Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House

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9781400043378: Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House
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What Sally Gable thought she wanted was a summer house in New Hampshire. What she found and learned to love was a new life in a beautiful and celebrated Palladian villa in the countryside outside Venice. In Palladian Days, she takes us with her on a journey of discovery and transformation as she and her husband, Carl, become the bemused owners of Villa Cornaro, built in 1552 by the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio called by Town & Country one of the ten most influential buildings in the world.

Sally Gable writes lovingly of the villa as she and Carl settle in and slowly uncover its history, the lives of its former inhabitants, and its architectural pleasures. She tells of her early days there, learning to speak Italian with the help of her engaging new neighbors in the tiny town that surrounds the villa, Piombino Dese, a place both traditional and busily modern with its old-fashioned street markets and its burgeoning economy.

She writes with beguiling humor about learning to take care of a Renaissance palace with its 104 frescoes and 44 pairs of shutters (all of which have to be opened and closed daily). She tells of baffling encounters with the soprintendente di belle arti, who must give permission for even the smallest repair to the Italian national treasure Sally and Carl call home. And she describes the life she and her husband create for the villa itself, allowing it to be used for concerts, ballet performances, even as a movie set.

In Palladian Days, we enter with Sally and Carl into their engrossing adventure, following along as they are woven ever more deeply into the fabric of small-town Italy and into its larger national history. Their story will delight travelers and would-be travelers; all who are fascinated by architecture, by art, by the powerful essence of place—and, especially, house-dreamers everywhere.

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About the Author:

Sally Gable, a church music director by training, has served on the boards of Radcliffe College, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and other educational and musical organizations. Carl I. Gable, a lawyer and businessman and the author of a book on Venetian glass, has served on the boards of the Spoleto Festival USA, the Atlanta Opera, the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, and the Center for Palladian Studies in America. They divide their time between Atlanta and Villa Cornaro in Italy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
Pizza with Palladio

“Signora Sally, tonight we’re going to a celebration of pizza!”

Silvana Miolo’s lilting Italian greets me as I sip my morning espresso on the south portico of Villa Cornaro. The low morning sun splashes shadows of Lombardy poplars across the lawn of the park. Swallows circle and swoop bare inches above the closely mown lawn, scooping insects from the warming air, then spiraling upward to reclaim their nests somewhere above my head. Note to diary: Birds nesting in attic? Investigate.

“Una celebrazione di pizza”? Is that what she said?

Silvana senses my puzzlement and quickly finds an alternative way to frame her news. The event, I learn upon retelling, will be a pizza party.

Silvana is a dervish of energy. Dark eyes, dramatized by thick lashes and wavy black hair, animate her face. She has been friend, Italian teacher, and villa savant since I cautiously drove the twenty miles from the Venice airport two weeks ago for my first spring

at the villa. (“Remember, the lady of a villa is called a villainess,” my husband, Carl, advised me soberly as we kissed good-bye in Atlanta.)

Carl will join me in a few weeks. I am alone for now in the

sixteenth-century villa designed by the architect Andrea Palladio that we have audaciously acquired in the village of Piombino Dese, halfway to the foothills northwest of Venice. Silvana is determined that I not feel lonely; when I arrived from the airport she sent her ten-year-old son Riccardo to keep me company while I unpacked.

Silvana’s improbable plans for the evening have me uneasy because of my own recent introduction to Italian, but I’m heartened to find that I needed only one repetition before understanding what is in store.

Silvana and the other Piombinesi I’ve met speak no English. In fact, they don’t ordinarily speak Italian. Their first language is Venetan (pronounced VEHN-eh-tun), a dialect substantially different in its vocabulary and pronunciation from standard Italian and not readily intelligible to strangers. (Whenever Carl has trouble understanding something said in Italian, he tries to claim that the speaker is actually using Venetan.) Once Carl remarked to local friends over dinner that the occasion was a good opportunity for the two of us to practice our Italian for a whole evening. “Yes,” Ilario agreed, surveying his family around the table, “and it’s a good chance for us to practice our Italian, too!”

In succeeding years English will be taught more widely in the schools of Piombino Dese, and the young people of the town will gain confidence in using it with us, but in our early years no local people of our acquaintance speak it. No one, that is, except Ilario. Ilario Mariotto and I are the same age, but when I was leaving for college, he was boarding a ship for Australia, where he would spend four hot, exhausting years chopping sugarcane in the fields. Ilario can still speak halting English despite twenty-five years of disuse. Note to diary: Where has my college French gone?

Each morning I climb out of bed and assemble my limited Italian verbs and nouns into imaginary dialogues with Silvana, trying to prepare myself for her arrival. At eight o’clock she walks over from Caffè Palladio, the bar and sandwich shop that she and her husband, Giacomo, own and operate across the street from the villa. Her purpose is to open our balcone. Balcone is the Venetan—not Italian—word for shutters. The villa has forty-four immense pairs of them, most of them more than ten feet tall. In accordance with local custom, and for security as well, all of them must be closed and latched each night and opened each morning. Those on the ground floor are secured with a heavy steel bar lifted and fitted into slots on each side of the window opening. For Carl or me, it would be a thirty-minute task every morning and night. Silvana or Giacomo can do it in twenty. (Their older son Leonardo can do it in fifteen minutes, but the process is a cacophony of shutters banging, windows slamming, glass rattling, and steel clanging to wake the dead from their rest in the cemetery of the parish church a block away.) Carl and I refer to it all as the “balcone ceremony”; we quickly come to accept it as part of the rhythm of villa life. Even quicker, however, is Carl’s decision—taken the previous October when we first arrived together as the new owners of Villa Cornaro—that the whole process should be delegated to Giacomo and Silvana in their moonlighting role as custodians of the property.

On my own now in my first spring at the villa, I soon discover the true benefit of the arrangement: Silvana’s morning visits are my gateway to the world of Piombino Dese. She brings me news of the village, listens attentively to my carefully prepared yet nonetheless stumbling forays into Italian conversation, and generally presents mea role model for a donna in Venetan life.

Silvana never loses patience or laughs at my malapropisms. She speaks with slow precision, repeating phrases as often as necessary, rearranging them as bits of a puzzle until the meaning is apparent even to an American novice. My six months of lessons back in Atlanta with Lola Butler, an effervescent military bride from Padua, have drilled me in the basics of Italian grammar. But my brain is not prepared to process a nonstop stream of animated Italian, especially when the conversation turns to septic tanks, sewers, spigots, drains, and other topics that never arose in my dialogues with Lola but grow to fill my life in Piombino Dese.

A pizza party will be a baptism of fire.

Eight cars have arrived ahead of us when we pull into the parking lot at Pizzeria Sombrero that evening, and several others follow. I’m in the dark about the guest list for this outing, but I notice that all those climbing out of the automobiles are women. Each is immaculately dressed in tall heels and a smart suit. Many have bright scarves tossed elegantly across their shoulders with that infuriating insouciance I envy so. We enter a brightly lighted room and take seats at a single long table stretching from one end to the other. About forty women are present—at least thirty-five of them complete strangers to me—and all are in high spirits and chattering rapidly. Silvana lifts her voice to tell me, above the din, that the women in town want to welcome me to Piombino Dese with a pizza party. They are afraid I may be lonely at the villa by myself.

I am afloat in a sea of introductions and mellifluous Italian names: Lucia, Chiara, Emanuela, Pierina, Fiorella, Flora, Elena, Nadia, Enza, Maria Rosa, Luigina, Francesca. Beer is flowing. Pizzas with micro-thin crusts follow in infinite variety. Seafood pizzas arrive topped with mussels and gamberetti—the whole mussels, shells and all! Pizza Maria with creamy white bufala mozzarella and a light sweet tomato sauce. Pizza with pungent arugula. Pizza striped with melanzane(eggplant) and zucchini. Pizza decked with peperoni (not the little salami slices; these are green and red and yellow peppers from the garden). I lose count of the pizzas just as I have already lost track of the names. Perhaps I lose track of the beer as well. But most improbably, I lose my self-consciousness about speaking Italian. My grammar is no better, my vocabulary is no larger, but among friends, what do such things matter? As I wake the next morning, alone in the huge villa, in pitch-black because of the tightly closed balcone, my head slightly disoriented from too much beer, I smile with the realization that I have a new home among the women of Piombino Dese.

Chapter 2
A Home in New Hampshire


As I settle into the pace of Piombino Dese I sometimes wonder—sitting on the south portico in the evening with a glass of prosecco—how Iever managed with the simplicity of only one life, one circle of friends, one language. And I ponder how easily and quickly chance can divert the whole stream of one’s life.

Whatever brought you to buy a Palladian villa in Italy?

It is a question Carl and I never escape. Our Atlanta friends ask, tourists and tour guides ask, occasional magazine writers and television interviewers ask, and from time to time in these quiet moments we ask ourselves. Carl has developed a simple response: “It was a full moon.” I always answer with a longer version, but sometimes I think that I am only telling how it happened, and that I am still searching for the why myself.

In the spring of 1987 I decided that a well-ordered Atlanta family such as ours should have a second home in upstate New Hampshire or possibly Vermont. Although my mother was from Oklahoma and my father from Edinburgh, Scotland, I grew up in Littleton, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where my father was a doctor. Since Carl seemed to be weaning himself from working all seven days of the week, I felt the time was ripe for a country retreat, a place where we might, in Thoreau’s phrase, “live deliberately.” Two of our children were in college and the youngest was in high school. I was cheerfully making full-time work of my part-time post as music director of a small church near our home in Atlanta, the result of returning to school for a master’s degree in sacred music. Ashley, Carl, and Jim applauded their mother’s return to academia and found her exam-time anxiety to be a special treat. Still, my plate was not filled; I determined that a vacation house would be a lodestone to draw the family together regularly and to retain familial—or at least friendly—ties through coming decades. Like our black labrador Cleowith a new rawhide bone, I seized the idea and began gnawing away at it.

Visions sprouted in my head: a two-story clapboard cottage on Sugar Hill, or a stone house along the banks of Gale River, its entranceway a spider web of climbing yellow roses. Th...

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