine. It’s believed, but not confirmed, that raw eggs were initially used to feed the floors. If true, an awful lot of hens must have worked overtime.
The current state of La Rotonda dates back to 1976 when the Valmarana family put in place a rigorous program of continuous maintenance, restoration and preservation. ‘It’s a labour of love with equal parts of the heart and mind,’ Niccolò offers. ‘The heart, to ensure that we remain passionate in preserving the Maestro’s efforts just as they were centuries ago, and the mind, to ensure that the property is well managed and presentable for all the world to see.’
The gates of La Rotonda are open to visitors – nearly 40,000 annually – most of the year, on various days of the week and at varying times, for group or private tours. And, if the villa happens to be closed when you arrive, you can still see it from afar by peering through the entry gate to get a glimpse, or by looking up from the road down below. Either way, it’s just how the villa was originally intended to be viewed and admired.
Ever since that first step was taken across the threshold back in the 16th century, poets and artists, sovereigns and political leaders, scholars and art historians, travellers and tourists have visited Palladio’s masterpiece and marvelled. Still today, almost 450 years later, La Rotonda remains a place of architectural beauty that continues to inspire, even while the Maestro sleeps.