Venice as land sounds like an oxymoron. But there was a time when the traditional source of income for the city, i.e., commerce with the East, was no longer considered promising. Instead, filling in the lagoon and expanding agriculture was the vision for the city’s future. A time when the West became an essential part of this city of water.
Venice expanding on the land
Venice expanded its dominion on the northern Italian peninsula throughout the whole 15th century. The State of the Land lay between the rivers Adda and Po and reached the city of Bergamo.
Several reasons brought Venice to this move. Ambition, desire to protect itself from any attack moved from the West, need to feed the growing population. Or simply making sure no military embargo would jeopardise its strength. But when in the art of the early Renaissance there appeared more landscape, hills, fortified towns as well as knights and court life, then Venice had really changed its vision. And different media of the time recorded the beauty of the land, too, such as the so-called Barovier wedding cup with its refined illustrations of a fairy tale of the Middle Ages:
A queen, a “Barco” villa, labor and intellectual life
Not much later, in 1490, Caterina Cornaro, the former Queen of Cyprus, moved to Asolo. She had donated her island in the Mediterranean Sea to the Venetian State and started building a magnificent villa on the mainland near Venice. Water rivulets helped the fields, but also would allow for elegant fountains entertaining the guests. There, where the hard work of the farming mixed with the life of a queen’s court, love for nature soaked in humanistic ideals.
And then there arrived war
Around the turn of the century the mainland was however affected by conflicts and devastation. After the military defeat in Agnadello in 1509, Venice had to design a new land dominion policy and re-fuel its economy also with the help of the Jewish moneylenders (read my post on the Jewish ghetto). The countryside and the cities on the land would be ransacked and it took some time before farming could be viewed as an economic source and lifestyle again.
Venice as a new Rome: the “renovatio urbis”
The Peace of Bologna (1530) established that Venice would acquire the Veneto region, part of Friuli, Bergamo, Brescia and Crema. While re-establishing the State of the Land, Venice chose though that neutrality and diplomacy were better cards to play than military intervention. In those years architects like Jacopo Sansovino renewed the city political image of Venice, altering the look of St. Mark’s square in a Roman perspective. The national library, the mint, the little loggia at the bottom of the bell tower as well as the church of San Geminiano responded to the project of proposing Venice as a new Rome.
And a man like Alvise Cornaro started getting involved in hydraulics, agriculture and architecture. In the 1540s his discussion with Cristoforo Sabbadino in regards to the future of the Venetian lagoon, is quite revealing! Sabbadino believed the future of Venice would be the lagoon and his ideas eventually prevailed. Cornaro instead proposed the reclamation of the lagoon. This meant extending farming at the expense of marshy land, deviation of rivers, sizing down the lagoon area and promoting anything that would bring the lagoon to silt up and become fertile land to cultivate. He used the expression “sacred agriculture” that became the mission of some aristocracy families.
Andrea Palladio and the villas on the mainland
Cornaro’s project for the Venetian lagoon remained unfulfilled. But a vast territory on the mainland followed however his directions. Andrea Palladio was the deus ex machina. The architect made it possible for these families interested in farming, not just to efficiently organise a new economy, but also to create beautiful architecture inspired by the classical Roman civilisation. Increasing productivity, but never forgetting the sense of elegance and the role of art.
His childhood had been spent in Padua, when the armies were looting the city. He was then employed as a stonecutter learning a grammar of classical architecture to reconstruct bit by bit the cities destroyed by war.
Palladio truly envisioned together with the Veneto aristocracy a new ethics. Claiming to be the heirs of ancient Romans, these patrician families were intrigued by technology and agricultural profits as well as fascinated by mythology and moral rigour.
Their villas have influenced the history of architecture also across the Atlantic ocean two hundreds years later when Thomas Jefferson set the rules for the American state buildings.
Palladian villas are in fact the combination of aesthetics-driven plans and the need to draw nature into functionality away from wilderness. In the consciousness that Venice could not just be Venice and its lagoon or the sea.
A tomb in Altivole: Carlo Scarpa and the Brion grave
Echoes of what happened in the Renaissance are still found in the modern times. A lot is lost as the landscape has suffered from major industrial interventions, but not too far from Maser where the Barbaros built their Villa, not too far from Villa Emo and the remains of Caterina Cornaro’s Barco, you can find a jewel.
In the cemetery of Altivole there’s the tomb of a man “who thanks to his job had become an important person”. Giuseppe Brion was the founder of the Brionvega company, whose products are still today strongly influenced by design and functionality.
When Brion died in 1969, his widow entrusted Carlo Scarpa to create the tomb for her husband. And Carlo Scarpa left us a timeless work of art designed for memory, that eventually became his own tomb, too.
The Propylaea like a vesica piscis, the lawn and its cypresses, the small chapel, the arcosolium and the pool are like sliding doors, helping switch from the ancient times to the present and weaving a dialogue throughout the centuries of beauty, history and professional engagement.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy