This was one of the most pleasing commission I have undertaken; painting Palladio’s Villa Foscari (or Malcontenta), a building I had long wanted to visit let alone paint.
I spent the best part of a week back in the summer sketching there. I had wanted to commute in my Sanpierota from Venice, an hours chug up the Brenta but the outboard had been giving problems so there was a risk I would just end up marooned somewhere instead of getting on with work. Instead I hired a car and drove through the industrial dystopia that is mainland Venice.
Sketching the facade with the Brenta canal gurgling behind me was a scene which had hardly changed in 400 years. The Villa had changed though: run down, used as a grain store, saved, restored, safeguarded and now back in the hands of the Foscari family; typical perhaps of much of Italy’s heritage, but unusual in that salvation came from Britain. The academic brilliance of the architecture was undiminished and I struggled with Palladio’s exacting geometry – one line slightly wrong and the perfection is thrown out of balance. I draw freehand and in perspective so the eye has to sense the moment of correctness both in observation and in representation, in the air and on the paper – you can’t measure it. You sense a tiny error like a hint of bitterness in pure water.
I sketched both facades of the villa, both very different; the front formal and classical, the other quirky and Mannerist, Palladio playing games round the back. Then I turned my attention to the interiors. The heart of the villa is the cruciform Sala Grande open to front and back wit ha cross-flow of air when the doors are open, with more intimate rooms filling the four corners. This airy double-height space is the main living place, the control centre for the whole estate with an unexpected power like the intersection of two laylines. Every surface is frescoed with images of giganti, gods and maidens disporting amid trompe l’oeil ‘artchitecture’. Even the detailed doorcases, columns and shallow pediments are painted onto flat plaster to fool the eye. I had to sketch a tiny detail to see just how cleverly the three-dimensional had been achieved in only two.
The frescos are now faded; in a previous life an unscrupulous owner had stolen the images by covering the walls in wet plaster pulling the pigment out of the fresco. The resulting copy frescos were peeled away and sold, leaving a ghost of the original image behind. This had happened several times till almost nothing remained. Fortunately what we see today is a careful restoration of what was left behind.
Elsewhere around the villa I sketched the barchesa (home farm), limonaia and orto chiuso (lemon house and ‘closed garden’ or greenhouse) and details of the gardens and park. I could have spent many more days there exploring the delicate charms of this miraculous place which made such a huge contribution to the stylistic development of architecture around the globe.
My commission was from the British family who had rescued this hugely important villa and its domain from an uncertain future as industrial might marched unchallenged around the terra firma. And now it had been passed back to the descendants of the original family, my paintings to be a little memento of this great act of philanthropy. I was honoured to do the commission and delighted to have La Malcontenta to myself for a while, at least on paper.