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Paradise regained

Alasdair Palmer marvels at a series of Veronese frescoes at Palladio’s Villa Barbaro

16 July 2011

12:00 AM

16 July 2011

12:00 AM

Alasdair Palmer marvels at a series of Veronese frescoes at Palladio’s Villa Barbaro

It has included repairing the roof and strengthening the walls, as well as redecorating the interior, and it has taken almost as long as it took to build the original structure — but work on Andrea Palladio’s last building, the Tempietto at Maser, is finally complete. And what a glory it is!

The building was finished in 1580, the year Palladio died, and he may never have seen it in its final form. It is the only church that he designed which isn’t in Venice. Marcantonio Barbaro, who commissioned it to be the chapel for his villa, was a long-time friend of Palladio. He was also a powerful advocate of Palladio’s architecture, and helped him get commissions from the Venetian Senate.

The deep conservatism of Venetians irritated, depressed and ultimately infuriated Palladio, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. When a fire damaged the Doge’s palace, he offered to demolish what remained of the Gothic building and replace it with an entirely new edifice of his own, designed in accordance with rigorous adherence to classical principles of harmony. The Senate rejected his offer, and hired another team of architects to restore the old building exactly as it had been. Palladio wanted the church of Redentore, one of his greatest masterpieces in Venice, to be based on a circle — but Venice’s Senators turned down that idea, too. They wanted a church based on the traditional cruciform plan and, if Palladio wouldn’t provide designs for one, they would go to another architect who would. At which point Palladio relented and within a week provided the Senators with designs for the sort of conventional-shaped church that they wanted.

With the Tempietto, Barbaro finally gave Palladio the chance to design and build the round church he had always wanted to construct. Palladio must have been extremely grateful to him, and a prominent inscription on the pediment identifies Barbaro as the church’s patron. On the church’s façade, just inside the portico of columns that serves as the entrance, there’s a fresco of the bearded Barbaro contemplating, or possibly being surprised by, a voluptuous, bare-breasted, trumpet-playing angel — although she may also be a personification of fame, trumpeting the virtues of the Barbaro family.

Inside, the church has the graceful harmony that Palladio was able to conjure from the circular form. It has the same calm, comforting atmosphere as the Pantheon in Rome, the building on which it is based: the world is ordered and rational, it seems to say — and if you look carefully enough, it all makes perfect sense.

The church is embellished with very beautiful plaster stucco decorations, designed and executed by Alessandro Vittoria. These have benefited enormously from being cleaned and restored: their overall forms and detailed features are now clear and legible, which makes contemplating them a delight. Even the composition on the façade, which depicts the gruesome episode of the decapitation of St Paul, has something reassuring about it: you marvel at the technical skill while being cheered by the sheer gorgeousness of the shapes.

Back inside, the walls are festooned with garlands of intricately worked flowers, fruit, vegetables and corn. There are four magisterial statues of the evangelists. There are delicate angels and dignified saints. Palladio judged perfectly the windows and the apertures that let in shafts of light: they illuminate details and create contrasts which emphasise particular features of each sculpture. Natural light also comes from the tall lantern at the centre of the dome. The combination means that the whole interior has a strange radiance that is almost enough to make this hardened sceptic believe in miracles.  

But the real miracle isn’t inside the church. It’s a couple of hundred yards away inside Marcantonio’s villa, which he shared with his brother Daniele. The villa was designed by Palladio 20 years or so earlier, and it is a masterpiece of functional elegance. It was a place of repose for Marcantonio and Daniele where they could escape from the rigours of ecclesiastical and secular politics. But the villa was also a working farm and Palladio designed it to incorporate a granary, stables for animals, two dovecotes and space for producing and storing wine, which was pressed from the farm’s grapes. The elements dedicated to farming are so well integrated and disguised that some modern commentators have deluded themselves into thinking that they aren’t there, and that the villa was only ever a place for leisure and contemplation. In fact, there were facilities for wine-making in the villa’s west wing until the 1850s: those rooms were not transformed into living quarters until the 1930s.

It’s easy to forget that this place was a busy centre of agricultural production, not least because inside, the piano nobile is decorated by a stupendous series of frescoes by Veronese. To me, wandering through the rooms whose walls and ceilings are painted with figures and landscapes is as close to paradise as it is possible to get. I challenge anyone not to find their mood perceptibly lightened by these joyful compositions, whose bright colours and graceful figures make you feel better about the world and your place in it.  

There is a series of scenes depicting musicians, gods, personifications of fortune, fate, ambition, time, justice, abundance and the four elements, as well as a picture that seems to be some sort of marriage tribunal, which could refer to ‘the triumph of love’ over other emotions and ethical principles. Or it could depict divorce. No one knows what that fresco, or indeed any of the rest of them, really means. There are various academic theories, all supported with extravagant references to Latin authors and now-obscure 16th-century texts. The trouble is, they are all mutually contradictory, and not one is persuasive. The documents that record Veronese’s hiring by the Barbaro family, and the instructions he received on what he was to paint — and those instructions must have been very detailed — have never been found.

There is just a small chance that they still exist, waiting to be unearthed deep in some obscure collection, possibly in England: the whole Barbaro archive may have been sold to English travellers in the 18th century. But while those original documents remain hidden, it is impossible to come to any definitive conclusion about the meaning of the cycle.

It hardly matters. These frescoes are a prime example of how it is possible to enjoy, and to gain something important, from a series of images without having the first clue about what they mean. Veronese’s skill as an artist in these frescoes really is miraculous. Investigation when the paintings were last restored, in the 1950s, showed that he did not use ‘synopia’, the underdrawings that fresco painters almost invariably employ to guide them and ensure that they get their proportions right, and that their compositions fit properly into the available wall or ceiling space. He painted the whole lot free-hand, an achievement made all the more extraordinary when you consider the concave and convex surfaces of some of the ceilings and walls that he had to work on, and the extreme foreshortening of some of the figures, and the bodily contortions of many of the rest. He also worked extremely fast: he finished the cycle in two seasons (the damp and freezing winters meant that it was impossible to paint on wet plaster for about three months of the year).

 What it would be to have this place as your own home! And yet it is home to one very lucky and very charming couple: Diamante Luling Boschetti and Vittorio Dalle Ore, who have continued the Barbaros’ tradition of producing excellent wine from the farm’s grapes.  Diamante was born here, and grew up s
urrounded by Veronese’s paintings. Her grandfather, Count Giuseppe Volpi, bought the Villa Barbaro in 1934. The work involved in restoring and maintaining it has continued ever since.

So if you are anywhere in the Veneto, or in Verona, or hovering on the edge of Lake Garda this summer, make the time to journey to the Villa Barbaro and the Tempietto. You won’t regret it.

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