Thursday, 7 October 2010


Came back to the flat from the internet cafe and managed to get this to open up! Ha!


Now, all the rich knobs in Venice hated the heat of the swamp and the marsh and the mosquitoes, and they yearned for somewhere cool and with solid ground under their feet for the summer, and once they had collectively conquered the interior region and held it safe from their various enemies, they hit upon the little inland city-port of Vicenza as a place to send their families for the holidays. They built up a gorgeous urban environment with palaces, churches, squares and markets but they had no defence at all when one of their own arrived to tell them how to build, embellish and improve their new palazzi. The architect who set their blood racing was Palladio, who created in Vincenza a series of urban show-off set pieces, and various country villas dotted about on the estates around the town, and these buildings were so beautiful, so correct, so brilliantly modern, so stylish and perfect that they formed the basis for architecture ever since. If you visit Vicenza, nestled into the nearest hills to the Serene City of Venice, you can easily walk round and see most of Palladio's buildings externally, and some internally, with some marvellous signposting and excellent self-guided walk brochurery.

The extraordinary thing is that the first building you go to see (called the Teatro Olimpico) was the last of his designs – he never lived to see it complete. It was commissioned by a body of men who must have been completely extraordinary in themselves – they were (I guess) all rich and powerful, and learned, and took Hercules as their exemplum... nothing could be achieved without work! They called themselves the Accademia and they thought they should spend all their money on anything to do with antiquity – literature, statuary, art and of course architecture. So they asked Palladio to make them a theatre and gave him an awkward little bit of land with an old prison on it... He was already experienced in creating temporary theatre buildings for special events, and had a huge amount of knowledge of the Greek and Roman theatres. Also he was genius at working on difficult sites, and he'd been thinking of what he wanted to achieve with such a commission, so in no time he had knocked up the basic layout... a wooden amphitheatre or 'cavia' of elliptical design, and a proscenium and stage 'scena' of triumphant classical proportion and ornament. There were of course some large elegant entry rooms for the building where the accademicians could meet and listen to music and lectures, but it was the theatre itself which was to blow everyone away. We went in via a 'new' passageway which brings you straight into the side of the auditorium/cavia - and it is a breathtaking experience....

The postcards on sale do not do justice to the experience of seeing this important space – the first covered theatre in the world – I will post my own photos in due course. But the seating is original, the stage wide and close, the 'orchestra' available for seating and the whole space just astonishing. The scena is sort-of based on a Roman triumphal arch with three main entrances and two more at the side. It is decorated with Corinthian columns and dozens of statues... these were originally to have been 'the Virtues' but after Palladio had died, the Accademicians had themselves plastered all over their marvellous theatre. They had to pay for their own statues, and some could only afford recycled ones, so although they were all stoutly male, some do appear to have rather feminine attributes (boobs).

The first performance (in 1580!) was of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for which the costume designs etc remain. The set was designed by Palladio's rival Scamozzi, who hated him, and shows seven streets leading away from the stage – the city of Thebes in fact. It was such a marvellous design, and so fragile, that it is now regarded as an artwork in its own right and has been left there. It is all absolutely astonishing, especially when you think that London was groping towards a few comparatively temporary wooden theatres at the time, the Globe, the Swan, etc. This Olimpico at Vicenza is still a marvellous working theatre, with a breath-taking stage and orchestra pit, excellent acoustics, terrific history and it must really rank as one of the greatest and most influential buildings in the world. Go and see it!!!

Andrew asks me to record that we had lunch nearby in a little bar which claims to be an osteria and spuncioneria. We don't know what that means, but they serve a terrific menu of polenta or pasta with various fillings of fish, prawns, porcini etc. The address is Pitanta, Contra Santa Lucia, 8, Veneto. Bravo!

We walked round for a few more hours, looking at Palladio's marvellous exciting buildings which still give you a thrill. Vicenza claims him as their own, but recently had to agree that he was actually born in Venice and ran away at the age of 16 to escape an apprenticeship agreement. No-one really knows how or why he died, or much about his life, but his fantastic buildings have led to the town being made a World Heritage Site and it is definitely worth a visit. If you don't already like architecture, then you might start to take an interest when you've been to see all this stuff. We are definitely coming back, to see the villas this time.

We also recommend a quick visit to the town's Natural History and Archaeological Museum which is exemplary if very quiet... however it has some shocking examples of taxidermy, some very very very ancient pots, bones, skulls, etc., some excellent 3-D models of geological formations such as limestone caves, and the biggest fecking stick insect I have ever seen. I had no idea such things existed in Europe and I will walk past hedges with more care in future. This one is evidently called Ph. acanthopus Burmeister and is about as big as a big man's trainer.

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