Thursday, November 12, 2009
Villa Pisani | Xanadu on the Brenta
Alvise Pisani, the 114th Doge of the Republic of Venice set out to build, on the green banks of the Brenta River, an earthly paradise to showcase his wealth and power.
He built his Xanadu at Stra, only 15 miles from Venice, but it was fraught with peril and filled with intrigue. Every Eden has its serpent with the power to bring the whole house down. In this case, the house stood, but the Venetian Republic crashed down around it. Villa Pisani was built as the thousand-year old Republic teetered on the brink of financial, political and historical collapse. Napoleon merely knocked over a house of cards; it had already collapsed from within.
Napoleon made his stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, the Prince of Venice and Viceroy of Italy, and gave him Villa Pisani. The villa was Napoleonized, although Napoleon only stayed a night or two. The gardens remained much as old Alvise Pisani had wanted them, a fabulous playground to rival the gardens of Versailles in fascination if not in size.
The facade of the villa, the first thing you see as you round the bend along the Riviera del Brenta, is conspicuously modeled after the Palace at Versailles, on a smaller scale. It represents a sad reflux, where Italian structural genius, so apparent in Venice itself, stops being original and begins aping its imitators. It is a poor imitation, not without grandeur, but lacking integrity, the soul stroke of genius the four caryatids that flank the portal. It is entirely devoid of the animating spirit of Venice's greatest buildings, first and foremost the Ducal Palace, the basilica of San Marco, the great Gothic palaces, then the Palladio churches, Santa Maria della Salute and Longhena's baroque palaces. Those buildings were innovative and brilliant both in scope and in conception. In comparison, Villa Pisani is conservative, imitative, frivolous: it represents exhausted wealth. The economic engine had run out of gas, or, more accurately, the great wealth was changing hands, first to Napoleon and the French, then to the Austrians, and, finally back to the Italians themselves, somewhat depleted. Villa Pisani represents the bella figura, the glittering mask with which the tottering Venetian Republic attempted to hide its bankruptcy.
Of course everything is relative. Pisani was rich enough to bribe the 41 electors to elect him Doge. But in periods of decadence, which precede the fall, the wealth is so concentrated that everyday life is strangled and the extremities wither while the center still decks itself in jewels.
There are, in reality, several Villa Pisanis: the Villa of Alvise Pisani, a rococo fantasy extravaganza; the neoclassical Napoleonic villa, filled with imperial pretensions; and the Villa of the Austrian monarchs who got it from Napoleon, who enjoyed it, and who made it into a complex of bourgeoisified vacation apartments. It was also the site of the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini. Imperial pretensions are all of a piece.
The particular beauty and the brilliance of Villa Pisani is the 30 acres of gardens. Here Pisani succeeded in creating a stately pleasure palace of immense proportions. The long reflecting pool, as at Versailles, extends from the rear portico of the Villa to the stables, the broad central axis of the gardens which surround it, containing "everything which gives pleasure to the sight and gratifies our taste," Pisani said.
There is, for example a coffee house, a small pavillion set atop a hill. But the hill is fake, and just below its grassy green surface are the arched ceiling vaults of an ice-house. It is said that during the summer the Venetians enjoyed sitting in this pavillion to cool their feet in the air vented up from below.
The kitchen gardens, later upgraded to French-style orangeries, provided a selection of citrus year round, so that the Pisanis never wanted for a glass of fresh orange juice.
The gardens are decorated with arches and statuary set amid the trees and shrubs. Every where you look is a view. No corner is simply a corner, each is a pavillion, a triumphal arch, a marble niche, a grape-covered arbor.
The purpose of this garden was to divert, to dazzle, to amuse and delight. This is most perfectly seen in the maze and the exedra.
The maze is a labyrinth of hedges with a two-story tower at its center, topped by a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The gardens and the maze were built before the Villa itself; they were the essence of Pisani's dream.
Composed of nine concentric circles, the maze surrounds the tower. You can see it, but getting there is not so easy. The statue of Minerva atop the tower was an essential point of reference without which even the most intrepid gamester might not find his way. And Gerolamo Frigimelica, who designed the maze as well as the stables and the exedra, thought of everything. A double-helix stairway winds up and down the tower. It is a brilliant conception. The twin spiral stairs are the twisted end of the maze itself, offering an infinite number of vistas as you ascend and descend.
The exedra is another clever concept with no purpose but to entertain. It is a playground structure for adults, comprised of six arches from which six paths lead into the gardens. A stairway within its central turret leads to a terrace embellished with twelve classical statues and offering garden vistas in every direction.
And there are vistas. Vista after vista. Everywhere you turn. Just when you've gotten over one swoon, you're into another. I visited on a chilly autumn day. The baroque trees were on fire with color, orange, red, yellow and pink. The sun was hot and the sky a flawless Tiepolo blue. (If you wanted to check you could go inside and look at the ceiling of the ballroom, a vast fresco by Tiepolo representing the Triumph of the Pisanis.) Many of the buildings are covered in marmorino, a stucco of marble dust or painted delicate pastels. Much of the stonework and statuary is first class, dating to the original building, though none is particularly brilliant in the manner of Bernini or Canova or the Gothic artisans of Venice's golden age.
Strolling through these gardens on such a day is a walk through Paradise, no doubt about it. The interior, however, is not so brilliant. There are some fine frescoes besides the ballroom ceiling, and some interesting details, but inside the sad lesson of history is evident. The villa is filled with imperial pretensions and Grand Gestures, and its relatively empty state is eloquent comment on those pretensions. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The Bedroom of the Viceregent, Amalia of Bavaria, stepdaughter-in-law to Napoleon, is especially beautiful. The walls are covered in a silk fabric of the Pisani period, 1735 or so, which the Austrians probably discovered in a storage bin and recycled. It is called "Indian," sprays of roses, peonies, liles and parrots, and exhibits Pisani's taste for exoticism so characteristic of the rococo period.
Decadence so extravagant brought to mind Shelley's "Ozymandias," which I quote in full because it is short and because it says everything about the men who build these Xanadus, monuments to their own glory, from the perspective of history.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
VILLA PISANI: SEE FOR YOURSELF