Villa Pisani looks a lot more like a proper palace!
This was the very first thought that ran through my mind as I was standing in front of the gloriously huge facade of the fabled Villa Pisani in the Veneto, Northern Italy.
Even though it is called a villa and it was used to spend the summer days away from hot and muggy Venice, this was not a humble two-room little house that some of us may be incredibly lucky to purchase as a vacation home in our lifetimes.
Instead, with its:
- 168 rooms (originally 114) adorned with 18th- and 19th-century art by famous painters like Giambattista Tiepolo;
- enormous garden with Venetian, English, French, and Austrian influences, palatial stables, and a number of pavilions (one of which is called ‘exedra’!); and
- a pool so long that it sort of disappears in the distance,
Villa Pisani was conceived and built to please mighty rulers and heads of state and it, actually, served its purpose just splendidly in this respect. After all, Villa Pisani is not known as the Queen of the Venetian Villas in vain.
Visiting the Veneto and learning about its history, architecture and art without spending a day exploring the grounds of Villa Pisani is a lost opportunity to get to know about:
- the Republic of Venice in the last century before its fall;
- one of the most powerful Venetian families – the Pisani of Santo Stefano; as well as about
- Veneto’s tumultuous past as part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy (1805-1814) and then the Habsburgs’s Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (1815-1866).
Above all, spending time at Villa Pisani in the Veneto, is a very pleasant way to while away a hot and sunny day in the shade of green trees and famous works of art. Indeed, this is just what the former owners and occupants of the villa used to do with such style and pomp.
Where is Villa Pisani
Villa Pisani is in a small riverside town called Stra.
Stra is just a few moments away from Padua and about 35 km away from Venice in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto.
The town has a lovely position on the shores of the river Brenta. It hosts several Venetian Villas – summer houses built by the patrician families of Venice. The noblemen would spend the hot months of the year there in search of fresh air and cooling shadows.
Villa Pisani is, undoubtedly, the grandest and most imposing among all Venetian Villas. Built in an arch-like curve of the river Brenta, it has a surface of 11 hectars and an external perimeter of 1500 m.
Who Built Villa Pisani
Villa Pisani was built by the San Stefano branch of the Pisani – one of the most powerful families of the Republic of Venice.
Originally from Pisa (as the root of their name shows), from the 12th to the 18th centuries the Pisani were merchants, bankers and mercenary leaders – a force to be reckoned with in Venice in terms of economic and political power.
In their time, they erected several villas (all called Pisani) in the Veneto – for example, in Lonigo, Vescovana, Bagnolo and Montagnana – using the services of the most renowned architects like Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi. Palladio, in fact, designed two villas for the family.
The Pisani owned land in Stra with a simple 16th-century structure, which they modernised in the 17th century. In 1720-1721 they began the construction of a grand villa with an adjacent garden dotted with stables and several pavillions. It was a gradual project that would stretch until 1756.
Alvise (one of six Pisani brothers) had been the ambassador of the Venetian Republic to large European courts. Then at 71 years of age he became Doge. He held this most highest position from 17th January 1735 to his death in 1741. So, originally, Villa Pisani had 114 rooms in honour of him being the 114th Doge of Venice.
In the following centuries, the villa was remodeled several times to please a succession of new owners. After a period of abandonment in the 50s and 60s of the 20th century, Villa Pisani underwent extensive restorations in the 80’s and it is, nowadays, one of the most prized gems in Veneto’s crown.
Who Owns Villa Pisani
The original owners – the mighty Pisani of San Stefano family – soon experienced severe financial hardship due to gaming debts and, later, the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797.
On 11th January 1807 the family sold Villa Pisani in Stra to Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Known as Napoleon I in his role as King of Italy from 1805 to 1814, he paid close to 2 million Venetian liras for the villa.
Napoleon then gave the villa to his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais who was also the Viceroy of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. Eugène remodeled Villa Pisani and its garden to his own refined taste. His famous stepfather stayed at it on two separate occasions.
After the collapse of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in 1814, the Habsburg family – the new rulers of Lombardy and the former Republic of Venice – took possession of the villa. They used it as a summer residence inviting royalty from all over Europe to visit them and enjoy the splendid garden and buildings. During this period, Villa Pisani was known as the Royal Villa.
In 1866, Veneto was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. The State took ownership of Villa Pisani which was then turned into a National Museum in 1884. Before this happened though, there were several unsuccessful attempts between 1874 and 1882 to auction the villa.
During the 20th century, the purpose of Villa Pisani was changed several times. Initially, it was used to host students from the nearby University of Padua. In 1938, it became a company selling garden produce but never breaking even.
Nowadays, Villa Pisani once again is a National Museum, endearingly known as La Nazionale among Italians. For its size and the grandeur of its architecture, it is often referred to as the Queen of the Venetian Villas.
Who Is the Architect of Villa Pisani
There were actually two architects involved in the construction of Villa Pisani and its garden.
The first, Gerolamo Frigimelica de’ Roberti, had designed several palaces and churches in Padua, Vicenza and Venice. He was the architect the Pisani used for the enlargement of their family palace near Campo San Stefano in Venice. Nowadays, this palace houses the Academy of Music Benedetto Marcello.
Frigimelica’s original plan (produced in 1716) for Villa Pisani was not accepted by Alvise. Only the first pavilions in the villa’s garden and its famous maze were built following this first plan.
After Frigimelica’s death in 1732, Alvise commissioned Francesco Maria Preti (the architect of the cathedral in Castelfranco Veneto) who produced the imposing Neoclassical designs for the villa as we see it today.
Built to demonstrate the power of the Pisani family, the grand villa in Stra inspires awe. The huge facade commands the eye with its symmetrical yet strong features.
Statues line up the roof, but what really grabs your attention are the four male caryatids. These strong muscular men with lion skins over their heads support the monumental columns on each side of the main entrance. Right above them is a long balcony with eight Corinthian-order half-pillars.
Inside you will find two inner courts with long lines of statues and some large but faded frescoes. A mighty colonnade divides the two courtyards and supports the beautiful ballroom which is right above.
Who Has Stayed at Villa Pisani
Villa Pisani has welcomed many illustrious guests through its almost three centuries of existence.
From Napoleon Bonaparte and his stepson to European royals like Charles IV of Spain and Alexander I of Russia, the villa was a summer playground for the rich and famous. Hence its 19th-century moniker: Villa Reale or the Royal Villa.
The King of Italy Victor Emanuel II used Villa Pisani as a love nest. He met with his mistress Rosa Vercellana there. A fact to which the so called Savoy rooms in the villa bear witness.
At the same time, Villa Pisani had been also the stage for historical events. For example, the first meeting in 1934 of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. They met there in 1934 after the Austrian Civil War (also called February Uprising). The villa was partially restructured for this meeting.
Villa Pisani has also featured in a number of films and even some music videos.
What to See in Villa Pisani
You can happily spend a whole day at Villa Pisani exploring its many corners. From the huge garden with its many pavilions and gardener’s house to the villa itself with its dozens of frescoed and stuccoed rooms open for visits, the time will fly away. Here is a short overview of the different points of interest that cannot be missed when you visit Villa Pisani.
1. Villa Pisani – Exterior
Spend some time admiring the impressive facade of Villa Pisani. Then walk through its two inner courtyards, paying attention to the statues there. Although not very elegantly sculpted and with some visible damage due to the passage of time, they present some interesting themes, like the three-faced statue above.
2. Villa Pisani – Interior
During our first visit to Villa Pisani, we, actually, explored its garden and all it has to offer first and only then we ventured into the large body of the villa itself. Proceed according to time and personal preference. Make sure that you have had something to eat and drink before starting with the many rooms of the villa though. You may end up staying there much longer than you thought you would. Here are some of the highlights inside in no particular order:
A. There are several rooms here with the remains of Oriental screens dating back to the times when the villa was owned by the Pisani family.
There are about 30 rooms here with original frescoes, paintings and furniture. Don’t miss:
A. The ballroom – the most important room of the whole villa holding its most splendid work of art. I dare you to walk inside the ballroom and not be impressed. It’s impossible, really. On the ceiling, right above your head, you will see Giambattista Tiepolo’s masterpiece ‘The Apotheosis of the Pisani Family’.
Tiepolo – Italy’s greatest painter of the 18th century – took 76 days to paint it in 1761 at 64 years of age. The fresco represents the members of the Pisani family floating on fluffy pink clouds in a blue sky. They are surrounded by personifications of the Arts, the Sciences, and the Geniuses of Peace. At the centre is the Madonna with Faith, Charity, Hope, and Wisdom. Fame, on the other hand, is depicted explaining the glory and the power of the Pisani family to the world’s continents.
In contrast to the happiness radiated by the Pisani, Tiepolo also painted the pain and destruction that war brings. The juxtaposition of peace and war was a theme dear to the family. While you explore the art in the ballroom, you may notice a number of columns, frescoes, and other elements which seem to be tridimensional. In fact, they were painted by Pietro Visconti in contrasting colours. To make them look real-life-like he employed a clever play of light and shadow.
B. Napoleon’s drawing room with inlaid furniture, Napoleon’s bedroom with a four-poster bed with Napoleon’s initials and Napoleon’s bathroom with a floor-level bath with taps – a real luxury for its time. Napoleon stayed there twice in 1807. Several additional details (like the frescoes depicting Eros and Psyche) were added to these rooms at a later stage.
C. Hall of the Triumphs of the Arts – the first room that you’ll find on the piano nobile of the villa after coming up the stairs. Here you can see a ceiling fresco by Giambattista Crosato representing the grandeur of Arts. Painted between 1740 and 1750, it shows the main Arts – Painting, Music, Poetry and Sculpture – in addition to Time, Vigilance, Fame and Abundance.
D. Hall of the Triumph of Bacchus – a beautiful room with lavish 1770 frescoes by Jacopo Guarana. The triumphal meeting between Bacchus and Ariadne is presented here in four scenes on the walls and a large fresco on the ceiling.
E. Dining Room – where you can see the table laid with original porcelain and a precious alabaster centre-piece.
F. Room of the Medallions – with 120 medallions representing the Doges of Venice, Venetian military leaders and emperors.
3. Garden of Villa Pisani
The fruit of Venetian, English, French and Austrian influences, the garden of Villa Pisani is a lovely green place which offers several corners and sights to explore and enjoy. It has wisteria tunnels, romantic maze, and an exedra (!) among other things. In 2008 it was chosen as the most beautiful garden in Italy.
Several of the garden pavilions were built following the designs of Girolamo Frigimelica de’ Roberti – the first architect contracted for the construction of Villa Pisani. Changes and improvements in the garden layout were introduced by the consecutive owners of the villa.
Here is a short list (in no particular order) of its main points of interest:
A. Villa Pisani’s Maze – called the ‘Labyrinth of Love’, the maze at Villa Pisani is one of the biggest in Europe. It was completed at one of the very first stages of the building of the villa. In its centre there is a lovely little turret topped with a statue of Minerva. You need to find your way to the turret through nine circles of hedges. The maze has been restored many times and it still preserves its original design. Usually, there is an employee standing at the top of the turret, guiding you around if you get hopelessly lost.
In the past, the noble ladies and gentlemen spending their summers at Villa Pisani, would play a game in the labyrinth. A masked lady would stand at the top of the turret waving to the cavalier trying to find his way to her. Once he reached her, she would reveal her identity.
Be aware that the maze at Villa Pisani is closed from November til March. It may also be shut if the weather is bad or too hot.
B. Stables – again, this is one of the very first buildings to be erected in the garden of Villa Pisani. The stables look like a small palace. You will find them at the end of the long pool. Inside the side wings you can see some delicate, slightly faded frescoes.
C. Pool – this long body of water is a relatively recent but a very stunning addition to the landscape of Villa Pisani. The pool was built in 1911 for hydraulic studies by the Hydrographic Institute of the University of Padua. In 1913, the pool was rebuilt and statues, brought over from other Venetian villas, used to adorn it.
D. Belvedere Terrace – a really beautiful structure used in the past for theatrical and musical performances. It was also a favourite place for the ladies to spend time in the sun lightening their hairs. In order to avoid getting a tan, they would use a wide-brimmed hat with a large hole cut in the middle. This way, their hair (covered with a mixture of salt and herbs) could be exposed to the sun, while their faces were still being kept in the shade. The Belvedere Terrace in Villa Pisani’s garden is my favourite bit there. It looks straight out of a fairytale. You will find it in the English arboretum.
E. English Arboretum – on the western side of the garden of Villa Pisani you will come across a small forested area. This was added during the days of the Napoleonic rule of Northern Italy. The arboretum is a nice place offering some much needed shade during the hot days of summer.
F. Coffee House and Ice House – the coffee house is an elegant pavilion built on top of a small artificial hill. Steep stairs lead from the bottom of the hill all the way up. Villa Pisani’s owners and their guests would take refreshments in the coffee house during their daily walks in the garden. Curiously enough, the hill on which it stands, is surrounded by a moat.
In winter, the water in the moat would freeze and then the ice would be cut in blocks. These would be stored in an ice house built inside the hill. The ice will be used in summer to cool food and drinks. In the centre of the floor of the coffee house there is a vent letting through the cold air from the ice house below. Quite an ingenious air conditioning system, don’t you think!
G. Gardeners’ House – this is an interesting house where the people maintaining the huge garden used to live. Nowadays, on the ground floor you can see some of the gardening tools that had been employed there through the years.
H. Exedra – I have to admit, that I had never heard the term ‘exedra’ prior to my first visit to Villa Pisani. This rather refined word turned out to mean an elegant structure which looked like the love child of an arcade and a gazebo. You will find the exedra at Villa Pisani right next to the wisteria tunnels. The exedra is hexagonal in shape and it has a spiral staircase. This takes you to a circular platform affording some lovely views. Six paths lead from the exedra to some of the most notable sights in the garden.
Practical Information About Visiting Villa Pisani
Getting to Villa Pisani: Villa Pisani is very easy to get to from Padua, Vicenza and Venice. You can arrive by car, by boat on the river Brenta or by public transport. You can check all the different options at the rome2rio website. Should you need it, there is a large car park.
Opening Hours and Ticket Prices: The most up to date information is at the Villa Pisani’s official website. Click here to have a look. Every first Sunday of the month Villa Pisani is free to visit. Click here to find out how and why.
Food and Drinks: There is a nice Museum Cafe in the garden of Villa Pisani. It serves light snacks and lunches and a nice selection of drinks.
Riviera Fiorita – an Unmissable Event at Villa Pisani
If you have the chance to visit Villa Pisani in Stra during the second weekend of September, don’t miss a very special event. Called Riviera Fiorita, this is a historical reenactment seeing up to 1000 people dressed in painstakingly recreated Venetian costumes. They sit in dozens of traditional Venetian boats and, starting from Villa Pisani, spend the day navigating down the river Brenta to two other historical Venetian villas.
It is a splendid event. A lot of fun, too. Not to be missed!
I hope that you enjoyed reading about Villa Pisani – the Queen of the Venetian Villas. Let me know your thoughts after you have visited this splendid villa in the riverside town of Stra in the Veneto.
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