Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Brenta Canal Venice to Padua.

I am recovering from the meal last night. We started with carpaccio, followed by something that was nearly carpaccio, smoked meats on a bed of parmesan and salad leaves, pasta funghi, spinach crepes, steak fillet, sorbet and creamy dessert. It is a struggle to do credit to all these courses. I am seated next to Elizabeth Vinnicombe opposite Gene Tilbrook and Anne Seghezzi. The talk is of books and relationships. We catch up on each other, getting to know you.

Despite the feast of last night I find myself rocking up for breakfast. It is set in a long room of rather grand proportions, a painted ceiling and walls, by Tiepolo's student no less! A great oval buffet is set up in the middle of the room, loaded with breakfasting things. I take the fruit, grapes and water melon. Deliciously fresh.

It is a big day of villas and churches. We are not sure our vaporetti will arrive. There is a general strike and everything is upside down. General chatter as we consider our fate. Stephano has it sorted. The drivers arrive on time. We have a fascinating ride along the canals, passing villas of all descriptions, slipping into the working part of the city till we arrive at a jetty where a bus is waiting to take us across the causeway to our first destination of the day.

Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta), designed by Andrea Palladio was commissioned by the Foscari twins Nicolo and Alvise in 1558. Remarkably, the villa is still in the ownership of the family after many twists and turns. It is now part of the World Heritage Site that takes in the canals of Venice and the villas of the Brenta Canal connecting Venice to Padua.

We approach from the rear of the building. It is typically square, pedimented with tall, elegant columns, looking more vast because of a deep base that supports the structure. It is at once austere and classic. Inside the home-like proportions of the spaces are revealed. It is a complete surprise, a jewel of wonderful frescos by Batista Franco and Giambattista Zalloti. The central passage has become a generous room with all other rooms peeling from it. Tiny painted spaces with a window and a writing desk, comfortable bedrooms, a cosy sitting room. This is a bolt hole of magnificent conception. Henry 11 visited as did Doges and other Venetian nobles.

These villas served as country residences, a retreat from the often unhealthy city centre that was Venice. Many were attached to vast landholdings given to the growing of wheat for domestic consumption and were surrounded by agricultural buildings. Foscari is not one of these it is for pleasure, entertaining family and important guests.

We wind our way beside the Brenta Canal. Avenues of pale trees, gardens generation upon generation have nurtured, villas grand and small and in between scraps of houses and shops. Villa Pisani is our next stop. Versailles like, it's vast network of rooms and furnishings are built to impress. A vast pool stretches between the main house and the stables, clipped and manicured gardens all of green.

Padua is close, I'm very excited. Giotto's frescos were a subject of study when I was at art school. Did I do an essay on them? Must have-they are so detailed in my memory. The Betrayal of Judas, Lamentation over the dead Christ, Joachim among the Shepherds and The Last Judgement are deeply etched in my memory. I was familiar with the language of this cycle even then. The Greek Orthodox Church at Parker Street has versions of it.

The Church itself is spare and beautifully proportioned, deep red flat small bricks. We are seated in the black glass holding pen for a preparatory video before we get our fifteen minutes inside.

Silence as we twenty enter this holy place. Deep in concentration we each study and pause. In Giotto's golden hands the medieval tradition of Christus patiens is inverted into humanism and passion. His brush traces the face, solid in grief. We are witness to these events. Such a radical shift from the heavy formality of iconography and medieval illumination.

Nothing of this experience disappoints. We are in the presence of a great and moving cycle of works, like an opera, building one note on the other till we are completely immersed in the work and the artist's vision. It has been truly transporting. An experience I will carry with me.

I fall asleep around seven and wake at seven, refreshed by my baby sleep.

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