Milan - Homes with a history
Born half a millennium ago, Andrea Palladio was destined to become one of the greatest architects of all time. Today, the palaces and villas he built in Northern Italy are popular destinations for architectural tours; and for some people, they are even a more or less regular home
Homes with a history
Some houses are more than just rooms with walls around them. "When I decided to move into this house, many of my friends saID it had a special magic," says Christian Malinverni, a business consultant from Milan who has been living in the magnificent Villa Godi Malinverni just outside Vicenza since 1997. "I was skeptical, I don't believe in that kind of thing. But I have to admit that there really is something unusual about this place. Maybe it's the air or the water, I don't know, but my begonias survive the winter outside without any problems. My gardener thinks that's normal, but when I told my florist in Milan, he laughed."
But some people are also surprised to learn that Malinverni lives in the villa through the winter. The reason for their consternation is that Villa Godi Malinverni was built by Andrea Palladio, the star architect of the Italian Renaissance. It's an early work dating from ca. 1540, has 12 000 square meters of floor space and ceilings up to nine meters high - and there is barely a wall that isn't covered with frescoes.
The drawing rooms, sometimes nine meters high, are replete with frescoes
Andrea Palladio was not the man for false modesty. He was over 30 when he traveled from his hometown of Vicenza to Rome, where he fell in love with the Pantheon: Now something just like this - only more modern - was what he wanted to build! Today, nearly 500 years later, we know his was not simply the crazy dream of a megalomaniac, but a dream fulfilled thanks to his patrons, who included the prelate Paolo Almerico, who had returned to his native Vicenza after a brilliant career in the Vatican and who loved the country life.
Almerico envisioned for himself a villa worthy of a pope, and Andrea Palladio obliged him in 1566 by conceiving the monumental La Rotonda. Visible from quite a distance, it stands proud amid the undulating hills outside the gates of Vicenza. Neither architect nor patron lived to see the villa completed because it took over 40 years to build. After an eventful history, a neglected and abandoned La Rotonda was ultimately bought by the Venetian Valmarana family in 1909. "My grandmother was friendly with Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal," says Conte Ludovico di Valmarana. "She sent them on ahead to Vicenza to view the villa and only after they returned, full of enthusiasm, did she actually buy it."
Today, Conte Ludovico lives with his wife, his two sons and their families at La Rotonda. But only in the summer, when it's hot outside and deliciously cool within the villa's walls. You would freeze to death there in the winter because there is no central heating - nor will there ever be: "Warm air is bad for the frescoes," says the intractable 84-year-old.
He has made some concessions to modern-day comfort, however, putting in electricity and running water, and installing bathrooms. He also prides himself on the kitchen he made serviceable for his cook by providing a wood-burning stove and a stone sink.
Serviceable for creating culinary delights! It's very easy to picture pasta being rolled out on the massive kitchen table and a succulent roast browning in the oven. The dining room easily seats twelve, and if more diners arrive, a long table is placed beneath the central dome or outside in the loggia. "We enjoy life at the villa," says Conte Ludovico, "it's a pleasure to entertain friends and guests here in the summer."
Paying guests are only permitted to view the villa from the outside, and even that is not always possible. The count is unrelenting. "It is our home, after all," he points out.
La Rotonda is a monumental piece of architecture that even provided the architects of the White House in Washington with inspiration. Visitors are welcome to view from the outside, but not to enter the building
This doesn't stop up to 50 000 people coming to the gates of the park each year requesting admission. La Rotonda is an architectural monument that has served as the model for countless buildings, including the White House in Washington and the replica a Palestinian billionaire recently erected on a green hilltop near Nablus.
Who exactly was Palladio? "A genius," opines artist Manuela Bedeschi, seated by the gigantic fireplace in her Palladian kitchen at a wooden table as old as the villa itself. She lives with her husband at Villa Pisani Bonetti - but also only in the summertime. They spend their winters in Verona.
Villa Pisani Bonetti restored to former glory following extensive renovation
She holds art shows in the spacious premises, too. The living quarters are on the second floor, in the converted hayloft, in the drawing rooms and in the splendid loggia. Bedeschi loves the property. "It's a house, not a palace, and it's relatively easy to maintain. It looks like Palladio spared a thought for the cleaning women, too."
Art and art exhibitions are an important part of daily life at Villa Pisani Bonetti
Andrea Palladio was born in Padua on November 30, 1508 and spent much of his life in Vicenza.
The old part of town alone is the site of more than 20 Palladio palaces, churches and arcades, which is why UNCESCO listed Vicenza as a World Heritage Site in 1994. Corso Andrea Palladio is the main artery in the center of town, where Max Mara, Armani and Benetton boutiques stand cheek by jowl with ice-cream parlors, pharmacies and cafés. Visitors are well advised to stop for a coffee or a snack at Pasticceria Sorará on Piazzetta Palladio, where the cappuccino is good, the cakes are even better, and the terrace affords an excellent view of an impressive Palladio statue and the town's giant basilica also designed by the master.
"You know, Palladio wasn't so crazy that the villas he built cost a stack of money to run," says business consultant Christian Malinverni. Originally, nearly all of his villas came with farms that helped pay for the their maintenance and provided a living for their occupants. This is no longer the case. "Too expensive," says Malinverni, "we have to come up with other strategies in order to keep the villa going."
He rents out the grand entrance hall, spacious drawing rooms and the garden to wedding parties and businesses as a venue for receptions, conferences and presentations.
Visitors keep out! Built in 1540, Villa Godi Malinverni near Vicenza is open to visitors, but they are not allowed indoors
The team of 22 domestic staff has its hands full. "There's always some problem. Keeping the villa going is a 24-hour job," one lady admits.
Five-year-old Ludovica Malinverni is oblivious to all of this. She lives with her parents in a modernized wing of the villa and is delighted when her daddy puts up a large screen in one of the drawing rooms on her birthday for her and her friends to watch a Disney movie. She knows all five gardeners by name and also that it will take her a long time to find her shoes again if she leaves them lying around. "You get used to this life," says Christian Malinverni. "It's exactly what I wanted."
The villa's facades owe their decorative patina to 400 years of history
When all's saID and done, his grandfather got himself a bargain when he bought the property in 1960 for 300 million old lire (around 160 000 euros). Over the years, renovations have cost three times the purchase price, but Christian Malinverni has been offered between 30 and 40 million euros for the villa in the meantime. Not that he's interested in selling. As he says, there's a special magic about the place.
Villa Almerico Capra Valmarana "La Rotonda":
Probably the most famous and also most beautiful Palladio villa, La Rotonda occupies a hilltop location on the Riviera Berica, two kilometers from Vicenza. Its consummate symmetries and columns are fine examples of Palladio’s architectural mastery.
Via della Rotonda 45, Vicenza, Tel. +39-444/32 17 93. Outside viewings only
Villa Angarano Bianchi Michiel:
The residence of Count Giacomo Angarano is located close to Bassano del Grappa. Although alterations have been made over the centuries, the villa’s two L-shaped barchesse and their columns are still just as they were originally built in 1548.
Via Corte 41, Sant’Eusebio - Bassano del Grappa. Outside viewings only
This villa was built in 1545 and is the property of Vicenza province. It is used for art shows and boasts some superb frescoes. The well-stocked library on the ground floor also contains a number of works devoted to Palladio.
Via Zanella 3, Caldogno, Tel. +39-444/90 50 54, open 3-6pm, Saturday 9am-12 noon
Villa Godi Malinverni:
Reputedly the first villa Palladio built, its construction goes back as far as the year 1540. Villa Malinverni houses a collection of paintings and fossils as well as a pinacotheca showcasing 19th Italian art. Almost all of the furniture here dates from Palladio’s day.
Via Palladio 44, Lonego – Lugo di Vicenza, Tel. +39-445/86 05 61, www.villagodi.com, open Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday 2-6pm October through March, and Tuesday 3-7pm, Saturday 9am-2pm and Sunday 10am-7pm June through September
Villa Pisani Bonetti:
The villa was neglected for many years and has only been carefully restored more recently. Today, the owners use it for art exhibitions. The gardens provide a charming backdrop for vernissages.
Via Risaie 1, Bagnolo di Lonigo, Tel. +39-444/83 11 04, www.villapisani.net, open all year round. Tours by telephone appointment only
Built ca. 1550 for the noble Paltinieri family. The Paltinieris did not live here but used the villa as an administration building for their estates. The villa is still bordered by a country estate and is regarded in architectural circles as a particularly fine specimen of Palladio’s work. The villa is used for residential purposes today as well as for exhibitions.
Via Castello 43, Poiana Maggiore, Tel. +39-444/89 85 54, www.villapoiana.it, open Wednesday through Friday, 10am-1pm and 2-6pm, Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm in summer; in winter only by appointment. Telephone reservation required
Photos: Martin Nink