Palladio and Prosecco: Parallel Expressions of Bella Figura

The events we call history are like stones skimming over the placid waters of time: each light touch creates a series of ever-widening echoes on the surface. One such event altered the fortunes of a wine region and decided the destiny of a man whose works continue to influence architects the world over. For had Vasco da Gama not discovered a direct sea route to the Orient in 1498, the Republic of Venice would not have expanded its vineyard holdings on terra firma, and Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, stonemason, might never have become Andrea Palladio, master architect.

At the time of Da Gama’s discovery, Venice maintained a virtual monopoly on trade routes to the East, and most of the city’s citizens were involved in some way with sea trade. Little thought was given to agriculture; the Republic of Venice even imported grain, leaving the fields on terra firma untilled. By the early 1520s this dependence on foreign cereals had led to severe food shortages. Venetian noblemen woke up to the fact that economic stability depended upon exploiting the agricultural potential of the mainland. These commercial needs, entwined with a growing enthusiasm for Humanist ideals, laid the foundation for the development of the country villa.

In 1524, 16 year old Andrea di Pietro joined Vicenza’s bricklayers’ and stonemasons’ guild. While working on the building site of Villa Trissino, some fourteen years, he later met the man who was to change his life: the eminent Humanist scholar and poet Count Giangiorgio Trissino (1478 – 1550). Under the patronage of Trissino, he travelled to Rome, a trip that inspired him to develop an architectural style based on classical Roman principals. Trissino also gave him the name by which he is known today: Palladio, after an angel who explains the divine significance of geometrical forms in architecture in Trissino’s poem “L’Italia Liberata dai Goti”.

Palladio’s first verifiable work as an architect dates from the 1540s: it coincided with a building boom created by a Venetian tax relief scheme that encouraged town-dwelling nobles to invest in farming complexes. Prior to this, the word “villa” usually referred to agricultural buildings. Palladio was the first architect to recognize that country houses could be monuments to their owners’ Humanist ideals (which bestowed an aura of sacredness on agricultural pursuits) as well as being potent symbols of wealth. He also thoroughly understood his Venetian clients’ desire to keep a watchful eye on their ducats, and succeeded in producing villas of sublime beauty – at a reasonable cost.

How was he able to achieve these seemingly contradictory objectives? As Renaissance Art Historian, Lisa Rubenstein explains it, “Palladio was first and foremost a stonemason, so he knew his materials better than most architects then – or now – ever did! Whenever possible Palladio stuccoed overa cheap brick column, and made it look like it was made of marble.” The Villa Rotonda, near Vicenza and Palladio’s last Villa, is perhaps the best example of this: he only used stone when he absolutely had to carve – such as on the ionic volutes atop the columns, the pediments on top of windows and the statuary. “The Villa Rotondalooks as if it is entirely made ofstone and marble,” continues Rubenstein, “but what you actually have is the architect cleverlycutting corners without anyone being any the wiser.”

With Palladio the style of the Veneto Villa reached its apex, both in terms of architectural beauty and operational efficiency. He summarized his philosophy in his architectural treatise, The Four Books of Architecture (first published in 1570 and still in print today): “….three things must be borne in mind in all construction work, otherwise the building merits no praise. The three things are: utility or convenience, permanence and beauty.” These precepts can clearly be seen in the arcaded farming wings (called barchesse) he created to flank the main section of some of his villas. Used for crop and equipment storage and, of course, winemaking, they added grandeur and beauty to the overall design, but their placement also ensured that the padrone could easily supervise the everyday work of the farm.

The wine producing area centered around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the province of Treviso (that is now the Prosecco DOC zone) had already established a reputation for quality in Palladio’s day. One of the earliest mentions of the wine is found in a letter dated 1431 from the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, to the Podestà (local ruler) of Conegliano, Stefano Erizzo, asking him to send a wagon-load of “great wine from the hills behind Conegliano.” By 1543 the wines of the zone had become important money-spinners for Villa owners: Prosecco was not only the quaffing wine of the osterias of Venice, but also had found an appreciative export market in Germany. A letter to the Veneto Senate dated 19 September 1606 from Zaccaria Contarini, Podestà of Conegliano, contains the phrase: “in the same territory (Conegliano) there are twenty-eight Villas, part in the plain and part in the mountains, or, better in the hills (where wine is produced). The hilly part is just as lovely and fertile as that of the plains; coming from the hills are quantities of sweet wines and other most excellent types, of which a large part is sent to Germany and the court of Poland…” A further link between vine and villa cultures is to be found in the many popular “Villa Books”, which circulated in the 17th and 18th centuries. These estate management logs – with lovely names like Le Delizie e I frutti dell’Agricoltura e della Villa (published 1634) and Centro e Dieci Ricordi che formano il buon Fattor di Villa (published 1749) – dedicate large sections to the winemaking, including chapters on “Qualitá della Cantine” and “Delli vini dolci”.

Palladio’s combination of beauty and utility is brilliantly expressed in the Villa Emo at Fanzolo. The Emo family purchased the estate in 1509. Construction of the Villa is believed to have been carried out from 1555 to 1565. Standing on the gravel drive looking up at the house, Caroline Emo remarked on the Villa’s exceptionally long barchesse, “Aren’t they beautiful. There are 11 arches in each – a number that cannot be divided – so looking at them doesn’t tire the eyes. And the dove-cotes at either end seem to bring them to a perfect end, to anchor them.” The birds kept here served as the most rapid means of communication between the estate and Venice – it took an hour for the carrier pigeons to reach the city. In the main room of the Villa, with its wide double doors open on either side, I felt as if the cypress-lined avenue (viale) leading to and from the house swept straight through the room. The walls are covered with impressive trompe l’oeil frescos by Zelotti: every room is filled with painted columns, pediments and monumental men, women and gods lounging, seducing, praying and dying. The study is a sunny chamber decorated with images of the Muses. One window frames a view of the front viale, another looks out onto one of the long farming wings. This room reminded me of the words of Palladio: “But a nobleman will obtain not inconsiderable use and relaxation from the villa, where he spends the rest of his time both keeping an eye on his possessions and perfecting them, and letting his wealth grown by diligence and the aide of the science of agriculture.”

If Villa Emo can be seen as a substantial temple to agriculture, then Villa Barbaro is a graceful tribute to Humanist intellectual pursuits. Having supplied the illustrations for Daniele Barbaro’s edition of Vitruvius (Venice 1556) – a book that served as a standard architectural reference work until well into the18th century – Palladio was in tune with the ideals of brothers Marcantonio and Daniele Barbaro. Every element in their Villa is a perfect alliance between beauty and practicality. “The spring [behind the house] forms a pool,” wrote Palladio, “which can be used for fishing. The water separates from here onwards. It flows into the kitchen and then, when it has watered the gardens, which lie to the left and right of the road that leads gradually up to the house, into two drinking troughs on the public highway.” The stand of trees surrounding the pool shelters the Villa from winter winds and provides cooling shade in summer. The family of the current owner, Diamante Luling Buschetti, bought the estate in 1934. Her parents lived in the Villa, taking their morning breakfast in the Bacchus room, whose ceiling is swimming with the glories of a drunken shepherd’s dream. The spontaneous, flowing brushwork of Paolo Veronese’s frescos brings freshness and life to the witty trompe l’oeil – a dimpled child in a doorway, a cat curled up in a corner, a smiling Lady Barbaro with her pet dog (which bears a passing resemblance to Thelma, one of the twelve rescued mongrels that roam the grounds) watch from a balcony. “The frescos are full of light and humour. This is the extraordinary charm of this house,” says Vittorio Dalle Ore, Diamante’s husband. Palladio returned to the estate in 1580 to oversee the building of a chapel. He died on 18 August, 1580 during the course of this work.

The sublime grace of Palladio’s villas are created by precise mathematical calculations. He even calculated the correct number of flutes on a Corinthian column (24) and the width between these flutes (one third as wide as the flutes themselves). “Beauty,” he wrote “derives from beautiful shapes and from the harmonious matching of the whole to the parts, the parts to each other, and the parts to the whole, so that the building has the appearance of a unified and perfect body. After all, one part must harmonize with the next, and all the parts must be absolutely necessary, if one is to accomplish what one has set out in search of.” The sensation of harmony that arises from viewing a villa designed by Palladio is palpable.

“There are the villas of Palladio and then there are neo-palladian style villas,” says Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio Tutela Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene. “But Palladio is the original…the real thing. Just as Prosecco DOC is the original. There may be other wines made from the same grape in other parts of Italy, but they don’t have the special character, the easy affability of our wines.”

The vineyards of the Prosecco DOC zone, lying between the Dolomites and the Adriatic, have an unusually mild micro-climate that allows the Prosecco grapes to ripen slowly. After much experimentation, it has been determined that the Charmat method (in which the second fermentation takes place in tank rather than in bottle) is the best system for making the wine sparkling, while maintaining the tangy green apple and delicate apricot notes of the variety. The most popular style of sparkling Prosecco is the decidedly fruity Extra Dry. Those in the zone swear it goes with practically any subtly flavoured food or celebratory occasion. Dry versions are excellent with mushroom tarts and radicchio risottos. Brut Prosecco, the driest style, is a satisfying aperitif. The wines of the tiny sub-zone of Cartizze (near Valdobbiadene) are richer than other Proseccos because the grapes are usually harvested later here. Refreshing and lightly sweet Cartizze is often paired with desserts, particularly fruit tarts.

Prosecco remains a popular aperitif in Venice and much of the Veneto. It also sells very well in France, a fact that makes local producers very proud. “Prosecco is not like Champagne. It has its own unique character. There is nothing like it in France or anywhere else,” affirms the Consortium’s Director with missionary zeal. Not as serious and austere as Champagne (nor as expensive), Prosecco has a light-hearted yet refined grace, making it – like Palladio’s masterpieces – one of the perfect expressions of what was once La Serenissima and is now one of the most culturally developed parts of il bel paese. When you pour your next glass of Prosecco DOC, pause a while to watch its fine bubbles rising like Palladian columns in the glass.