A flavour of the Veneto

Alison Minns, one of the members to secure a coveted place on the Society's tour of the Veneto in June, reports on an enriching experience.

Visit the Veneto on a Regency Society study tour and lose five pounds in six days – David Robson, our guide, claimed to do just this. The stress of herding and educating 27 “youngsters, middlers and matures” as he categorised us, perhaps?

I’d heard such glowing reports of David’s Berlin tour I was determined not to miss this one. He was assisted by John McKean (both are professors of architecture) and had planned the trip impeccably, navigating the way through a complex collection of scattered venues with idiosyncratic opening times.

Our prime aim was to uncover the genius of two Italian architects: Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) – actually described as “second rate in his day” by David – and Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978), by visiting villas, mooching in museums and perambulating through palazzos and piazzas, with the odd historic theatre, basilica and cemetery thrown in. With comfy coaches at our disposal, my congenial travelling companions and I discovered the delights of Vicenza (our base), Verona, Venice, Mantua and Padua.

Before David’s pre-Veneto London trip and a delve into the recommended reading, I knew nothing about the two architects but at the end of the tour I was able to distinguish a voussoir from a thermal window and realise I have a voussoir above my (Hove) villa front door. The display at Villa Poiana, featuring villa plans and block models explaining Palladian proportions, also helped demystify.

I still find it a challenge to name all the villas, which apparently assume the titles of their current owners – and there are two Villa Pisanis. Relatively modest, with perfectly proportioned rooms housing stunning art, Villa Pisani (Bagnolo) felt stately yet homely. We bought bottles of estate wine here, rebranded Pissani by a group wag.

Villa Capra                             Scarpa's Brion Family Cemetery

The group, Villa Pisani, Bagnolo        The Teatro, Vicenza

Villa Capra stands out both literally and metaphorically, commanding a prime position overlooking Vicenza. The setting for Losey’s Don Giovanni (sequences of which David had thoughtfully shown us), it boasts a Pantheon-like dome with in-your-face decoration. Another highlight was Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico. Seated on the original wooden seats we admired the dramatic 3D stage sets.

David’s forte was Palladio. John’s was Scarpa. Our first Scarpa experience was Verona’s Castelvecchio Museum. My companions liked it – the odd angles, the staged displays. But it left me unimpressed: lumpy, muddled, concrety. In Venice we had an illicit picnic in Scarpa’s Querini Stampalia garden. Again, I found the lines, angles and colours uninspiring. It wasn’t until we visited Scarpa’s Brion Family Cemetery that I began to appreciate the composition and construction of the complex and get my eye in for those trademark details.

We didn’t neglect other aspects of Italian art, marvelling at the muted colours of Mantegna’s Mantua frescoes and the vibrant colours of Giotto’s Padua frescoes. In Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore we came upon Kapoor’s intriguing installation Holy Ghost and had free time to explore Venice: the Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Grand Canal…or have a long, lazy lunch. Our visit to Verona’s Giardino Guisti coincided with the play of early evening light and shadow. Lofty cypresses, a squat box hedge maze, pots of lemon trees and fountains made for a perfectly peaceful setting.

We packed in such a variety of sites and experiences. Visits to villas were interspersed with samplings of prosecco, aperol (a lurid orange Campari) and grappa. And Regency Society chair Mary McKean, with her fluent Italian, seamlessly organised excursions to excellent restaurants for those who had not over-indulged in ice cream.

Food for the belly and food for the brain. Both diets were rich and sustaining. I just don’t see how David lost that weight.

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