Sunday, March 22, 2009

Venturing into the Veneto with Annalisa

Wednesday, March 18. 2009
Marostica, Bassano Del Grappa, Vicenza, Italy

I was aware of the fact that Annalisa’s boys left for school about 7. 30 as did her husband Giorgio. I decided to lie low in my room reading The Sea while they bustled around with breakfast and at about 8.30 am, I left my room, washed up, and joined Annalisa for lovely Italian Lavazza coffee made in the typical Italian mokas that Annalisa had once presented me on my last visit to her place in Vicenza with Llew and Chriselle many years ago—what was it? Seven or eight years easily, when her boys were so much younger, we had spent just a couple of days in Vicenza. Over coffee, and Grancereale biscuits with Annalisa’s delicious homemade pear jam, we chatted some more and made plans for the day. When we had both showered, we dressed and left her flat about 10. 30 for a bit of sight seeing in the Veneto.

Annalisa and I were classmates 23 years ago at Exeter College, Oxford, at a time when we were both doing our Ph.D. in English Literature. Not only has our friendship survived over the years but it has grown stronger as we both became professors in world famous institutions and continued our research into the Literature of Empire—Annalisa specializes in African and African-American Literature (with Australian Literature thrown in for good measure) while I specialize in the Literature of the Indian Sub-continent with Multi-ethnic American Literature thrown into the mix! In the past couple of decades as we have taught and researched, written and published our books, we have traveled around the world and like the writers whose work we analyze, we have truly became transnationals ourselves.

Over the years, we have had renewals of our friendship in London, Vicenza, Oxford, Venice, and each time we marvel at the paths our lives have taken and the fulfillment it has brought us. It was at her invitation that I was in Italy to give a lecture to her graduate students of Post-Colonial Literature at the University of Padua. But that would be tomorrow…for the moment, Annalisa had taken a day off to show me the Veneto—because, she has known me long enough to know that I am a “compulsive sightseer”—her words!

En Route to Marostica:
So, off we went in her car to see Marostica, passing by the Italian countryside that was slowly awakening to the beauty of spring. We followed the Lower Alps along the country roads passing by the few surviving industries in the Veneto, an area that, Annalisa explained to me, was once very wealthy but is now reduced to poverty through competition from countries like China.

She thought we should head to Marostica, a walled city that is famous for an annual game of chess that is played in the main city square with real men dressed in lavish medieval costumes moving across the giant chessboard that is painted in the center. We walked around the square and then, just by chance, ventured into a small craft store that sold beads. Annalisa’s eye was caught by large silver beads in a contemporary style that she thought would make great ear-rings and before long, she was purchasing both of us a pair that the saleslady showed us how to fashion into dangling costume jewelry. After I bought a couple of postcards, we left the town and got back on the road, headed this time to Bassano del Grappa.

Bridge Across Bassano:
Bassano was about a half hour further away from Marostica and it was mainly to look at a famous covered bridge that we were stopping in the town. The Veneto, is the great region of one of Italy’s most famous architects, Andrea Palladio. It was Palladio who influenced Inigo Jones who brought the Neo-Classical principles of balance and symmetry from Palladio to England after he had spent a long while in Italy—thus changing the landscape of Medieval, Elizabethan and Tudor English styles and replacing I them with the grandeur of Greece and Rome. Inigo Jones, in turn, influenced Christopher Wren—so it might be fair to say that London as it is today is largely the result of the influence of Palladio and, not surprisingly, there is a special exhibit on Palladio right now at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly (which I intend to attend with my friend Rosemary Massouras who is a member).

So, we parked our car, walked down a few picturesque blocks towards the old historic quarter of town in the direction of the River. As we arrived closer to the river banks, we passed by the distilleries that make the famous strong Italian wine called Grappa which is made from the lees of the grape—it is a fiery and very strongly flavored liqueur and in one of the distilleries, I had a little taste but found it much too strong for my delicate palate! The town center is also famous for white ceramics which are made in their hundreds from the kaolin or white clay found in the region.

It wasn’t long before we were at the river and gazing upon Palladio’s brilliant piece of work—the Covered Bridge which is known as the Ponte Coperto or the Ponte Delgi Alpini. It is unique in that it is designed with timber supports that flex to accommodate the swelling flow of the river from the melting snow that rushes down the mountainside in the spring! How ingenious a piece of work is that??? Annalisa and I walked over the bridge (which I thought would have stores on both sides—as on the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno in Florence--but which was not!) The beautiful pastel colored buildings hugging both banks of the river Brenta which lie at the foot of the Monte Grappa made some lovely sights indeed and with the sun shining sportingly down upon us on a gorgeous spring day, we felt truly blessed to look upon this sight.

Back to Vicenza and the Villas of Palladio:
Andrea Palladio’s work is seen all over the region surrounding Vicenza and when Annalisa suggested that we go home for lunch and then take in the most famous of the Vicenza villas, I thought it was a great idea. Back at her place, the boys had returned from school and were famished. Annalisa quickly rustled up a pasta featuring tagliatelle and her home made Bolognese sauce and with her mother-in-law’s marvelous recipe for zucchini with salt and pepper, we had a superb meal—of course, she had served me generously and I was stuffed.

Viewing The Rotunda and the Pallazo Valmarana ai Nani:
An hour later, after Annalisa had caught up with some paper work, I was back in the car with her and heading to the Rotunda, Palladio’s most famous work in the Veneto—which is the region in the extreme north of Italy, just south of the Alps that border Austria. We found a spot to park her car and headed on foot to the Rotunda.

This very simple but very striking building is the model for so many of the world’s most famous landmarks including Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia called Monticello which I have visited and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. It is basically a cube upon which sits a dome, the center allowing for the construction of a rotunda or round room. As we climbed the steps to the Rotunda (the entry fee was 10 euros for admission to the house and the garden), we overlooked the rolling countryside.

Once inside, a true treat awaited us for the decoration is so lavish and so overwhelming that we were grateful for the fact that the rooms were very sparsely furnished. Palladio was responsible for the exterior structure but the interior was done by contemporary painters whose frescoes leave one breathless. In addition to paintings that reached the ceiling, there was extravagant plaster sculpture, vines, fruit and flowers and other forms of Renaissance decoration that quite assaulted my senses. We were able to tour the rooms but were disappointed not to find any explanatory literature that could have sensitized us to the elements that we ought not to have missed.

Then, we were crossing the streets to the mansion on the opposite side that is known as the Pallazo Valmarana ai Nani because it was commissioned and owned by the Valmarana family (admission fee 8 euros). The story goes that their daughter was a dwarf and in order to make her feel as normal as possible they only hired other dwarfs to run their household. One day, the young woman looked out of the window and saw a handsome prince and realized that she had been fooled and, in desperation, she committed suicide.

The walls of the pallazo are decorated with sculptures of dwarfs; but apart from this very sad story, the attraction of this building lies in the magnificent frescos inside by Giambatista Tiepolo and his son Domenico Tiepolo. While the larger pallazo has scenes that are typical of the older Tiepolo’s style—lovely cloud filled blue skies, classical and ethereal figures blowing trumpets and offering each other tidbits, the smaller guest house is decorated by the son whose style favored the depiction of rural Italian peasants getting on with the daily tasks of life. Each of the villas was just stunning in the range of talent they portrayed of the amazing father-son duo and the manner in which this talent was manifested through the patronage of wealthy Italians like the Valmaranas. Classical stories from mythology were depicted all over the walls and ceiling and the fill the house with atmospheric detail that was just superb.

A Walking Tour of Vicenza:
Then, Annalisa drove me back to Vicenza and since she needed to return home for the arrival of her sons from school, she dropped me in the town center where I decided to use my photocopied pages from the DK Eye Witness Guide series to take a self-guided walking tour of Vicenza.

Now Llew, Chriselle and I had toured Vicenza years ago on what happened to be the coldest January day in 25 years! We had loved it but could not enjoy it as the cold simply numbed us. Armed with my notes and a map, I began to take in the wonders of Palladio’s great city and though the light was fading fast, I managed to see the major landmarks such as the Loggia del Capitaniato, the ‘Basilica' (undergoing restoration), the Duomo or Cathedral, the Piazza del Herbe (completely covered by ugly scaffolding), the grand palazzos along Corso Palladio, the two statues (one of Garibaldi and one of Palladio) on two opposite sides of the old historic town center and the two landmark columns in the Piazza dei Signori that feature the famous Lion of St. Mark and St. Mark himself. The Torre de Piazza or tall tower rises above the square that is surrounded by fashionable stores selling upscale merchandise and I enjoyed browsing through some of them. It was clear to me that Vicenza is a wealthy town and the many designer stores and smart boutiques filled with expensive luxuries proclaimed the Italy of old that so many of us recall from previous visits over the last twenty odd years.

Then, when my feet started to protest, I made my way back to Annalisa’s place and found that she had started to get dinner organized. It was going to be one of those ‘grazing tables’ where all you do is help yourself to a variety of cheeses and cold cuts and salad that is laid out on the table buffet style. You are meant to nibble on it all with wonderful olive ciabatta bread. It made an unusual and very delicious dinner indeed and as the boys and Annalisa and I made companionable conversation, we decided to spend the evening watching an episode of Morse.

taking orders for pizza. She called a local pizzeria and ordered a margherita (for Giaccomo), a vegetable one with peppers, aubergine and tomatoes (for Giovanni), a radicchio and Brie one for herself and as we divided the pizzas, I had a chance to taste Italy’s great contribution to international gastronomy and loved every morsel. Over a fruit tart for dessert, we ended our meal and a very full and fascinating day indeed.

That evening, after dinner, the boys set up a projector that Giorgio that brought home so that we could enjoy The Death of the Self—the Morse episode that they could not wait to watch. As always happens, since I enjoy watching Morse more for the architecture, the setting and the characters that are so splendidly created, I never remember the actual plots themselves and I have to admit that I nodded off for about 15 minutes. However, the boys and Annalisa said that it was a very interesting episode indeed and they were so tickled pink to see their lovely city featured in a Morse episode that their day ended on a very high note indeed.

I returned to my room to read some more of John Banville and get ready for bed.

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