Thursday 10 May 2018

Not the Villa Pisani at Stra – Michelle Lovric

The weather could not have been more golden, and the company could not have been more intelligent, attractive and beloved. Before we set off for the villa, I printed out some information that I translated for said company as we drove through the rolling plains of the Veneto. It’s always hard – emotionally and physically – to leave Venice, but it seemed that it was worth tugging against nature to visit the magnificent Villa Pisani at Stra.

The villa was built by the Golden Book Pisani family of Santo Stefano, who grew wealthy through their mercantile and property businesses. Their principal seat in town is now the glorious Conservatorium of Music just behind the Palazzo Barbaro. Other seats include the Gritti and the Pisani Moretta palaces, both on the Grand Canal. Alvise Andrea Pisani (1664-1741) was appointed ambassador to the court of the Sun King and became doge (1735). But the family vice of gambling, along with the fall of the Venetian Republic, led to crippling debts. The Pisanis sold their vast villa at Stra to Napoleon in 1807 for 1,901,000 Venetian lire. Napoleon, then King of Italy, appointed as viceroy his stepson Eugène Beauharnais, who was installed in the villa – until the Battle of Waterloo in 1814 delivered the estate to the Habsburg imperial family, who enjoyed it as a summer retreat. In 1866, when the Veneto entered the Kingdom of Italy, the Villa Pisani became the property of the State. Notable visitors included Wagner and D’Annunzio. The first official meeting between Mussolini and Hitler was staged here in 1934. Meanwhile, the vast garden has long been acknowledged as one of the finest in Italy.

All this was so very interesting that I was a little disappointed when it turned out that I’d made a mistake. None of us realized this until we actually arrived at a different Villa Pisani, this one being the Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin at Vescovana. Oops.

Well, it was still a Pisani villa. A quick regrouping of research materials revealed that after the sale of the sumptuous Villa at Stra, the Pisani family lavished their attention on this one. The last Countess Pisani, Evelina van Millingen, enriched the splendid garden and the park, particularly with tulips. (Her name sounded familiar, and she turned out to be, as I suspected, the daughter of Julius Millingen, who attended Byron on his deathbed. There’s no getting away from that man! And the ‘van’ therefore appears to be an aspirational affectation).

Less grand, more crumbling than the one at Stra, the Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin also boasts a beautiful though small formal garden. According to the website, the garden was designed to be admired from the villa’s central terrace and rooms on the first floor. It is called "Crispin de Pass’, referring to an image in the Hortus Floridus by Crispin de Pass (1614). According to the villa’s website, ‘It was an extraordinary project keeping in step with the new style that was popular in England and was influenced by the Edwardian architect Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856 - 1942) with architectural pieces and topiaries, a historical throwback to when garden and house were a single project. The publication "The Formal Garden in England" proposed the return to the tradition of the garden of the 1600s. The garden of Vescovana shows in every element the two souls of Evelina van Millingen: her strong English roots expressed in her Victorian taste - moderated by the secular history of the Pisani family, is united with the Italian traditions, and became a well-balanced blend of a highly architectural setting and the naturalness of the surrounding park. The presence of statues, vases and fountains are clearly due to the Italian influence.’ 

The Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin had advertised its Spring ‘GIARDINITY PRIMAVERA’ far and wide and had succeeded at pulling in what I would estimate as a minimum of 5,000 guests to picnic and dine the day we were there. The villa had printed tickets – 8 euros each for adults, and there were plenty of those to go around. Nor did I notice any shortage of wine or plates of food being carried from the kitchen. There were other ways to spend money too – handicrafts and artwork for sale, and a treasure hunt for children.

just mentioning it: the ducal corno
rendered on somegarden ironmongery
The weather stayed beautiful. The food was reasonable for catering on such a massive scale. The waiters dashed about valiantly in the heat. It was pure pleasure to lunch overlooking the topiary, flowerbeds, statues and decorative ironmongery, including a small rendition of the Doge's corno hat, in case anyone missed the fact that the Pisani family had risen to the highest office of state.
No label
and no staff to ask but
Perhaps this is Evelina?
The Pisani family died out in 1880 with Evelina's husband Almorò. In 1900, after her death, the villa passed to a distant nephew of Almorò, the Marquis Carlo Guido Bentivoglio of Aragon, whose daughter Elisabetta was married to Count Filippo Nani Mocenigo. At the end of the 1960s, the grandchildren of the Marquise Bentivoglio, the Nani Mocenigos, sold the property to Mario and Mariella Bolognesi Scalabrin.

But the advertised 70,000 tulips appeared somewhat sparser than those shown in the publicity. Instead of a formal planting, paths had been set through a pretty wildlflower meadow dotted with some tulips. Beyond that, the gardens were more on the wild side.

The frescoes inside the villa were possibly the worst I have ever seen.

Some space was devoted to a collection of specialized tulip vases.

Among the ornaments was quite the ugliest statue in Northern Italy, in my opinion.

 Modern sofas and conference chairs took up most of the space.

However, the thingthat was most in evidence was … queues. For the enormous stream of people arriving in response to the publicity, only two staff members were selling tickets. You were requested to book in advance, which my hosts had done, but there was no separate admission for those who had obeyed the directive. There was no list of names. You still had queue all the same along with those who had not booked, and you had to physically buy the tickets with cash. Nor did the restaurant and bar accept credit cards, no matter how big the party. In fact, it turned out that the waiters did not take money at all, so you had to queue up to pay at the cassa. A distracted woman handed me half my due change, until I protested. Worst of all, for all the thousands of people who arrived from far and wide … there were three toilets, one of which was broken. Those were the longest queues of all, with many children and older adults in visible distress, as they waited up to 40 minutes.

Being a public holiday, the Guardia di Finanza were not in evidence. The whole fiesta was run on a full cash economy that must have netted the owners of the Villa Contarini Bolognesi Scalabrin a very fat payday.

The family symbol in the garden appears to be a proud strutting peacock, much in evidence. After I’d risen to the cream of my third queue, it occurred to me that I had spent more time queueing than strutting proudly about the garden, the villa and its offerings. It did seem that the owners of the Villa Pisani might have shown more consideration for its two-legged golden eggs, by hiring portable lavatories and adequate staff to man the tills and the ticket office. It appeared somewhat cynical to accept the bookings and do so woefully little to provide for the comfort of the guests. Cynical and maybe a little contemptuous. 

After all, such costs could have been set against all the tax they will of course pay.

Michelle Lovric’s website

PS I was delighted to see that you can buy a Pisani family crest mouse mat on Amazon, ‘made with polyester surface for easy and smooth mousing’.


Sue Purkiss said...

Oh dear! Won't be going there, then...

michelle lovric said...

Oh no, do go! The exterior facades and the garden are lovely. Just be prepared.

Joan Lennon said...

Oh dear - I'd be scampering back to Venice double-time!