Andrea Palladio’s home town has more than his sublime architecture going for it
I may never have discovered the small, charming city of Vicenza had I not been working in such close proximity to it, something which would have been an injustice to the city and a loss to myself.
There are many reasons to be grateful for a job: income, experience, the people you meet. When I learned I’d be spending a few weeks teaching in Italy’s Veneto region this summer, I immediately thought of the big names: its spectacular, world-famous water city capital, Venice, Romeo and Juliet’s Verona, and Padua. While I did get to visit those classic destinations, the real value of working in a region, even for a short time, is that it takes you off the beaten track.
Vicenza seems to be little known even within its own country. An Italian friend who grew up and lives less than three hours away had to wrack her brain before eventually telling me “I think there’s a lot of American soldiers in Vicenza because there’s some kind of base there.”
Unsurprisingly, my expectations were not set particularly high, but all my preconceptions about ugly barracks-style buildings and a grim, militaristic tone were completely blown out of the water as soon as I stepped off the train. Little-known as this town might be, the entire city is a UNESCO heritage site, packed full of beautiful, interesting buildings, green parks, and with a quiet, friendly charm that can be hard to find in busier cities.
Vicenza’s Turbulent Story
Vicenza was founded in the third century BC and has lived through turbulent times. It was first christened “Vincentia” meaning victorious, by the Romans who had driven Celtic tribes from the area in 157 BC – a name which turned out to be sadly ironic, as it seems that with the decline of the Roman Empire, everyone had a go. The city was captured and laid waste to by tribes as diverse as the Hungarian Magyars, the Eurasian Huns (Atilla’s people) and the Germanic Visigoths, and control of it shuttled back and forth between the larger Italian cities.
Even today, when Vicenza is independent and thought to be one of the wealthiest cities in Italy, it is overshadowed economically and in fame by the nearby Padua, and the winged lion symbol of Venice still gazes down over Vicenza’s medieval old town, an echo of past conquest.
“The Pearl of the Renaissance”
Often called “The Pearl of the Renaissance“, Vicenza is home to the oldest roofed theatre in the world, a plethora of majestic buildings and piazzas, together with a charming old town district. And, once you’re ready to move on, less than five euros and less than hour will take you to Verona, Padua, or Venice, making it a perfect stopover both for those who want to get off the beaten track, and for those keen to tick the big names off their list.
If, in the 27 years of life before I travelled to Vicenza, I had never heard of Andrea Palladio, I certainly heard his name more than enough to make up for it in the first ten minutes. Locals assume Palladio is a household name – and perhaps, I reasoned, with my lack of architecture training, he is – so I found myself too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know who he was. As more and more of his buildings were pointed out or described by proud local acquaintances and colleagues, I looked in genuine awe at his magnificent buildings and quietly vowed to hit Google as soon as I got home.
It turns out that Andrea Palladio is to this day thought to be one of the most influential people in the history of architecture. Born in the sixteenth century in nearby Padua, he spent most of his life working on projects commissioned by the wealthy and powerful of the Venetian Empire, even though many of his buildings were inspired by earlier Ancient Greek and Roman designs. So many of his fine works are concentrated in Vicenza that the entire city, plus the Palladian buildings in the surrounding area, earned UNESCO Heritage Site status in 1996.
La Rotonda (Villa Almerico Capra)
The drive to Vicenza took me across a very green landscape, dotted with the occasional industrial building or complex. My local guides told me that this region’s income primarily came from the unlikely sounding pair of farming and gold. Recent years have been hard on these industries: farming is not recession-proof, and with people buying less gold jewellery, or being able to source gold gifts cheaper from China or second-hand websites, the sons of goldsmiths are now breaking away from their ancestors and looking for more stable work.
Just outside the city, La Rotonda, one of Palladio’s most stunning stucco buildings, sits atop a hill which commands views of Vicenza in one direction and of the lush countryside in the other.
Built as a retirement home for a priest!
I grew up in a rural Irish village in the 90’s, in which envelopes were pushed through the doors of our far from wealthy street asking for money for the local Catholic priest, baskets were passed around the church for the locals to deposit spare change into, and at school we learned of the holy orders and their poverty vows. Travelling in Italy, as an adult, I walk around churches and cathedrals and think that if the Roman Catholic Church sold a painting or two, they might be able to build schools in Africa without asking their congregations for loose change.
It’s a testament to the beauty and majesty of La Rotonda, or, to give it its full name, Villa Almerico Capra Valmarana, that I forget to be cynical even when I learn it was built as a retirement home for a priest who presumably missed the memo on the poverty vow.
In keeping with the religious theme, La Rotonda was designed in the shape of a cross with a dome in the centre, and is perfectly symmetrical from all four sides. To ensure that every room would receive sunlight, the building was offset from the four points of the compass by 45 degrees, and the white walls of the Rotunda darken to grey, blush pink or pale to cream depending on the natural light and time of day.
The villa is now privately owned but the interior is sometimes open for tours (times and dates vary, check the website). However, the building is much more impressive from the outside, and with the grounds open to the public, the locals often flock here in the summer to have a picnic. Pick up some fresh bread, Parma ham and local wine in a supermarket (common local brands include PAM, Interspar and Conad) and join them for a budget lunch with a truly spectacular view.
Teatro Olympico and a 3D illusion
So many people had stressed that Vicenza’s theatre is “well worth paying to go into,” that I reached for my wallet with some apprehension. But for just €15 for the Museum Card, I could not only see inside the oldest indoor theatre in the world, but also get into many of the city’s other attractions. Best of all was that the Museum Card is valid for seven days from date of purchase, giving you plenty of time to see and appreciate everything. The stage set from the Teatro Olympico’s very first performance in 1585 (of Greek tragedy Oedipus) still stands. As though that weren’t impressive enough, the backdrop itself is a dazzling and intelligent optical illusion.
Many of my friends had raved about this backdrop, and I had always been slightly bewildered – after all, how good could a painting really be? It’s possible that the reason the Teatro Olympico is undersold is that it’s hard to believably describe something so unbelievable:
Beyond an imitation marble archway, a surreal perspective painting gives the impression of old streets stretching out into the horizon. But the 3D effect is so realistic it has to be seen to be believed – and once seen, it won’t be forgotten.
I look at it, and look away, convinced I couldn’t really have seen it, but I did. The street beyond the stage looks like you could walk down it for hours and hours until you were out of sight, when in fact, the backdrop ends a few feet from your vantage point in the auditorium.
Besides the backdrop, the theatre building itself is impressive and unique inside and out, with a small garden outside, a well-stocked gift shop, and a short but interesting exhibition on the history of the theatre inside.
Piazza Dei Signori – Basilica Palladiana, Torre Bissara
Italy is a country where ancient and modern life frequently exist in the same spaces. In the grand Piazza dei Signori, the main square in Vicenza’s charming Renaissance old town, locals buzz around a market in the mornings, and buzz in and out of bars in the evenings.
At first sight, the sharply dressed Italians might look more suited to a catwalk, or to a futuristic skyline of glass and chrome. But clustered around and over the square where modern people come to meet, eat, see and be seen are spectacular stone buildings, restored so well that you almost forget its 2016, until the ring of a smartphone at ground level jolts you back to the present.
The majestic, imposing façade of the Basilica Palladiana dominates one side of the square. Recently restored (both time and world war II bombing raids had wreaked some damage), the Basilica (named with the Roman word for a meeting place or a court, rather than a church basilica) now looks, with its strong brickwork, solid pillars and wide arches supporting covered walkways on the ground and first floor, as though it can withstand anything.
The Italian flag outside reminds that this building was the seat of government from the Middle Ages, although now the building’s civic spaces host temporary art exhibitions. Don’t miss the chance to sip some prosecco or the brightly coloured local aperitif, Aperol spritz, on the rooftop bar, especially at sunset.
The Torre Bissara or clock tower has been cheekily described as “suggestive,” and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see why. While these clock towers are a common sight in Italy, this tall red-bricked building provides a nice finishing touch to the Piazza.
Incidentally, two improbably high pillars in the Piazza are crowned by a winged lion and Saint Mark, symbols of the Republic of Venice and a reminder of both the city’s proximity and historical dominion over Vicenza.
INSIDER TIP: many of Vicenza’s restaurants, shops and bars will be closed on Sunday. Although you will still manage to find somewhere to eat and the main attractions will be open, choices will be more limited, so be warned!
Other Highlights – Churches, Palaces, Museums
Even were the walls bare, the grandiose Palazzo Chiericati could be a museum in its own right. Over four floors, the palace hosts the city’s art collection, including drawings, paintings and sculptures bequested by local nobility since the Museum was opened in the 16th century, artworks rescued from churches no longer extant, and original drawings from the local hero Palladio; the basement hosts temporary exhibitions. During my visit, I was surprised to descend stone steps into a medieval cellar and suddenly find myself confronted with a multimedia show and bright photographs from a conscience-tugging but excellent project on the refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea and the help provided to them by the Italian naval service.
It’s no accident that the Vatican is in Italy, and the history and power of the Catholic church are reflected in the country’s plethora of magnificent churches and cathedrals. At first I wasn’t entirely comfortable when a religious family insisted on showing me around the Tempio de Sant Corona. Working in Italy and staying with Italian families meant I’d had the polite but firm “Just because I grew up in Ireland does not mean I’m Catholic” conversation more than a few times, and while I’m prepared to respect others’ faith, religious people can sometimes, with the best intentions in the world, try to persuade non-religious people to their world view.
The altar of inlaid marble and the dramatic artwork inside this church is simply breathtaking
Thankfully, the family’s insistence that I don’t miss out on this church had nothing to do with converting me – they brought me because it was one of the best sights in their city, and they very kindly wanted me to see it. The building is said to contain one of the thorns from the “crown” used to torture Jesus at his crucifixion, hence the name of “Sacred Crown.”
I didn’t see it – and as an atheist, would probably have been underwhelmed if I had – but the altar of inlaid marble and the dramatic artwork inside this church is simply breathtaking. The entry fee is included in the city’s museum card, and the kind gentleman who checks tickets at the entrance is full of stories about the building, which he is more than happy to share if you are interested.
Other churches of interest include the Cathedral of Vicenza, the Santaurio delle Madonna do Monte Berico, and the Chiesa di San Lorenzo.
INSIDER TIP: make sure you have a scarf or sarong packed to cover your shoulders and knees if you want to visit a church in Italy. Although I’ve personally only seen women asked to cover up, this rule applies to everyone – so boys, don’t take chances either.
The Museum Card is great value, a no-brainer, really
The city is home to a number of museums, most of which are covered by the Museum Card (links to italian page, but Google Translate works) – exceptional value as it gives you a week to see all you can, €15 with family deals available. Religious tourists may want to round off their tour of the city’s impressive churches with a visit to the Museo Diocesano, although by local accounts the collection here is small and whether a visit is interesting or boring depends on whether there is a knowledgeable volunteer to show you around at the time.
The Jewellery Museum is worth a visit given the city’s rich tradition of goldsmithing: until recently one-fifth of Italy’s gold and jewellery were made here, contributing greatly to the national as well as local economy. The Museo del Risorgimento e delle Resistenza details the area’s military history while the Museum of Natural History and Archaeology does exactly what it says on the tin. Visit http://www.museicivicivicenza.it/en/ for opening hours and general information on Vicenza’s museums.