Friday, June 22, 2007

Discovering Asolo

Dinner al fresco at Villa Coin in Asolo. Photo: JH.
Editor’s note. This last NYSD excursion to Venice and Paris was the longest trip abroad that we’ve taken, in terms of time (days). Both our hosts, Venetian Heritage and the American Friends of Versailles, had schedules packed with receptions, tours, lectures, luncheons, dinners, balls; all grist for the NYSD. Grist that requires your physical presence, not to mention the time required to report on it.

I mention this because we’ve found traveling to these wonderful places can be a harsh mistress -- a six to eight hour process (at least) of designing, composing and editing the day’s entries.  With this in mind before we left New York we calculated how much time the daily edit and posting would require. We realized it would be impossible for us to get each day in on that day. So we prioritized. Yet nevertheless, the days were crowded and very  long. Therefore, while on this trip both JH and I often felt as if we weren’t really getting the chance to enjoy all the wonders around us. This was annoying because we were in the most favorable of environments.

The view of the Grand Canal from the roof of the Guggenheim
It took coming back to New York, looking at what we did, to realize how wonderful it all was. There is a picture JH took about 9:30 pm on weekday night in Venice, from the Peggy Guggenheim looking across the Grand Canal to the Gritti and the Europa and then the Bauer up the line. The water taxis are moving along and across the way a gondolier is backing his boat out onto the Canal.  The water is a light blue-green, just a little deeper in shade than the still-light evening sky and the blue has cast a blue against all the other surrounding color. The torches/lights that the palazzos and hotels have in front are glowing, casting a wide, bright, golden shadow  on the water. Beauty is everywhere. I put it on as my screensaver. Enlarged it looks more like an Impressionist painting than a photograph. This was the Venice I saw.

Venice et al. We left Venice, traveling with the Venetian Heritage on their private tour, on Sunday morning, June 11. There is a re-orientation required to adjust back to the real world -- once the boat taxis drop you off at a landing on which is parked a large touring bus. Buses, cars, noise, all return to your ears.

You may not recognize it at first because you’re so used to it. Buses, cars, noise. Something you never hear in Venice. But driving along the highway outside Venice, looking across the lagoon to the fabled city of bridges, you remember the sound of serene and relaxed voices on the canals, on in the piazzas, bouncing off the walls of the ancient stucco and stone buildings. You remember the sound of the strings in St. Marks late at night where the orchestra was playing “Nessun Dorma,” reprising and reprising and reprising to fantastic crescendo. Life suddenly comes close to ideal.
Freya Stark with the Queen Mum and in Arabian garb
Venice says to the voice in your head: we’re not going anywhere; we’re here. Until we aren’t. On this Sunday noontime, our bus was taking us to Asolo. I’d heard of Asolo because once many years ago, probably in the 1970s, I read a very interesting interview in W of a woman named Freya Stark who lived “outside Venice in Asolo.”

Stark was a reporter and travel writer. She was one of the first women, maybe the first, to go alone into the sands of Saudi Arabia where she befriended t he Bedouin tribes. At the time of the interview she was in her late 80s (she lived to be 100). I only remember thinking how cool this lady was, how wise she was, and how interesting her life was. Therefore, I presumed that Asolo too, a place I’d never heard of before, would also be interesting and cool.

Our first stop on the road to Asolo was at the Villa Marcello for lunch. The villa was built for the Marcello family in the second half of the 16th century. The family was considered one of the most noble and most powerful in the history of Venice. It is important to remember that at that time, Venice was the center of the commercial world, the way New York is today, the way Rome was before. The Marcello family was in the military. 500 years later the villa remains in the Marcello family. Our hosts were Count Vettor Marcello and his son Jacopo.
Villa Marcello, Levada
It was a very warm and sunny afternoon when we pulled up before the gates to the villa. As we entered the big house, we walked into a cooling.  It was as if there were air conditioning although the doors and windows were open. Perfect north-south location, cooled by the natural breezes. I mentioned this to Jacapo Marcello. He explained that the house also had a three foot airspace under the floor with holes for air to move in and move around and cool the first story of the house.

The luncheon spread
The Marcellos served us a buffet luncheon on the ground floor: proscuitto and melon, grilled vegetables, tomato and mozzarella, cold cuts, pasta, salads and breads and an ice cream dessert. It was a light lunch for the perfectly Italian countryside. Afterwards Jacopo, a very forthright and gracious man in his early 30s, gave us a tour of the house explaining its history and its workings today. In English.

Designed in the the palladiano style, there is a ballroom on the First floor (second to Americans), its walls covered with 16th century frescos by Giovanni Crosato Batiste. Off the ballroom was a large sitting room and a bedroom in each corner of the house. The walls of each bedroom were covered with frescoes designed to tell stories to interest or amuse before sleeping. The murals also signified the position of that person in the family.
A look around the grounds of Villa Marcello
Lunch hour at Villa Marcello
Daisy Ames, Danna Swarovski, and Muffy Miller
Helmut and Danna Swarovski with Don Miller
Door handles playfully interact with their environment.
Pat Patterson, Marjorie Reed Gordon, Mai Harrison, and Betsy Lovett
Alexis Gregory and Gary Parr
Marquesa Barbara Berlingieri, Count Vettor Marcello, and Jocelyn Kress
Stephane Bloch Saloz, Count Vettor Marcello and his son Jacopo, and Marquesa Barbara Berlingieri
Guests having a tour of the ballroom at Villa Marcello
The ceiling of the ballroom
Princess Mani Sayn von Witgenstein
A 16th century voting machine on the bedroom dresser
Jocelyn Kress
Prince Pierre d'Arenberg reading to one of his daughters
Resting up
The d'Arenberg famlly leaving the Villa with Count Marcello.
From Villa Marcello, we continued along the way to stop at Villa Cornaro in the town of Piombino Dese. The villa was right in the center of town. Evidently even when it was built it was close to the main road. It is one of Palladio’s most influential designs. It was designed in the winter of 1551-52 but not completed with wings until 1596.

The design incorporated a pedimented portico separate from the main block of the building. That one idea had a huge impact on architecture for the next 400 years. An American couple from Atlanta bought the house several years ago. They restored it religiously. What strikes this architecturally uninformed reporter is that the Palladio designs feel very 21st century contemporary with a strong sense of comfort for the spirit and luxury for the body.
Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese, one of Palladio's most influential works, completed in 1596
To this tourist it was like stepping into a Visconti movie, so aristocratic, so ancient Italian, where it appears that little has changed, even the furniture and yet all is exactly as it should be. Style is everywhere. The Italians are very welcoming hosts, very unpretentious and prepossessing. The son Jacopo is in the travel business in Milan and also works the house. There are between 70 and 80 private events held at the villa every year. People rent it for weddings, receptions, birthdays, balls. Meanwhile the family lives there.

The family-ness that exists in these old European families is often centered around a house. The family wealth is often so dissipated as to be ineffective. So the house works for them. There are events that people pay for. This maintains the house and maintains the longevity of pride of place and of family. It’s so nice, it’s impossible not to feel at least slightly envious. Of course that is from the outside looking in, often a highly skewed, and even deluded, point of view.
Stephane Bloch Saloz
Prince d'Arenberg holding one of his daughter's hands
Inside and the back of Villa Cornaro.
After Villa Cornaro it was back in the bus to head for Asolo and our hotels. You can see Asolo from the road far below, because it is situation near the top of one of the small mountains of the range that reminded me of the Hollywood Hills.

Asolo is a tiny town, pristine and impeccable. We were put up in the Albergo Al Sole, a small hotel on the hillside overlooking the valley. At 6:30 we were downstairs meeting the little bus that was taking us to a cocktail hour at Villa il Galero, the home of Countess Mariuccia de Lord. Countess de Lord is a woman either close to 90 or in her early 90s. Her house reminded me of a house in Bel Air, California. The rooms are ample and comfortable. The colors are all pale pastels. Countess de Lord, for example, had rooms where the curtains were a soft pink cotton. All of the colors in the De Lord house (which had been built in the 18th century as a summer retreat for a cardinal) were soft pastels, but pale, pale.
Upon our arrival into Asolo, we were greeted with a bowl of fresh cherries in our hotel room (Albergo Al Sole).
Because it is a hillside house, there is ground for every level. Way above the house, on the hilltop is  a large swimming pool where the countess swims daily. After everyone had had a good look, we bid our hostess farewell and returned to the drinks table. The Italians in this area serve, instead of champagne, Prosecco, a white sparkling wine of the neighborhood.
Countess Mariuccia de Lord, Marquesa Barbara Berlingieri, and Maria Kopieva
Arianna Dandois and Betsy Lovett
Austin Hills, Betsy Lovett, and Stephane Bloch Saloz
The view from the top
After the Countess de Lord’s house and impromptu tour, we returned to our cars and bus and were driven farther down the road to Villa Coin for dinner.

Pier Giorgio and Franca Coin were our hosts. The Coins own an enormous department store chain in Europe. The Villa Coin is sprawling and contains more than one visiting house on the property. There were about  a hundred dinner guests at the Coins’. Again, I was reminded of Bel Air, California.  Except the social life, the graciousness of the hosts was the polar opposite of what you’d find in Bel Air, California, and the food, decidedly Italian, beautiful and chic. The gazpacho, served differently than over here. The puree by itself and the garnishments added as one took his bowl from the butler behind the table.
Pier Giorgio and Franca at Villa Coin.
Diamante dalle Ore, Larry Lovett, and Betsy Lovett
Guests at Villa Coin
Touring the grounds and gardens
Vittorio and Diamante dalle Ore
Dr. Cristina Turchet and Dr. Al Ringleb
Villa Coin at night from the gardens

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