The palaces along the Brenta

The Brenta Riviera favoured by Casanova, Galileo, Byron and D’Annunzio, painted by Tiepolo and Canaletto, described by Goethe and Goldoni, hosted French and Russian Royal Families. Even Napoleon, the Hapsburgs, the Savoy stayed here.

“Once, this was a magnificent and glorious river depicted in the abbots’ rhymes when the Burchielli full of nobles and music navigated it” wrote Gabriele D’Annunzio.

On the 17th April 1345 the Major Council of the Venetian Republic abrogates a law denying the Serenissima citizens the possession of land. So, most Venetian noblemen turned their interests towards the land and in particular on the Brenta Riviera

Therefore, along with the increasing farm produce due to the exploitation of the land, they built residential farms, gathering alone complex the owner’s house and buildings planned for other usages.

Different types of Villas started: the “villa-factory” for those who wanted to work the land, the “villa-temple” for those who wanted to gather artists and intellectuals, the “villa-palace” to represent the power of the family and host their parties and

Great architects, such as Palladio, Scamozzi and Frigimelica, designed summer residences for the Venetian nobles and patricians who would spend a long time in the Villas of the mainland.

The “Veneto Villas” were built to suit a new life-style which evolved in the Veneto area in the 15th and 16th centuries, and came to an end at the fall of the Venetian Republic and all its glories in 1797. More than 2000 villas were built, symbols of the political and economic power of the city of Venice, and still exist today as examples of a wonderful local architectural tradition. From the 16th century onwards, canals and rivers that could easily be reached from Venice were enriched by magnificent villas and estates, serving as summer retreats for the rich lords of Venice. The Brenta river connecting Venice and Padua, like an extension of the Venice’s Grand Canal, became a sought-after resort boasting more than 40 luxurious palaces. Here, not far from Venice, rich nobles spent their holidays: they left on comfortable barges “Burchielli”, designed to navigate the shallow river. They were rowed from St. Mark’s across the Venetian lagoon to Fusina, then pulled by horses along the Brenta Riviera to Padua.

Here began the “mania of the villeggiatura” (to spend the time in the Villas of the mainland and to live in complete freedom);Goldoni writes that everything was allowed and possible: to play, to eat, to trow parties night and day.

The boat trip was fascinating, going slowly by villas and weeping willows while comedians and musicians entertained young ladies, gallant men, nobles and adventurers.

It was customary “to go from a Villa to another” so, the happy groups spent their time enjoying parties in different Villas.

Sadly, the fall of the Venetian Republic to Napoleon at the close of the 18th century cast its shadow on this lifestyle. The boat trips decreased in number year by year, and at the end ceased altogether.

Since the 1960s, however, comfortable boats have again been navigating the Brenta from Venice to Padua, and vice versa, allowing thousands of visitors to see the Veneto Villas.

They are heirs to the past; they slowly cruise the Brenta Canal, while a tourist guide on board tells about history, culture and art of the Villas 

One group of such boats, called ,connects Venice and Padua daily (except Mondays), stopping at some of the most famous and beautiful Villas, built or decorated by such artists as Palladio and Tiepolo.

Nine swing bridges and five locks are passed on the cruises. The locks are in effect water-lifts, which allow the descending of an almost 10-metre difference of waterlevel between Venice and Padua. The departure is at the lock
of Porte Contarine or at the fluvial harbour Portello, with its beautiful 15th century staircase and its gate in Istria Stone recalling an triumphal arch with 8 columns and a small tower with a clock. This was the spot were the boats arriving from Venice and the province of Padua stopped. Then, along the Piovego Canal by the 16th century walls and bastions, the boat passes under the old Graissi Bridge and reaches Noventa Padovana, Padua’s main fluvial port: here boats would stop and people and goods would reach Padua by coaches and carts. The place lost its importance with the excavation of the 10 km long Piovego Canal, connecting Padua to the Naviglio del Brenta and to Venice, and the building of the new fluvial port at Portello, but it is still evident today, for instance in the famous and superbe Villa Giovanelli, built at the end of the 17th century by the Giovannelli family. Its appearance is distinctive, with its pentagonal pronaos, high Corinthian columns, a pediment adorned with statues and imposing steps added by Massari in 1738. 

Past the lock of Noventa Padovana, there is a lowering of the water level and navigation goes on along the Tronco Maestro of the Brenta River. Past the clock of Stra they reach Villa Pisani, a Ducale Palace inland, built by the Pisani family in between 1720-1740, a status symbol of the family; it is more than a villa, it is a palace adorned by poderous sculptures and embellished by the most important artists of the 18th century, such as Guarana, Rosalba Carriera, Simonini; a casket of valuable things: from the Bacco’s room to those in a Pompeian style, not to mention the superb ball room frescoed by Tiepolo, his last work of art in Italy celebrating the “Glory of the Pisani Family”. The visit to the spectacular stables and the maze is a must. To visit Villa Pisani is like to see the 18th century Venetian life in a mirror.

The cruise goes on along the Brenta Canal, passing in front of Villa Soranzo at Fiesso, with its main façade completely frescoed.

Then, as far as Dolo to visit to the 16th century Old Mills, once very important for the local economy. A short walk around the area, and then, back on board to cross the lock of Dolo with a view of the change of the water level. After that, the navigation
continues through the picturesque village of Mira, where there is the highest number of villas, through locks and swing bridges to admire the marvellous façades of more than 70 Venetian Villas, like Villa Barchessa Valmarana with its beautiful columns and Villa Widmann, typical summer residence of the 18th century with its splendid park; Villa Corner, a villa where great parties took place (it is said they lasted 7 days and 7 nights); Villa Foscarini where Lord Byron lived for 2 years. Then, going through the old village of Oriago, you will see the 16thcentury Villa Gradenigo, painted by Benedetto Caliari, Veronese’s brother. At Malcontenta, the traveller can admire the elegant Villa Foscari, nicknamed “La Malcontenta”, a masterpiece by Palladio and a
typical example of the Villa-Temple, dominated by its monumental pronaos reflecting in the canal.

Further on there is the lock of Moranzani; the last water slope.

The Lagoon is reached at Fusina and, shortly afterwards, the magical scenery in which Saint Mark stands out appears.

The cruise ends in Venice.


See also