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The Brenta Canal, running from Fusina to Padua, functioned as a mainland extension of Venice during the Renaissance, when wealthy merchants began using the area as a retreat from the city's summer heat. Dubbed the Riviera del Brenta, the 17km (11-mile) stretch along the banks of the canal from Malcontenta to Stra is renowned for its gracious villas, 44 of which are still visible. Meticulous readers of Shakespeare will remember that in The Merchant of Venice, Portia's home is a villa at Belmont along the Brenta.

The region's primary architect was Andrea di Pietro, known as Palladio (1508-80), who designed 19 of the villas. Inspired by ancient Roman architecture, Palladio's singular design -- square, perfectly proportioned, functionally elegant -- became the standard by which villas were judged. His designs are familiar to Americans as the basis for most state capitols and for Jefferson's Monticello.