Venice, Venetia & the Dolomites

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Dublin Evening Herald

Asolo – an excerpt from Venice, Venetia & the Dolomites

The old walled town of Asolo was the consolation prize given by Venice in 1489 to Queen Caterina Cornaro after demanding her abdication from the throne of Cyprus. It could have been worse. Asolo, with its lush microclimate, just happens to be one of the most enchanting spots in Italy, and Caterina's Renaissance court lent it a high degree of refinement and art. The handsome young Giorgione strolled through its rose gardens strumming his lute, and the enforced idleness that prevailed in Asolo may have inspired his invention of art for pleasure. The Queen’s friend, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, used her court as the setting for his sophisticated dialogues on love, Gli Asolani (1512), and created the verb asolare to describe the pleasant but meaningless method of passing time that prevailed here.

In the 19th century Asolo came back into fashion when Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning chose it as a romantic retreat (Robert entitled his last volume of poems Asolando 'for love of the place'; Pippa Passes was set here as well). Their son Pen became something of the town boss, much to the disapproval of the English community who had followed his parents, buying up five houses in town and restarting the old silk and weaving industries. He invited the parents of the great English traveller Freya Stark to move to Asolo, and she described the little hill town: 'The roofs of the town were red, darkened and mottled by centuries of sunlight and rain, for this is the dampest and greenest corner of Italy.'

Pliny wrote that Asolo’s Roman incarnation Acelum was one of the chief fortified oppida of the Roman Tenth Region. Remians of an Imperal-era theatre are currently being investigated in the gardens of Freya Stark's former villa. A Roman aqueduct feeds the charming cinquecento Fontana Maggiore, nicknamed the Ombelico del Mondo 'the navel of the world', the chief ornament in Asolo’s central Piazza Maggiore. The Duomo just below was built over the Roman baths, finally in 1747, and has fine works by Lotto (Apparition of the Madonna, 1506), Jacopo da Bassano, and Vivarini. Just up from the piazza, the Castello della Regina with its watch tower (in both senses of the word- it tells the time) encloses what little remains of the garden where Queen Caterina lived in 'lace and poetry.' Don’t expect much: most of the garden is now privately owned as part of Browning’s Villa Beach, and the courtyard hosts a bocce court. In 1700, the castle’s great hall was replaced with a theatre, but in 1930 the John Deere tractor heir bought it, dismantled it and rebuilt it in Sarasota, Florida. You could also visit the house of Gian Francesco Malipiero in Via Foresto Vecchio for some incredibly ornate frescoes depicting al manner of cherubs looking saintly. The best way of seeing all that Aoslo has to offer is to either stay for a few months, and let it unfold before you or get a guide from the tourist office (they run English tours as well). At one time every wall in Asolo was covered with frescoes and it must have sparkled like a jewel. Nowadays we are left with tantalising glimpses of what has gone.

Near the castle, the frescoed Loggia del Capitano contains a museum dedicated to Queen Caterina, Browning and La Duse. The portico houses a bookshop in summer and photography exhibitions in winter. Alas, not a single slim volume of Browning poetry to be found. Most of shops are down Via Browning, while next to the Porta Santa Caterina is the charming Palazzetto di Eleonora Duse, her last home; the poem engraved on the façade was written by Gabriele D'Annunzio in memory of their love. Continue down narrow Via S. Caterina to the bizarre, rusticated 16th-century Casa Longobarda, built by a Lombard architect in the service of Queen Caterina and decorated with grotesques and mysterious reliefs. A lane on the left descends to the cemetery, last resting place of Eleonora Duse and Freya Stark.

For the famous views of poet Giosuè Carducci's 'hundred horizons' of Asolo, climb (or drive - the road is halfway down the hill) up to the Rocca, constructed over a Palaeoveneti and Roman fort. It’s a stiff climb on a hot day but there’s usually water for sale at the ticket office.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Letters from Readers

I have just returned from a trip to Venice where I used a guidebook that I had purchased at a bookstore here in Ann arbor, entitled Venice & the Veneto by Facaros and Pauls. I have never before written a letter offering accolades for a guidebook, but this is an exception. I found this book to be meticulously complete and thorough, and I have boundless admiration for the authors who went to all the trouble of ferreting out so much detailed information about everything in the city of Venice. I can't imagine they could ever sell enough copies of this book to make that work worthwhile. However, I am pleased they did it, because I found it to be the best guidebook I have ever seen on any subject. I also enjoyed the breezy style that frequently got me to laugh out loud, and I also appreciated their very opinionated views on many things, some of which I even found myself agreeing with.