The Best Architectural Landmarks in Northern Italy
Palazzo Ducale (Venice): The Gothic palazzo from which the Venetian Republic was ruled for centuries offers two incredible experiences. One is simply to wander the gorgeous rooms and halls, which are decorated with frescoes and paintings (including the world's largest oil canvas) by all the Venetian School greats, from Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese on down. The placards in each room are marvelously informative, not only about the art but also about the function of each room and its role in government or daily Venetian life. But to discover what really made the Byzantine Venetian political machine tick, take the Secret Itineraries tour, which lets you slip behind the camouflaged doors and enter the hidden world of the palace-within-the-palace, the chambers in which the real governing took place, all wedged into the massive space between the inner and outer walls of the palazzo. See the chamber where the powerful Council of Ten met, the tiny office where the doge's secretary kept track of all the machinations going on in high society, the tribunal where three judges condemned the guilty and hanged them from the rafters, and the cramped "leads" cells under the roof from which Casanova famously escaped. Then saunter across the storied Bridge of Sighs to explore the dank, dungeonlike prisons across the canal where lesser criminals served out their miserable terms -- lagoon floods and all.
Ca' d'Oro (Venice): Though no longer graced with the decorative facade that earned Venice's most beautiful palazzo its name House of Gold, the 15th-century Ca d'Oro remains one of the most gorgeous palaces in Venice, outside (view the main facade from the Grand Canal) and in. The gallery of art, donated -- along with the palace -- to the state by Baron Giorgio Franchetti in 1916, includes paintings by Van Dyck, Giorgione, Titian, and Mantegna. There's also a small ceramics museum and fantastic canal views.
Ca' Rezzonico (Venice): Even though Venice was, in fact, well past its heyday in the 18th century and technically in decline, this is nonetheless the era in which the city expressed its own unique character fully, the age of Casanova and costume balls, all the things we picture when we think of Venice. To this end, the Rezzonico, built in 1667 by the same architect who crafted the baroque Santa Maria della Salute and topped with an extra story in 1745 (and once owned by poet Robert Browning), was turned into a museum of the 18th century. The powers that be wanted the "museum" moniker to be taken lightly; in reality what the city has done is outfit this gracious palazzo as an actual house from the era as closely as possible, using pieces culled from across the city. Adding to the 200-year time warp are a series of scenes from daily Venetian life painted by Pietro Longhi, plus several carnival frescoes that Giandomenico Tiepolo (son of the more famous Giovanni Battista Tiepolo) originally painted for his own house.
Villa Pisani (Stra, Brenta Canal): Tiepolo frescoed the ballroom for this massive 18th-century villa built for the family of a Venetian doge, though Napoleon bought it in 1807. Its most notorious moment, though, came in 1934, when two European leaders met here for their very first summit: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The rooms are sumptuous, and the gardens are extensive and include a quirky hedge maze.
Villa Barbaro (outside Asolo): Though the villas right around Vicenza get more visitors, this 1560 Palladio-designed masterpiece outside Asolo is perhaps the most gorgeous to visit. That's because it matches the perfect Palladian architecture with stunning frescoes by Veronese, which carpet almost every inch of wall and ceiling inside. And to think it's still actually in private hands (with owners gracious enough to allow visitors in)!
Villa Rotonda (outside Vicenza): If you've seen Monticello, the architecture of Washington, D.C., or Inigo Jones's buildings, you'll be prepared for La Rotonda -- it was the model for them all. UNESCO has placed this pinnacle of Palladio's architectural theories, a towering monument of human achievement and ingenuity, on the same World Heritage List as the Pyramids. This is Palladio's strict neoclassical take on the Renaissance in all its textbook glory, an ancient temple rewritten as a home and softened by Renaissance geometry of line. It was also one of his last, started in 1567, but largely executed by a faithful follower after the master's death.
Villa Valmarana (outside Vicenza): Mattoni's 17th-century Palladian-style villa is nicknamed ai Nani, or "of the dwarves," because its walls are patrolled by an army of stone dwarves. The architecture isn't all that remarkable, but the 18th-century frescoes inside by Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo certainly are.
Palazzo Patriarcale (Udine): Until 1734, it was the bishops who ruled Udine as patriarchs, and the final patriarch had the foresight to invite Tiepolo to Udine to decorate their palace with scenes from the Old Testament that double as early-18th-century fashion shows. There's also a fine collection of locally carved wood sculptures spanning the 13th to 18th centuries.
Palazzo Te (Mantua): Raphael's protégé Giulio Romano, hounded from Rome over a scandalous series of erotic engravings, was let loose to fill libidinous Federico Gonzaga's Mannerist pleasure palace with racy frescoes. The place was built to look as if it were crumbling, from arch keystones to the illusionist frescoes in the Room of Giants.
Il Vittoriale (Gardone, Lake Garda): Gabriele D'Annunzio was a Romantic ideal made of flesh, an Italian Hemingway-meets-Shelley, an adventurer, soldier, and poet who napped on a funeral bier covered in leopard skins; who carried on a torrid affair with the greatest actress of his age, Eleonora Duse; and who crafted every iota of his villa in meticulous Victorian detail. It's said that Mussolini himself gave D'Annunzio the property -- either to honor his vociferous support of Fascism or simply to shut him up before he said something to get them all into trouble. D'Annunzio was a bit of a hothead and not much of a team player. In 1918, he flew to Vienna just to drop leaflets on it and prove, to what he saw as the wimpy Italian military command, that he could penetrate that far. When the Adriatic town of Fiume, previously promised to Italy, ended up in Yugoslav hands, he led his own army to occupy the town and claim it -- much to the chagrin of the Italian commanders, who had to talk him into giving it up and coming home (this is the "victory" after which the villa is named). With a whole villa to keep him occupied, D'Annunzio proceeded to remake it to his own image. The very route guests take upon entering is a subtle and intricate play on the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy. The sheer volume of bric-a-brac is enough to drive a maid with a feather duster nuts, but is redeemed by the fantastic anecdote or quirky explanation behind each one (hope for a chatty guide with a good command of English). Nestled in the extravagant gardens are a structure built as a ship, the actual boat D'Annunzio commanded during the Great War, his biplane, and his heroic hilltop tomb.
Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace; Turin): This was where the Savoy kings hung their crowns in all the sumptuous, overwrought, gilded glory that the 17th and 18th centuries could offer. From Gobelin tapestries to Oriental vases, from the royal armory to the elegant gardens laid out by master landscape architect Le Nôtre (who did the Versailles gardens and those of the Tuileries in Paris), this palace drips with royal frippery.
Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi (outside Turin): Sicilian baroque genius Juvarra laid out this extravagant and palatial hunting lodge for the Savoys in 1729. To fill the numerous frescoed rooms and vast halls of its giant, sinuous X-shape, local authorities have collected furnishings, paintings, and other decorative elements from dozens of Savoy palaces to create here a sort of museum of 18th- and 19th-century interior decor. Napoleon liked it so much that he set up housekeeping here for a time when he first conquered the region before pressing on. (Note: The lodge is closed for restoration, likely through 2010.)
Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola (Genoa): The Spinola provides its collection of canvases (by Antonello da Messina, Guido Reni, Luca Giordano, Van Dyck, and Strozzi), with a stellar backdrop consisting of a Genovese palace of which the merchant/banking Spinola family lavishly frescoed and decorated each room.
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