Essays and Articles


Our first 2006 Architectural Salad historical essay of the built environment examines a specific building and ponders some of the reasons for its design and existence. We hope such essays may launch discussions and become a part of a larger corpus during years yet to come. The oft-used quotation of Hegel’s that “…governments and people never have learned from history” could be examined in the life of a villa in the rising hills above Verona, Italy in the village of Fumane, the Villa Della Torre a Fumane.

Villa Della Torre a Fumane

Italian history is complex, convoluted and interwoven by both forces of nature and forces outside the sphere of Italian peninsular influence. Our final destination in this paper bears the marks of deep psychological scarring, fear, rivalry, competition, and fleeting alliances. It is a period that is barely credible, when compared with modern standards. During the sixteenth century, in the Italy of Machiavelli, there was one rule to follow: that of each man for himself.

Setting the clock back substantially to begin to grasp the constructions at Fumane, we look to the geologic past. The region’s geography set the stage tens of thousands of years ago when glaciers carved out the land, setting moraines on her flank to reshape the landscape. The river called Adige flows out of the great Alps and both parallels and was blocked from entering the glacial lake, Lago di Garda. The gravel moraine separated the river from what may once have been her earliest repository. Over millennia the moraine softened, becoming low hills with lake on one side and river on the other; this was a perfect pathway connecting the fertile southern plains to the alpine passes to the north. When the Adige entered the expanse of the Lombardian flood plain, it never joined with Italy’s greatest river, the Po, choosing instead to exit into the Adriatic Sea wholly on its own.

One could surmise this to be a fertile landscape, and indeed Ötzi, the so-called Ice Man, was discovered not too far from this very area. Other signs of prehistoric habitation are abundant in the area, and so modern man has deduced that ancient man chose to live here. Today part of the ancient moraine carries a world-known name, Bardolino, a lakeside village and namesake for a full-bodied red wine, lighter than the more typical Valpolicella. Fumane is 13 km due east of Bardolino and about the same distance northwest of Verona. Thus it is believed that from the Bronze Age, humans inhabited this region because it was fertile and well-irrigated. But there must have been more, as scientists try to guess where and why Ötzi was going when he was killed; a portion of the mystery is simply the idea that he was going somewhere north or south. This was a major link, the via Claudia Augusta, through the Alpine passes from Mediterranean Italy to lands in upper Europe. Trails and paths west and eastbound must have existed along with this and other north-south paths crossing the Alps.

Verona is well-documented as a Roman city. Its earliest name, however, is veiled in the mists of the past. A Medieval Germanic dialect suggests Bern, while Gallic names are also considered; there is perhaps even a possible Etruscan connection to the powerful Ver family. Brenno, a Gallic chief, may have commanded his name be placed over the town: Brennona. Among the hypotheses, the poetic source of the name Verona, as suggested by William Shakespeare, came from the local name for a balcony, a verone, and one instantly sees the connection to Giulietta and Romeo: Romeo and Juliet.

Founded perhaps in the distant reaches of the fourth century before the current era, this commercial and military outpost was well-seated astride the earliest trail which readily opened as a controlled highway, the Via Postumia, in 148 BCE. As will occur with many road expansion projects, the now-accessible small outpost exploded into a full town during the second century predating the Christian era. The Romans prospered here, and Verona grew into a substantial city boasting a large amphitheater, bridges, gates, and other civic structures. While enormous portions of Verona would be covered by the advances of time, there is much of the Roman city still available to see and touch, more than two thousand years later.

A goodly portion of the attraction of Verona would be the confluence of roads and River Adige that enabled shallow draft boats to sail into the Adriatic from the city. Above Verona, the via Claudia Augusta route was a bit more tenuous, and land-highways were officially established by the Romans to carry soldiers, mail and of course the adventurous in the directions of the compass. To the north were the fast-rising hills, which quickly gave way to the Alps themselves, with narrow valleys snaking into the reaches of Austria and eventually to Munich. By the fifteenth century, the Alps would function as the dividing point between La Serenissima, as the Venetian Republic was called, Papal Italy, and the lands claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor. During the early days of the sixteenth century, church and state would be at odds with one another, while the wily Venetians played each side against the other whilst trading with the Islamic Middle East. Now the story begins to sound far too familiar. Again.

Awakened by contemporary authors such as Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code, or Holy Blood, Holy Grail by authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, we might momentarily dig deep to learn of thirteenth-century religious practices that in their turn set the stage for the sixteenth century we are about to explore. The Christian religion was not nearly as well-defined as one would think, then or now, and the example of the Albigensians or Cathars might be a departure point to identify the needs and wishes of spiritual souls. Perhaps that is why Brown’s book has been on the best-seller list for three years. The abbreviated Cathar heresy begins with Joseph of Arimathea bringing Mary Magdalene to the south of France where she gives birth to Christ’s heir. Additionally, these Christians did not adhere to the evolving western papal Christianity, preaching of corruption that was identified with material excess, certain rites and unnecessary ritual of papal control. Pope Innocent III sent various legates into the region as early as 1204 to stop the unorthodox Cathar teachings termed Manichaeism. Papal legates would excommunicate nobles found protecting any Cathar. At Béziers in 1209, most Albigensians were slaughtered by pro-papal Catholic forces. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, when asked how one might distinguish between a Catholic and a Cathar, replied, “Kill them all. God will know His own.” Seven thousand men, women and children, all Christians, were murdered within the walls of the Église de la Madeleine.

About this same time, a Spanish priest, one Domingo de Guzman, on a diplomatic mission to secure a bride for the prince of Castile, was crossing the Pyrenees with his bishop, Don Diego, when they first encountered the Cathars. Domingo was horrified at the non-traditional, heretical teachings and believed that a devout, unflagging pro-papal preacher could turn the tide and bring all under a single papal banner.

Following the Fourth Lantern Council, Pope Innocent IV would embark upon the first forced determination of Christian faith, setting Christian against Christian. The Inquisition was born. Ever since the councils of the fourth century instigated by Constantine, the delimiting and definition of the Christian faith had continued unabated. Constantinople was the premiere seat of Christianity when the Roman pontiff would assert his temporal control over Western Europe. The year was 1229. Rome was a backwater.

Perhaps this was initiated in anticipation of the year 1239 of the Julian calendar, a year that coincided with the Hebrew calendar year 5000, which was viewed as a time of millennial shift and a probable return to earth of Christ. Architecturally there seems to be much construction around this period, which we believe could have been intended in the Middle Ages as preparation for the return of Christ. To clean up the heresies would certainly be in line with the general optimism and papal preparation, similar to the cleaning that goes on in a home when anticipating a dinner party.

Into this world came Domingo de Guzman, better known today as St. Dominic. He would use preaching to bring the Cathars into alignment with papal thought. The first traveling preachers would have great impact upon our story in Fumane. Though their name was officially Ordo Praedicatorum, The Order of Preachers or The Friars Preachers, their common name was simply the Dominicans. A Medieval pun, Domini canes, “the Lord’s dogs” seems to have suited the followers of Domingo well, for they truly became the watchdogs of the Church.

At around this same time, about 1201, a young man, perhaps twenty or so, was taken captive during war maneuvers by Perugia, a central Italian state. Giovanni Bernardone was scornful of his father’s wealth, although this same wealth had been used to provide Giovanni with a wonderful education and the capacity to read and write in several languages, including Latin, the international language of statesmen, merchants and clerics alike. Of his mother, Pica, scant biographical information remains, as women of the time were generally not documented as well as males. Some believe that Pietro Bernardone, a cloth merchant, had been doing business in the south of France, near the Albigensians, and that he fell in love with one of the local girls, Pica. Perhaps as the French tolerance levels for the heretical Cathars diminished, Pietro and Pica returned, or fled, to Italy, to Assisi, where several children including Giovanni were born. We know this son for his renunciation of wealth (a very Cathar trait), his desire to reform the Church to bring her back to the simple times of Christ, and his treatment of animals and of the poor.

In 1209 Giovanni Bernardone, now calling himself Francis, took his followers to Rome to seek the papal permission of Innocent III to found a new religious order: The Franciscans. Charity, poverty and a love of nature today seem to exemplify the Franciscan world founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.

Thus, in a very short number of years, the Roman pontiff had established two mendicant preaching units in the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Even between the two orders, peace would not always reign, as we shall see in the years ahead. Keep these events in mind, for they will help as we move closer to the villa at Fumane.

Before we near the outset of the sixteenth century, a few sobering notes of change. 1453 had seen the Ottoman Turks, of Muslim faith, conquer the thousand year-old city of Constantinople, first and premier city of Christian faith. Pope Pius II attempted to create a fifth crusade to purge the followers of Muhammad from this most Christian city. The plan never came to pass. As a result of that failure, Pius and other popes from the same century recognized that Rome would need to be rebuilt to become the new center of Christianity. Fortunately for Pius, Leone Battista Alberti, an architectural theorist and genius, was among his retinue. A practice construction in town planning was begun in Corsignano, where Pius was born, which was quickly renamed as Pienza: the city of Pius. We’ll take more time with the wonderful town of Pienza in a future article. It will suffice for the moment to say that one of the most important of papal officials would also build a palace in Pienza, facing the one rational and beautiful palazzo erected by Pius. This official was none other than Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish prelate with a brood of children, a taste for women, a knack for poison, and an ambition that would make him the future Pope Alexander VI. His name places us directly on the path to the First Italian Wars.

The philandering Borgia would eventually take a new, younger mistress, Giulia Farnese (her brother seemingly acted as pimp for the beautiful nineteen-year old and set himself in place to become both a future pope, Paul III, and head of the dynastic, nepotistic, and temporal Farnese clan), just at the moment of her betrothal to one of the wealthy Orsini. The cuckolded Prince Pier Francesco Orsini distanced himself from the poisoning Borgias, amusing himself instead with a strange garden near Viterbo, Sacro Bosco. This garden was replete with monsters, she-demons with serpent legs spread wide, listing houses, and a cave carved into a contorted face with an open mouth (where a tongue should have been, there was a table and bench where one could sit and converse, just beneath the roof of the mouth). The place was filled with magical heroic figures worthy of Orlando Furioso carved in tufa and peperino stones without the hallmark of Early Renaissance design: symmetry and perspective. The Orsini would not forget their fortunes taken by the papacy.

Cujus dignitas etiam in indigno haerede non deficit…the dignity of Peter suffers no diminution even in an unworthy successor.

At the year of the election of Pope Alexander VI, 1492, the world would experience yet another change. In the Western Hemisphere, this year is noted as the date of arrival of Europeans in the New World. We shall consider it here as a benchmark heralding the decline of the watery Venetian Republic, the Serenissima. Venetian fortune had been steadily built upon the resale of expensive commodities obtained in the Middle East. But as early as Bartholomew Dias rounding the tip of Africa (1487) and Vasco de Gama sailing into the Indian Ocean (1497), many spices and luxury goods could be obtained without having to go through the Venetians.

A new pope, Pope Julius II, was also a very temporal, near-feudal, greedy leader seemingly focused upon the destruction of the old Constantinian Saint Peter’s church, now a thousand years old. Julius seemed attentive only to construction and beautification of the new basilica. In part the project was to glorify his name over Borgia’s. The money had to come from somewhere. Julius would therefore besiege Italian cities willy-nilly in any attempt to get cash. Penance-for-payment, indulgences, would become a staple as cash was sought for construction. Martin Luther would wade into the midst of the outflow of German cash bound for the “palaces of Rome.” Each sentence here could become a full topic of later discussion.

The Pope looked everywhere for money and one luxury item just beyond his grasp was still monopolized by the Venetians: alum. Since the first Christian wars against the Muslims in the twelfth century, alum had been imported for limited but spectacular results. As a mordant, alum sets color both in glass (a god-send just as the glory of God was being proclaimed in the stained glass windows of cathedrals throughout Europe) and into woven fabrics (permitting washing with rudimentary color-fastness). The international textile market was huge and generally monopolized by heads of state. Henry VIII was the only person permitted, under English law, to own, sell, and license use of alum’s white powder to weavers, fullers, and dyers. The craving for colorful woolen goods brought immense riches to the Tudor crown. But the Pope received not a single copper coin in recompense. Alum is the stuff of wealth, and wealth begets fantastic estates.

This secular pope instigated a mafia, a group of close individuals with a single purpose and of a single mindset: to destroy Italy’s only republic. The players included Julius, of course; Louis XII of France, who continued to believe that a bloodline dispute ceded Milan and Northern Italy to him; Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, who had bought Tyrol in 1490 and married Bianca Maria Sforza, heir to Milan and Northern Italy (although by 1510 she was dead, thus opening the path for confusion in the succession of Milan and her territories); and Ferdinand I of Spain (Charles V, the next Holy Roman Emperor in just a few years, would count Maximilian and Ferdinand as his grandparents). Forces were in play that now directly impacted the villa at Fumane. Although some called it the War of the Holy League, there was nothing holy about any of this: it was a war of greed. The articles of war were signed in Cambrai, Flanders, which was at the time an immense archdiocese; thus, the war we’ll understand as The League of Cambrai was put in motion.

Lacking communications technology we today take for granted, one might have looked upon the Papacy, the French, the Spanish, and the Austrians against the Venetians as a Keystone Cops movie, except that it was for real and deadly. The Austrians entered the Italian territory, descending from their Tyrol frontier at Trent. Trento, as the Italians call it, is seventy kilometers away from Fumane, easily traveled in a day and a half on foot and within one day’s range for fast postal couriers. Trent was a free city within the boundary of the Imperial domain. In 1545 a council, opened by Cardinal Reginald Pole from Viterbo, would convene in Trent to sort through the Church’s difficulties and reform past wrongdoings. Fumane and Verona would be on the front lines of change from the mid-1500, the Reformation.

Two years of constant war saw Venice lose nearly all of her possessions: Verona, Vicenza, Padova and all the land to the very brackish shore of the Venetian Lagoon were defeated and under the League’s control. La Serenissima’s ability to defend herself was nearly exhausted. Venice, starving and under interdict, was nearly finished. Even her dead could not have a priest sanctify their remains nor the memorial crypt. The shimmering city holding the body of a Gospel writer, Saint Mark, was losing to the city that claimed the Apostle Peter’s remains. Venice had always prided herself as an alternative Christian center to the New Rome under construction further south. Her prized religious structure in the midst of the largest square was a central, Byzantine-style building as were all the pure, early churches. Technically there is no bishop’s church or cathedral in Venice, as she was under interdict so many times that there rarely was a powerful enough bishop to spearhead construction. San Marco is a basilica, commemorating the body of Saint Mark, but it is not truly a cathedral housing a bishop’s chair or cathedra. Saint Mark’s Basilica is simply the doge’s chapel. Venice always felt herself removed from the upstarts in Rome and their “Christian” banter. The League of Cambrai had nearly defeated Venice physically, and so there were quietly throbbing spiritual questions that made one ask which side God was taking.

The Pope took Ravenna and her lands, the French were in Milan, and the Spanish were everywhere. By 1510, however, the Pope proclaimed he was duly irritated with Louis VII. Well, not really; he just coveted the lands next to Ravenna, the territory of Ferrara that was nearly annexed by the French and only administered by the d’Este family being the coveted crown jewel. Julius performed a volte-face. He enlisted none other than King Henry VIII who wanted to expand English lands in Northern France, calling this new mafia The Holy League. For a bit, Venice participated on the papal side: a forced complicity. In this agreement, she could do little else, as her income was devastated, her economy propped by alum sales through papal officials, and her land still dominated by foreigners. Two years into the fray, bankrupt Venice financially balked at the papal demands for Ferrara and was demoralized at his denied return to La Serenissima of a lost Ravenna. The control of these lands by the papacy would mean the end of Venetian shipping in the Adriatic, rendering further Middle Eastern trade impossible. Had Venice realized the impact of the Portuguese arrival in the Spice Islands, perhaps things would have gone differently. Venice was now to slowly decline until her one thousand year old republic ended in 1797 at the hands of the Grande Armée of Napoleon.

During the Jazz era of the 1920’s, which delighted the senses, and gave architecture the Bauhaus and design Art Deco, forces were already at work preparing for the impending World War II. During a similar lull between wars Venice would experience some of the most elegant and sensuous of pleasures of the sixteenth century. None realized that the mortal blow had already transpired. The similarities of these two times, and the idea that faraway events are able to bring death to your doorstep, have been with us for quite a while; we understand all too well the international implications of a war on the other side of the planet. We believe today’s communication to be better, and in general terms of speed, it is, but at the same time we can feel and share sixteenth-century helplessness. Official civic preparation for impending calamities, however, has probably changed very little. The activities of heads of state, creating behind-the-scenes alliances and secret agreements unknown at large, were then, and certainly remain, murky at best.

Fumane was for a brief while out of the hands of La Serenissima, held in turn by Austrians, Spanish and French, in quick succession. In 1513, the Venetians made a pact with the French against the pope. In February of that year, Pope Julius II was dead. On 1 January 1515, Louis XII was dead and Francois 1, Duke of Milan, took crown control of France. In September of 1515, Swiss mercenaries employed by the papacy held their ground at Marignano before the advancing forces of French King Francois. Venetian forces were mustered by one of the two Orsini cousin condottieri employed by Venice, Bartolomeo d’Alviano. The army’s ranks were filled with Venetian nobility, for there was none else to fight. Franco-Venetian troops routed The Holy League on the 14th of September, 1515. Marignano was a victory. The Italian Wars were not over until 1530, but there would be periodic lulls of prosperity. The Venetian Republic on the winning side found much of her mainland terraferma restored to her. She would need these lands to feed her starved citizens and rebuild her fortunes. Of alum and spices, she could never recapture market share again. A unique surviving link to this glorious past is that Venice was, until the post-World War II influx of foreign tourists, the only Italian city with pepper shakers on her restaurants’ tables, for she was the only city capable of purchasing this exotic spice, even as the cuisine of Italy evolved. Her citizens’ taste buds could not give up the piquant spice.

Of Fumane? In the aftermath of war, and finding herself on the winning side, Verona had a building boom. Wars far to the south, in Rome culminating in the Sack of Rome in 1527, would bring famous architects, painters and writers flocking to this area of Italy. It was an area still outside of papal control and, for the epoch, relatively secure. In November of 1537, in the skies over the Veneto, in Scorpio, Venus was in near conjunction with a “bright star,” 6°57’ just before sunrise. The stars indicated a new beginning.

In antiquity, in the years following the assassination of Julius Cesar, the conclusion of the Civil War, and Octavian’s ascent to the imperial ivory sella curulis as Augustus, ushered in the Pax Romana, a phase of no wars within the Italian Roman Empire. In this period of time, construction both to repair damaged buildings and to create afresh seems to have taken place. The only architectural treatise to have survived into the modern era, de architectura libri decem by one Vitruvius, seems to have caught the fancy of builders during the Italian Renaissance. The Roman architect had been alive at the time of Christ’s death in Judea, and his buildings were no doubt the styles that had been seen by the very eyes of Jesus. Vitruvius’ presence loomed large in the Veneto even after the death of Raffaello (his death is frequently noted as the conclusion of the Italian High Renaissance period). Purloined copies, misprinted works, and poor quotes all found their way into the construction yards of the time. Raffaello had paid to have a personalized copy translated into vernacular Italian, as his Latin was none too keen, in order to understand the subtle nuances of the ancient Roman language. As chief architect of the Fabric of St. Peter’s, and well-off, he needed to keep abreast of the times and trends.

Vitruvius made emphatic notation of the importance of the human body and the perception of body symmetry (Book 3, Chapter 1). This led Da Vinci to illustrate the Vitruvian man, and Dan Brown’s dead Louvre curator to circumscribe himself, in the same nude pose, square in circle.

The number ten, a perfect number explained by the ten digits of both hands, was identified as Pythagorean number mysticism of the late sixth century BCE. Ten referred to the tetraktys, a triangle with four units on each side, which was considered the “most sacred oath.” The numbers, when thus arranged as pins in bowling, also comprised the ratio of musical intervals, a fourth (4:3 a diatessaron), a fifth (3:2 a diapente) and an octave (2:1). By the Middle Ages, the number ten was no longer recognized by the populace at large as pre-Christian but was a godly number, as evidenced by the same observations of human hands. A Latin translation of the word tithe was a tenth; thus, God was aware of tens.

Even in Vitruvius’ time, there were alternative numerical systems to the tetraktys as an equally important number: 6. The foot measures one-sixth part of human height. Greek architects using the Doric Order (order is the system of proportions) retained the 6:1 ratio in the height-to-diameter ratio of columns. This six may also derive from Pythagorean tradition.

Of course, there was also the number seven, for it took God a mere seven days to create the cosmos. Overhead astrologers made nightly observations of the seven visible “planets,” consisting of the Moon, the Sun, and the known planets of the pre-nineteenth century.

There was the number twelve, the sum of the 3, 4, and 5 which are the sides of a particular right triangle yielding a 90° corner. Three, four and five could be a sequence counted on one hand and remembered much better than the equation a2 + b2 = c2.

Nicomachus knew of only four perfect numbers: 6, 28, 496, and 8,128. Yet another system embraced sixteen, also noted in de architectura. The numbers game was to be reborn and quite alive during the Renaissance, especially as a sacred oath hidden from the world at large. The perception, and later the reality, was that architects and owners could create, on paper, spaces devised of ratios and proportions which only they would know once the structure was complete. The building could house a secret meaning! Without a measuring tape, a rather modern invention, and without the original plan drawing, none but the original architect and the owner would know of the secret ratios surrounding daily life. We are still learning of these hidden numerical systems, many of which are still lost to our present time. Today we use tape measures and standardized industrialized building elements. Proportion and ratio have become nearly lost arts in planning with the advent of computer drawings.

In the historical fogs that obscure the clarity of time’s passage, a citizen of Pisa made note of a natural progression of numbers known to the Egyptians and the Greeks through the use of squares and a compass’ quarter arch. This system could be observed in certain plants and sea shells. His name was Leonardo Fibonacci. The Venetian printing presses had brought his name again to consciousness. His written cycle of numbers, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so forth became what Goethe called “the architecture of frozen music.” Take two numbers; 1:1 is a perfect square. Take 2:1 (octave) and you’ve discovered the frequent ratio of Renaissance arched windows, one unit wide by two units high. Take 3:2, a musical pitch ratio of one just fifth and a frequent ratio used for the development of rooms before the invention of a tape measure. The number thirteen, proclaimed unlucky ever since Friday, October 13, 1307 when all Knights Templar in France were arrested and tortured into admitting heresies, had become unusable and frowned upon when spoken aloud, along with black cats, ladders and the lot. In reality, the French King Philip the Fair coveted the Templar wealth. In the fifteenth century, thirteen could be “hidden” in plain sight as in paintings of the Christ with the twelve disciples/apostles. One hears twelve, a zodiacal number, the number of months in the calendar, and a number employed by Christ at the selection of his disciples, but factor in Christ seated with his apostles at the Last Supper, and you are back to lucky thirteen. Deciphering these numbers, and discovering which cycle of numerical play is being used, is basic to the still-developing understanding of the structure of Fumane’s villa. There are, for example, thirteen semi-circular steps which lead into the northern façade of Villa Della Torre from a hill above. They are here by design, both the semicircular shape and the thirteen treads. One could say that the semicircular shape, obvious as a half a circle and the favored perfect form of the Church at the time of the villa’s construction, aligns the villa with the Church’s teachings and ignores the Copernican ellipse as God’s newly discovered and heretical form in the cosmos. But, with very careful observation, one could also note the thirteen steps descending into the mountainside forecourt as part of the now-forbidden Fibonacci cycle paying tribute to the ancient goddess, Mother Nature. Which was it to be?

As in Vitruvius’ time, the pax italiana following the conclusion of the Italian Wars brought a period of feigned prosperity and peace to the Veneto region. This peace coincides nearly with the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that slowed the friction between Lutherans and Catholics in what today is embraced by Germany and Austria, at that time a part of the Holy Roman Empire bordering Venice. Now with architects from Rome working in the Veneto area, new ideas of the manner of Roman elegance, what is today referred to as Mannerism, was alive and well in the fertile fields just east of the gravel-laden prehistoric moraines. With no wars brewing, the reconstruction of Villa Della Torre could begin. The old foundations would be used, for Italians did not waste much in those days. There was a wall and parts of a large house, not of Roman era, but old and, because of the wars, in bad repair. The new structure would include and embrace the ancient. Available too were publications from Venice about building, including versions of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. Then Verona was nearby and replete with Roman-era ruins from which one could see that they too had followed the natural cycle ratios of their buildings: 5:3, 3:2, and 2:1. The Della Torre clan had a city palazzo in downtown Verona, just off the present Corso Porto Bosari, the decumanus maximus of Roman times. Porto Bosari is a wonderful white marble Roman city gate linking the western Via Postumia to the Mercatum Fori. Today’s Piazza delle Erbe, or forum, thus no doubt remains as testament to Della Torre’s nearness to Roman antiquity, for it is literally beneath their feet. To emulate the ancients would then be the goal of this villa, new construction perhaps begun by Count Giovanni Battista Della Torre.

For a while, life in the Venetian Republic’s terraferma was, as any successful frontier town of the time, not too different than settlements of the American West following the Civil War. A bit rough and tumble at times, good for those with money, and the Della Torre had money. Veneto was far enough away from Papal Rome to be impacted by the continual flow of writings coming over the Alps from a German monk who had rebuked the papacy and of other oral traditions from Geneva, which as always means John Calvin’s Christian viewpoint. Count Della Torre was a relative of Marcantonio Thiene, champion of Palladio’s successful architectural bid for the Basilica of Vicenza. The Thienes, especially Ottavio, were active in anti-papal religious activities between Vicenza, Chiavenna on the border in the Alps, and Geneva.

The 1527 Sack of Rome set in motion a series of events which would impact daily life in Fumane. Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Carafa and his ascetic religious order relocated from the beleaguered papal city to Venice. They were known as the Theatines. Carafa’s name will be remembered, for he reorganized the Inquisition in 1542. This same group who had sought to eradicate the unorthodox Cathars in the thirteenth century were brought back to power to fight Catholic Christian protestors. The new inquisition was called the Congregation of the Holy Office in Italy (alive and well today as part of the Roman Curia, presently called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Three years later, in December, the Council of Trent opened, although it was initially proposed to take place not in the territory of the Holy Roman Emperor but rather in Vicenza, a hotbed of anti-papal Christians. (Some define these Christian sects as Anabaptists, Socinians, Waldenses, Calvinists, and even Lutherans, while in truth, they do not appear to have been any of these but self-directed confraternities of Bible readers, “fratelli d’italia” or “spirituali” or evangelicals or self-defined as simply Christians.) The Inquisition had made its way into the Veneto’s spiritual soul and was seeking to eradicate any non-Roman, non-papal thoughts of ancient Venetian Christianity.

Part Two continues with personages of the sixteenth century who knew the house and poses the following question: Did they hide at this country estate?

Villa Della Torre a Fumane: Part Two

In the outskirts of Verona, a city of perhaps only 50,000 inhabitants by mid-sixteenth century, was a quiet manifestation of ancient symbolic architecture. Standing close to the roads linking Papal Rome to Imperial Germany and Austria, on the crossroads connecting contested French-Spanish Milan to Republican Venice, Villa Della Torre overlooked the very paths trod by prehistoric dwellers such as Ötzi, Roman troops, Swiss mercenaries, German landsknechts, and Dominicans passing messages from the conclave in Trent to Paul VI sitting firmly in the Chair of St. Peter.

Villa Della Torre was a reconstruction project in the peaceful years following the Italian Wars, an older fragment being incorporated into her new plan that emulated the ideals set forth by Vitruvius. A rural villa would need symmetry, an atrium and a pair of alae or wings. Each element was well-defined in Book 6. Orientation of the villa would subscribe to the elements of nature, as the winter’s piercing winds dictated passive rooms designed for maximum warmth. The estate at Fumane does not align to the perfect cardinal compass points, facing approximately 30° west of true north. This is the same “secret” more contemporary architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright would use when drafting on paper, given the opportunity, by placing the hypotenuse of a 30°-60°-90° triangle on the east-west axis, then siting, from the triangle itself, the 90° wall planes, thus providing the maximum sunlight at each facet of the house.

“In our winding streets there will be no house but what some part of the day will enjoy some sun; nor will they ever be without gentle breezes…and yet they will not be molested by stormy blasts, because such will be broken by the turning of the streets.” Leone Battista Alberti We briefly made note of the thirteen semicircular steps descending from the northern boundaries into the forecourt. But the numbers do not stop at the foot of the stairway. Depending upon how you count the balusters enclosing three of the four sides of the entry court, you discover either four sets of seven (God made the cosmos in seven days; there were seven visible “planets” in the heavens: five planets, the Sun and the Moon, therefore the house must be of Godly dimensions), or two sets of eight and one set of twelve, never counting balusters twice (a Fibonacci eight and a Vitruvian twelve, both considered somewhat heretical, pre-Christian numbers, when used in architecture, worthy of heresy’s tribunal).

The Church had adopted symmetry as her own long ago. Perhaps this came from her Roman upbringing, but more reasonably the experiment in Pienza back in the mid-fifteenth century, as Leone Battista Alberti was sorting through the poorly quoted Vitruvius, seems a more likely candidate. His own book, de re aedificatoria was finally published in Italian in 1546, although pieces in pamphlet form and via word-of-mouth had circulated for a century. The Early Italian Renaissance had subscribed to central planned churches, more aligned with the martyrium and memory churches of the Early Byzantine Christians: squares, octagons, and circles. They had sought, in the heady days surrounding the new Christian beginnings of Rome and the realization of a complete loss of Constantinople, the purest forms in architecture for the singular spiritual manifestations of the built world. St. Augustine had paved the way writing City of God, for God’s city would now be Rome. Simple purity in God’s architecture was to encourage purity in an ever-increasingly earthly priesthood. However, with the arrival of the Inquisition’s Holy Office, many early Christian manifestations were no longer acceptable. Even Bramante’s new Saint Peter’s, itself designed as a martyrium in a central plan, would need to be altered, stretched, and pulled along its axis into the newly nominated shape of a Latin cross. One needs look only at the floor plan of the basilica to see the quick modification to central plans worked by Bramante, Raffaello, Peruzzi, Sangallo, and Michelangelo in the years preceding the Reformation’s Baroque. A St. Peter’s of Carlo Maderno’s (1556-1629) with the prescribed Latin cross structure is seen today. Carafa, elevated as Pope Paul IV, was distressed that the building was shorter than the Constantinian structure of the fourth century, and (one may suspect) troubled by the “pagan” martyrium when a Latin cross would interpret the message of Rome more clearly: Roman Christianity was to be the sole Christianity. You may find the Maderno additions beginning at the Capella del Coro and the Capella del Sagramento. Symmetry was still sacrosanct, with a mirror image being the best.

But a hard look at the human body, God’s manifestation of His image on earth, revealed asymmetry: a face is not exactly the same side to side. Even Vitruvius had a caveat:

Non enim verso videtur habere visuseffectus sed fallitur saepius iudicio ab e omens.

For it is clear that sight does not always produce true effects; indeed the mind is quite frequently deceived by visual judgments. (Book 6 Chapter 2:2)

In the same chapter the ancient Roman also provided the key to a “gifted” architect making adjustments, by subtractions or additions to the proportional system. Villa Della Torre, by virtue of Vitruvius and Alberti, was the design of a skilled and gifted architect, for the house is not symmetrical but just out of alignment, causing the visitor to walk with shoulders off-square to the building. We do not know the name of this individual or team of designers. The untrained eye can see the problem, looking across the Peristyle and across the bridge of the peschiera, a fishpond somewhat hidden by a fountain surmounting three access steps. Three, of course, was a number of both Pythagoras and Fibonacci. The original fountain, “due conche,” has been relocated to the southwest side of the villa. This now displaced fountain is substantially larger and would have Imageblocked even more of the axial view seen today. The asymmetry in large-scale urban planning had been noted by Alberti in Pienza’s curving main street: “…it will be better…not for the streets to run straight to the gates…For thus, besides that by appearing so much longer, they will add to the greatness of the town…”

As the square (1:1) was the second favored shape after the perfect circle, the 3-4-5 measures whose sum is twelve (both zodiacal and apostolic at the same time) may not have been looked at twice by the Holy Office. Indeed, there was no other simple method to locate a 90° corner in construction than the 3-4-5 measures with a string or the use of a hand-made norma, a carpenter’s square. Consider the edifice a minor urban plan constructed as multiple stacking squares composed of four corners,. There are additional corners, four per set, when including the columns all set at 90°. Villa Della Torre’s Peristyle is a ratio of 4:3 taken directly from Pythagoras or the tetraktys system, but the eye is drawn more to the rusticated, non-Greek columns feigning a country house without refinement or pretense. These rusticated columns may have been inspired by Romano’s Palazzo Tè, where traditional architecture is playfully misaligned. Nevertheless, rustication or none, the 4:3 ratio is visually hidden yet stands in plain view.

Two north-south wings of the estate began the ideal of staging seasonal rooms. Modern man with mechanical methods of keeping warm must remind himself that this was a world lit by fire, heated by fire and where one cooked over fire. Should there be no fire, the sun would be the only recourse, and sunlight entering a room could make the day. Summer in Italy was hot, so the seasonal exchange became an exchange of rooms: the autumn dining room, the summer dining room, the winter dining room and the spring dining room. One table and its set of chairs were moved about the house to accommodate the temperature shifts of nature. This idea, while very practical due the temperature changes, and noted in both de architectura and de re aedificatoria, translated into a need for a huge amount of space, four times what moderns would allot for the same requirement. Villa Della Torre would not be the only estate to utilize such large amounts of space. Looking at the skewed floor plan, one is reminded that sunlight would enter all rooms only when the plan was offset from true north by 30° or more. Sunlight in each room year-round was a feat. This passive solar warming was, for its time, brilliant.

The house’s position approximately 30° off from true north may present a clue to the building’s eventual hidden meaning. First, without the plastic triangle common to modern life, describing the process sans benefit of a diagram, the 30° offset came from a 2:1 ratio. It is as though two squares were drawn, one adjacent to the other, forming a 2:1 ratio rectangle. Take one of the 2 measure side lengths of the rectangle with a string and arc that line across the width, a single square, to the opposite side. As the string arc touches the opposite side, the angle at the center of the radius is 30° or 60°. Typically ecclesiastical buildings had been oriented to the Sun’s first eastern rays, an East-West axis, not on an angle (although there are exceptions). Consider for a moment that a large structure not on an east-west axis, lot permitting, might have been deemed non-catholic, therefore not orthodox, thus heretical.

With the exception of the area built upon old foundations, in the southeastern quadrant, the wall plan layout is close to 90° throughout. The Della Torre papers are scattered in museums about the world and none has been catalogued, if even read, for years. Unfortunately, we do not know of any observation or written thought formed at the time of construction. Peristyle aside, the ground floor ratios appearing in the major rooms with fireplaces are either 3:2 or 5:3. A connecting space on the west side is a simple 2:1 ratio. The mountain-side entry garden, a cortile, seems to be nearly a 5:3 ratio. The addition of a retaining wall and an offset entry gate (the one presently used to access the dwelling) may have been installed upon a more established presence of roadways. The slight variation is noted on maps from 1562 and 1752 indicating a strada or road flanking the side of the villa as well as a “brollo” or brullo in modern Italian, which describes a denuded area, such as a cleared dirt pathway. The eighteenth century map clearly indicates a tree-lined entry above the house descending to the semicircular steps. This brullo is no longer there, for in a portion of its place stands the modern asphalt highway leading around Mount Noroni, the road that leads to the Val Lagarina, skirting the higher pre-Alps, called the Lessini Mountains.

In general the villa followed Vitruvian ideals. The quiet use of asymmetry was the work of a skilled architect and perhaps goaded by the owners, of whom the chief suspect is one of Giovanni’s sons, Giulio Della Torre, his wealthy wife Anna Maffei, and their sons, Antonio, Gerolamo, and Francesco.

Somewhere near 1529 or 1530, the Della Torre family consisted of several members of an extended unit all living together. Giulio Della Torre (1480-1560/1563) was named in official records as the head of the lot. By 1541, just months before the Holy Office was formed, there were fourteen Della Torre all living under one roof. Certainly a now-altered downtown Verona palazzo was used when construction of the villa was in full swing. Breathing country air would have been considered healthier than living in town and inhaling city dust. Giulio had married Anna Maffei as early as 1504. Of the brood lodged at the palazzo or villa, Francesco and Gerolamo were their oldest sons, with Antonio arriving in 1513. The lineage would continue through Antonio with nine children, including Marcantonio. The Della Torre were aristocrats of the highest societal levels, well-connected to the aristocracy in Venice. They were linked to the famous Thiene of Vicenza. They were associated with the ruling Gonzaga of Mantova just over the Po River south of Veronese territory. And they would have been in contact with the best architects available in the upper northeast Italy. Architect Sanmicheli, by 1537, had already been influenced by Giulio Romano’s Palazzo Té, as evidenced by the three arches of the façade of Palazzo Canossa, built just outside Porto Bosari in Verona and thought to have been drawn by Romano. Palazzo Canossa is only three minutes from the Della Torre palazzo on foot.

To date the construction of Villa Della Torre is more problematic. The assumption of construction completion in 1558/1559 is due to an engraved date on a bell in the chapel’s tower. Frequently dates were inscribed in buildings, in the last wall of plaster, here in a bell, to mark the conclusion of the building process. The relative square shape of the villa, the more-or-less north orientation, and peschiera with a bridge all seem very similar to the work of Giulio Pippi called Giulio Romano (1492/1499?-1546) and his Palazzo Tè in Mantova. A pleasure palace on an immense scale, Palazzo Tè (1530-1536) was built by command of Federico II Gonzaga for his beloved Isabella Boschetta. He was Mars and she was Venus in the cosmic sensual villa outside the walls, and away from the prying eyes of the Mantovani citizens. Mantova was only a day’s ride away from Fumane. The hypothesis that Raffaello’s former second-in-charge, Romano, may have come to this part of the Veneto from his home in Mantova no doubt stems from the more-or-less square Peristyle and the peschiera on the southern side of the villa.

Romano, arriving in Mantova after 1524, spent several years on the downtown palace where Mantegna had painted famous di sotto in su perspectives celebrating the lives of the first twelve emperors of Rome. These were private perspectives that left all invited guests speechless. As the new architect of the Gonzaga court, Giulio had big shoes to fill. His connection to Raffaello and his knowledge in Roman Mannerist construction and fresco illusionism meant he was occasionally consulted on diverse projects, such as Palazzo Thiene (contract dated 10 October 1542 with Marcantonio Thiene), and intimately involved with the Palazzo della Regione “Basilica’s” reconfiguration, both in Vicenza. Vicenza was itself an easy day’s ride from Mantova. The novelty of his Palazzo Tè is well attested, as visitors demanded that beds be installed during construction so that, although unfinished, they could claim to having “slept” in the great house. Some, it is rumored, tried to bribe contractors for copies of blueprints to take away with them. That the Fumane house has similarities may not be such a surprise after all. Parallels from one house to the next, in plan form or in volumetric details, seem rather common in the years preceding photographs, just as property owners today often scour magazines and movies hoping to find favorite images that can be employed in the construction of their homes or other buildings. If Palazzo Tè gave Villa Della Torre pause, Villa Della Torre columns may have given rise to Andrea Palladio’s decorative columns at the incomplete Villa Serego (1565) in an outlying area near Pedemonte, in Valpolicella at Santa Sofia less than five kilometers away. Palladio would complete Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza after Romano’s death.

And then there is Ridolfi. Exact dates, even with the remaining census, baptismal and death notations, are difficult to come by. A renowned stuccoist, Bartolomeo Ridolfi hasn’t a substantiated birth or death date (1510?-to after 1570). Ridolfi would create several stucco mantles and firebox surrounds of fascinating whimsy: three of the four are giant monster faces with their mouths gaping open, poised to digest everything on the hearth. A fascination with giants and the supernatural was in vogue during the sixteenth century. Aside from a palazzo in Vicenza, said to have been started by Romano, and the one completed by Palladio, which contained two very restrained monster fireplaces, these are the best “monster” fireplaces in the world. Thus only a brief glimpse can be pieced together of the builders and dreamers of the estate just outside Fumane. The stuccatore’s departure with his son for the Polish court in 1562 provides the only conclusive date: Villa Della Torre was complete by 1562. As a possibly interesting footnote, King Sigismund II of Poland had “opened the door to the gospel [non-papist, non-Calvinist teachings, Bible-based] in his kingdom” to Bernardino Ochino in 1564. Ridolfi was already there.

Outside testimonies bear witness to the fine domus, including the observations of Giorgio Vasari, in his second edition of Lives, where he notes the work of Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559) in the construction of a central planned chapel on the estate. Sanmicheli’s death in 1559 precedes by one year, if accurate, the bell’s engraved date of 1558. Sanmicheli’s studio may have completed the chapel and tower works. One might surmise that construction, finally, was complete at the compound. An opening for design, modification, construction and installation would then range from about 1530/1535 to 1558/1559 to Ridolfi’s 1562 departure, more than ample time to build and furnish.

It is certainly worth observing that the chapel, completed near the time of the death of Sanmicheli, would be built on a central plan and not a Latin cross as encouraged by the Holy Office, but there may be a good reason. By virtue of a narthex, here an internal atrium, the first “feel” of the chapel is that of an elongated form. The structure is outside the wall of the estate, so one could certainly claim to the Holy Office’s inquisitors that land was at a premium and that they attempted to make it elongated with the constraints of property. Or maybe none asked. There may be more to the story. And there were other “hidden” architectural elements as well.

On the warm, southern side of the villa, below the peschiera, literally beneath a pair of stairs leading to the lower gardens, was a hidden face: a face with two eyes and a mouth. This face is not as well-defined as the face in Orsini’s Sacro Bosco. Each has two eyes, one mouth for a total of three openings that point to a number of the natural cycle, but as faces staring at you the features dominate and take control while the number of openings becomes less important, hidden elements. Fumane’s grotto is nearly circular, rugged but circular. It appears to be held aloft by a central support, a fungo or mushroom stalk. At the base is a bench. There is another, more refined monster face inside, not unlike those Ridolfi placed inside the main house. What was this space for, and how was it used?

By virtue of their family connections, through the local bishop of Verona, Matteo Giberti, and via contacts such as the architects Romano and Sanmicheli, humanists, philosophers, authors and the like would have made their presence known at Fumane. We can suspect that Andrea Palladio was here as well. His projects in this area commence as early as 1564. He published observations and left many additional sketches and notes about the Roman edifices in downtown Verona, which can be seen from Fumane on a clear day from the ancient entry brullo. Palladio’s chief patron after his mentor Giangiorgio Trissino was Marcantonio Thiene. How unlikely is it that Palladio, local architect of great esteem, would not have had arrangements made on his behalf, a letter, a spoken word, an invitation for a visit to this most famous house standing a mere five kilometers from one of his own Imageconstruction sites? If not visiting on his own volition, then what of the aristocrat-client’s wishes to supersede the villa of Fumane’s fame? An architect needs to stay abreast of the times and styles, does he not?

To this mix, we may add a further twist, perhaps pure speculation… But then again, perhaps not. The confraternities in the Veneto, those professing Christian thought sans the baggage of papal mismanagement, rite and ritual, circumcision or no, sacrament and so forth were bound to take offense to any Roman demand. The spokesmen, the Dominicans, legates, and prosecutors of the Holy Office were certain to ruffle more than a few feathers and to occasionally exceed their authority seeking to control the Unity of Faith.

Venice had promoted herself as the keeper of the body of the revered Saint Mark, Gospel writer. Religious stability continued in the Veneto through the seventy years of exile from Rome, when the French popes lived in Avignon and the papacy was fraught with schism. Since the origins of Venice herself, through the early Christian centuries when Constantinople, not Rome was the center of Christianity, the island republic had felt a particular relationship with Christianity. Venice had perhaps believed herself the European center of moderate Christian thought. Constantinople had been the true religious seat of Christian power until 1453, and afterward the Venetians continued to move in and out of the area long after the Sultan’s naval defeat at Lepanto (1571).

Then there are the Venetian religious confraternities alternately termed “fratelli d’italia, illuminati, and spirituali” meaning the Italian brotherhood, the Illuminated Ones, or Spiritualists. They were called “Socinians” in the nineteenth century. Some used a term meant to connote a more derogatory meaning, Nicodemismo. This term indicates a follower of Nicodemus, author of the apocryphal The Gospel of Nicodemus; this follower of Christ is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John. By his own account, he assists Joseph of Arimathea in the preparation of Christ’s body after the Crucifixion, indicating a more intimate effort than that of the disciples. It is also from the readings about Nicodemus in John, from a portion directly related to the Nicodemus conversations with Christ, where the contemporary descriptive phrase “born again” hails. These confraternities appear to be evangelical in their Christian belief.

From simple changes in Church operations, instigated in the thirteenth century, the Cathars had looked away from Rome for moral guidance. They would not be the last to ask piercing questions of the fathers in Rome. Roman linear thought was not going to always be a straight line. By definition, just digressing from an orthodox path, was to side-step the established line: a heresy. There had been Saint Francis, who sought to bring purity to the Church through a less material life. Now, in the sixteenth century, there was a fairy-tale Christianity, without the intrigues of humans, capturing the spirit of the time. From the time the Cathars had been killed, Christianity had turned upon Christianity. Often Orthodox versus perceived heretic. But who defined the straight path to God? From 1453 the popes would claim terrestrial authority. Recently, papal abuses at the hands of Alexander VI and Julius II, Leo X and even Clement VII had turned the papacy into just another earthly kingdom of wealth and corruption, not the Kingdom of God. In the Veneto, these recollections of papal greed, warring and plunder were still very alive. An earthly religion realigned toward finery, pomp and wealth had revolted Martin Luther. He was not alone, but has simply become more famous. Indulgences, forgiveness for cash was too much. Thus, losses at the hands of the League of Cambrai, then The Holy League, and now the clampdown seeking uniform religious practice as Pope Paul IV (Carafa) ordered bulla upon bulla. The pope had determined to seal up the literate door used by those seeking alternate paths to personal salvation. A single papal banner as envisioned long ago by St. Dominic back in the thirteenth century was still this pope’s quest: a Unity of Faith.

Local priests were often unlettered and simpletons, incapable of teaching the Word of the Lord. A difficult question: “What of knowing Christ and the purest form of His religion?” The printing press and Luther had forever opened the door. Perhaps beginning with a single step, at least today we perceive this an easy step; one could begin by reading the Bible. It should not be forgotten that, in this area of Italy, the more important saint was the one who left a readable, printable text of Christ: The Gospel of Mark. Of Peter, we have chiefly legend or the word of other writers.

The sixteenth century saw priests and priests alone designated by the pope as the spokespeople for the Word of God. A priest unable to read from the Holy Writ posed a problem for literate folk. Verona would flock to hear the preaching of the learned former priest, now evangelist preacher Bernardino Ochino, before he was forced to dodge the Inquisitors by fleeing to Bohemia. The public bought pamphlet upon pamphlet, like the freshly minted evangelical tract beneficio di giesu christo that circulated everywhere by 1543, the year following the establishment of the Holy Office seeking to stamp out such heresies. It remains an evangelist, “born-again” staple teaching one how to live a Christ-like life. Tens of thousands of additional written documents were rolling off the Venetian presses to hungry, knowledge-starved citizens. Rome did not know what to do. The office of the Index (Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1559) was created to eradicate heretical books, and book burnings were instigated. Soon, everything would be censored.

The Della Torre, Sanmicheli, Thiene, and Palladio were certainly literate. That Venice issued a vernacular language Bible instead of the authorized Latin Biblia Sacra Vulgata clearly shows that the local populace was interested in Christian thought, just without the interference from papal Rome. No priests interpreting, just simple reading of the Word of God. This topic will be taken up in future discussions, including the clientèle of Andrea Palladio and their personal difficulties with the Holy Office and their relationship with John Calvin. For now, please remember that to own a Bible in a native tongue at this time was death by fire.

As for the Della Torre estate, here is the unproven speculation: the house was built asymmetrically and a warmer 30° off true North specifically because it was to be a place secured for anti-papal worship. You would be safe to read, unseen in the warm grotto beneath the stairs and able to hear anyone approaching, to stash your Bible in the dark monster’s mouth before anyone could make it inside. A central planned church and a circular, round grotto, perhaps commemorating Christ’s tomb, brought the Della Torres and their select friends to the earliest of all memorial martyriums commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. The house seemed to embody the world of purity and simplicity.

Was the Villa Della Torre at Fumane a safe haven directly under the noses of the prying Dominicans seeking heresies to torch in the shadow of the Council of Trent? We shall never truly know, for any pertinent document would long ago have been burned. Any anti-papal treatise was too dangerous to be permitted to circulate. In 1563 a customs check at Como searching a bale of Pellizzari silk discovered, hidden deep within, copies of common language Bibles and religious tracts along with letters to ‘fratelli d’italia” listed and called by name. Possibly routed from Venice/Vicenza to anti-papists living in Chiavenna along the Swiss boundaries on the northern edge of Lago di Como, the discovery sent shock waves through the Veneto region as those named were located and arrested. The condemned were well-known members of Vicenza’s elite, probably friends to the Della Torre if only by social hierarchy. Of the escape routes from Vicenza to neutral Switzerland (land of Calvin), several passed near Villa Della Torre. Any anti-papists would have known what to look for in a safe house, along the “underground railroad.” Asymmetry would have been high on the list. Certain numbers on visible elements would have counted. Lack of decoration and certain other decorative devices, we have yet to understand. Perhaps the monstrous gaping mouths of the fireplaces were a clue. Imagine sitting next to the gaping mouth, with the fire crackling, contemplating the wrath of God devouring the papists.

Ratios in volume are more difficult to discern as a ratio, yet there is a feel to the space one walks through, and these ancient cubic forms were probably part of the safety package. Was Villa Della Torre a safe house? It’s difficult to answer this question, for certainly no written document would survive, had notes or letters ever been written. An inappropriate document found by an inquisitor was a death warrant. With this large of a house connecting Verona to Trent, no doubt there were times that a traveling inquisitor might have lodged in the house at the same moment a “fratello d’italia” was hiding there. They may even have broken bread at the same table, lingering, warmed by the monster and the fire. The biblical injunction “seek and ye shall find” was alive and well in this estate and in other locations dotted about northeastern Italy. The Bible reader found complicity between the rhetoric and the built world, while the uninformed Catholic practitioner was left in the dark. We can only speculate at the present time. It is safe to say, however, that had the Inquisition, driven by Dominicans and supported by Franciscans at the behest of Pope Paul VI, not been so strong, this part of Italy might not be the perceived Catholic domain it is today, but considered a “protestant” region.

In 1569 this same northeastern quadrant of Italy suffered heavy rains and severe flooding. The Adige roared through the pink marble openings in the Roman Ponte di Pietra with a deafening noise. We can guess that water poured off the steep hills above the villa, perhaps channeled into the road on the eastern flank. No observation of damage to the villa has ever been brought to light. Then, in 1572 a supernova bright enough to be seen with the naked eye in the constellation of Cassiopeia was observed. Any change in the “perfect heaven created by God” seemed to portend something awful, negating the perfect quality of the skies taught by the Church in Rome. In modern times we scarcely give a look to the heavens, but traces of the time abound in our language, as the Latin-based word for something catastrophic, a disaster: dis, “not of” and aster, “the stars” as in astronomy and astrology. Thus a disaster “is not of the stars.” In December the eclipse came, an event always greeted with fear and trepidation. The property was divided in 1573 just before the death of Gerolamo, who was now head of the clan when younger brother Antonio predeceased him. Gerolamo had no heirs and therefore needed to divide the property among his nephews, Antonio’s children. Nephew Marcantonio received a major portion, and it is this Marcantonio who would receive Veronica Franco into the landed estate at Fumane. A later division in 1610 would render the property into small pieces.

But of the house itself, what is there to learn? In 1575, long after construction had ceased and only maintenance continued, Veronica Franco came, or more correctly came to hide away from the plague that ravaged Venice for two more years, in this most conspicuous home. She was twenty-nine. It is in large part her observations which caused the world to come and know the villa. Margaret Rosenthal’s The Honest Courtesan and the sequel in movie form Dangerous Beauty brought more fame, although no scenes were filmed at the villa, which is unfortunate. Her poetry recounts a time spent at Fumane:

Non vorrei da l’un canto esser mai stata
a quell bel loco, per dover partire
come fei, non ben quivi anco arrivata.
Così gravoso il ben suol divenire,
che, quant’egli è maggior, via maggior duolo
col dilungarsi in noi suol partorire:
tosto ne va ‘l piacer trascorso a volo;
ne ponendo in ragion l’util passato,
a la perdita mesti attendem solo.
E non vorrei però da l’altro lato
sì vagonido non aver veduto,
a la tranquillità soave e grato. (25.1-12)

On the one hand I would prefer never to have been in that beautiful place only to leave, as I did, even before I had properly arrived. A good thing often becomes so burdensome that the greater it is, the greater is the grief it breeds in us by lingering on; the pleasure we enjoyed quickly flies off, and giving no thought to past benefit, we sadly remember only of our loss. On the other hand, though, I would rather not have missed seeing such a serene nest, gracious and dear to tranquility. (translation by Margaret Rosenthal, page 241)

While the occasion arises to debate the polemic of Italian sixteenth-century amorous terza-rime poetry by the likes of Pietro Bembo to new editions of Ovid, our purpose is to return to the house. Veronica Franco was part of a unique time. The plague which attacked Venice caused the Venetians to view themselves lamenting, implicated in a crime that cut to the soul of the city: mythical virginal origins. Constant prayer, good deeds, and penitence counter-pointed the epidemic. Maybe the wars with the pope were to illustrate a more correct Christian path. Franco was reflective, yet at times she shared a female vision comparable only to Aretino’s I modi, an erotic work illustrated by Giulio Romano. I Modi may have been the final straw, leading to Romano’s departure from papal Rome for Mantova. His intimate knowledge of the papacy, the construction of Villa Madama, and his daily conversations with several popes may also have altered his view of the person occupying the throne of Saint Peter.

Veronica Franco was on the verge of denouncement to the hands of the Holy Office. In these years, the Inquisition was very active in the Venetian Republic, suppressing Bible readers and other heretics, and Veronica was perceived to be a heretic, a temptress, a sorcereress and (what the American inquisitorial practice termed) a witch. Death by fire was the typical answer.

Why Villa Della Torre? Did she perhaps visit the asymmetrical estate seeking Christian moral values, perhaps a change of direction with death or excommunication staring her in the face? Learning, reading from a good library, self-directed studying of the Bible, seeking her new place in life as a thirty year-old courtesan who was just past the peak of her profession; were these the elements of change that she sought? Franco is one of but a handful of females permitted to publish in these years. This single fact alone is remarkable. That she dedicated so many poetic lines to Marcantonio’s villa is even more singular. The Fumane hills above Verona still provide a place dedicated to good introspection, good food, honest people, and a good amarone wine. In early November of 1577, as the plague abated and Venice again became safe to reside within, a comet streaked across the skies, appearing to just brush the surface of the moon. There must have been a disaster in the making, and times were to get more difficult still.

Four hundred years later, and after much abuse, in 1959 the house, abandoned, stripped and vacant stood ready to be envisioned afresh. Girolamo Cazzola would begin the modern study of the house, spending his personal wealth to bring to light the wonder of the mid-sixteenth century. His daughter, the most gracious Signora Ines Cazzola, shared the villa with all visitors until she could no more. In 2008 she sold the villa to Allegrini, a well-respected vintner in Verona.

There are few documents describing the house well in English, and the house is not commonly known although Allegrini is fortunately publicizing the estate. The fireplaces of Ridolfi are much more discussed than anything else of the house itself. Our collection of photographs within the members section under Lecture 15 "Cinquecento" and the White Paper 14 "The City of God" share wonderful views inside the villa. Your comments, observations, corrections, and discussion through to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. are welcome and sought.

Personal views by Donald Gardner

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