The history of Venice tells a story of a city that stretches far beyond its iconic islands and canals. From the 16th to 18th centuries, it expanded across the waters of the lagoon, to the mainlands of Veneto, where it became equally renowned for the majestic villas built along the Brenta river.
On a clear day, you can see the mouth of the Brenta from Venice’s Zattere Quay. And if you look westward, towards Fusina, then imagine yourself living a few centuries back, when Venetian nobility traversed this part of the Lagoon, and further inland, to reach their “second homes.”
Commonly called Ville Venete in Italian, these sumptuous mansions first appeared in the 16th century, when the Venetians took control of these territories after emerging victorious from clashes with the cities of Padua, Vicenza and Verona.
The word “villa” naturally refers to a luxurious dwelling, but, in this case, also entails an agricultural estate with cultivable land and dedicated buildings for use in farming. Architect Andrea Palladio, originally from Vicenza, would become one of the major figures of this architectural ascension, with a good twenty projects to his name in the region – the famed Palladian villas – but even more celebrated for the influence he had on this territorial development as a whole.
For convenience’s sake, the Venetians decided to construct many of these ostentatious residences along the eighteen or so miles of the Brenta separating the Lagoon and Padua. In an effort to assert their power, they avidly commissioned veritable palaces on a par with their island dwellings. “The Brenta started out as a natural river originating in the Autonomous Province of Trento, passing through Padua and emptying into the Adriatic near Chioggia,” explains guide Silvia Vallerin, an expert on the region’s history. “For navigability reasons, though, a canal was built, the Naviglio de Brenta, with help from Leonardo da Vinci, in the bed of an old branch of the Brenta. It starts at Stra and joins the Lagoon at Fusina. Most of the Venetian villas were actually built along this waterway, the canal.”
Starting off this parade of dazzling domiciles is the Villa Foscari, designed in 1550 by Palladio for two very powerful brothers, Nicolò and Alvise Foscari, who wanted to be able to get back to Venice at the drop of a hat. Surprisingly, this would end up being the architect’s only work directly on the Brenta’s shores – a home instantly recognizable as his work by virtue of the base on which it stands and the façade looking out onto the canal, like an Ionic temple.
To this day, it is still not known if its nickname of “La Malcontenta” comes from the Brenta’s repeated flooding, which swamped the surrounding land, or for it purportedly being haunted by the ghost of one Elisabetta Dolfin, a member of the Foscari family, which locked the woman away in the villa to punish her for her libertine behaviors.
While the journey can now be made either over water – between March and October, when the locks are operational – or more simply by road, it was once accomplished only by sea aboard a burchiello. “These vessels were used almost exclusively by the wealthy and had sumptuously decorated wooden cabins,” Silvia shares. “A burchiello was propelled by rowers for lagoon crossings, pulled by horses first along the Brenta, then again on the Piovego canal for those seeking to get to Padua.”
In those days, there were as many as 150 majestic villas along this itinerary.
Today, there are only sixty of these ambitious structures left standing, including Villa Franceschi, owned by the Dal Corso family, who are committed to maintaining its yesteryear character while operating it as a first-class hotel. “The Villa Franceschi was originally home to the Doge’s jewelers,” says Alessandro Dal Corso. “We’ve preserved all the charm of the original residence with about a dozen rooms featuring period furniture, while the annex in the back holds meeting rooms, the restaurant dining room, and a number of guest rooms with more modern decor.” The property is the perfect base for exploring the region, especially since the hotel has its own boats ready to float down the Brenta in a Venetian villa treasure hunt, as the best-known buildings are open to visitors.
Of the visitable properties, one of the must-sees is the Villa Foscarini Rossi, built in the 17th century and sheltering dazzling frescoes by Pietro Liberi. The Rossi family has owned the premises since the 1990s. Being distinguished shoemakers, the Rossis also established a shoe museum on-site featuring a great number of fashion-footwear collections – totaling some 1,500 shoes – crafted in collaboration with major fashion houses like Dior, Céline, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loewe.
On your trip there, a few hundred yards away, your gaze will surely be captured by the more-than-imposing presence of the Villa Pisani, built during the first part of the 18th century in honor of Doge Alvise Pisani. As proof of the project’s pervasive excess, the building has 114 rooms because… Pisani was the 114th Doge of Venice. It is now a national museum with a superb collection of furniture and artwork, including an impressive ceiling painted by Tiepolo in the ballroom.