The Grand Tour: Venice and Beyond
by JONATHAN LERNER
For modern travelers, the idea of luxuriating in the Old World for a year is purely the stuff of which dreams are made.
But for the 18th-century sons of wealthy English families, a 12-month Grand Tour of Italy was de rigueur, and considered a hands-on finishing school for educated men.
Gentlemen Prefer Venice
Accompanied by travel-wise tutors, they explored Rome and Pompeii, to consider the ideals and ruins of antiquity; to Florence, for the Renaissance art; and to Venice, for its faded grandeur as a merchant republic and for its seductive luxuries and masquerades.
Willing the dream into reality, my partner King and I decided to retrace the steps of the fabled Grand Tour ourselves, with our particular love of architecture as the focus. When we made our first trip to Italy, we had not a year to spend, but a week. We decided to go only to Venice – how could we pass on such a treasure? — and to its adjacent region, the Veneto, home of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the father of neoclassicism.
Still, we wanted a Grand Tour. So like our antecedents with their tutors, we sought expert guidance — from among the growing number of tour companies that specialize in personalized, high-end travel. Venice is often thronged with tourists, so we were glad to find Select Italy, a company well-enough connected to arrange private entry for us to many sites.
I don’t know that every 18th-century Grand Tourist in Venice would have had an opportunity to enter the stately chambers of the Doge’s Palace, for instance. But those who visited surely experienced it more as we did —alone and unpressured, after hours — than as one of a hundred people herded through on a mass tour. And probably even the grandest Grand Tourist couldn’t expect what was our ultimate treat — being led up a narrow wooden stairway among the rafters and out a little door, right onto the palace’s roof, at sunset, with a view over the entire magical city.
We asked Select Italy to show us as much as possible what an aristocratic 18th-century traveler might have seen. So they arranged for us to stay, as our antecedents might have done, in a palace.
The newly opened Grand Hotel dei Dogi occupies a splendidly restored 17th-century palazzo with extensive walled gardens, in a residential neighborhood far from the tourist bustle. Who could tell that the newly installed marble floors, intricately painted beamed ceilings, and spun-sugar Murano-glass chandeliers weren’t 400 years old? Our top-floor, corner room had a long view down a quiet canal. The hotel had every convenience — including a handsome launch to shuttle us to St. Marks Square.
Guido Rosei, Select Italy’s Venice-based co-owner, got us into an 18th-century mood by taking us to a chamber concert of period music, played on mellow original instruments in a salon encrusted with frescoes and carved molding. Afterwards, he led us over bridges and down alleys to the sort of restaurant we might never have otherwise found, Antica Trattoria La Furatola, which specializes in the city’s traditional seafood cuisine.
Another day, a different guide — a woman with a doctorate in art history — gave us a private tour through the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta, a 15th-century rococo building overlooking the Grand Canal. The structure is still held by descendants of its original owners. Delighted to discover our passion for architecture and preservation, she provided detailed explanations of how the city and its palaces were constructed, and the modern-day challenges to their survival.
We had another private tour — with the curator, no less — of the Querini-Stampalia Foundation, housed in a 1528 palazzo that is now a museum and library. We enjoyed imagining an original Grand Tourist as a guest in this house, dining, perhaps, off the 244-piece service of Sevres porcelain, or lounging on the rococo suite of green- and rose-painted bedroom furniture.
We lingered over the foundation’s marvelous collection of paintings depicting 18th-century Venetian life: noblemen in gondolas hunting ducks, gatherings such as weddings and baptisms. Other canvasses showed balls at which some women were obliged to hold their masks on with their teeth, to ensure they had no flirtatious conversations.
The services of Select Italy are not cheap. On basics such as hotel rooms and rental cars, they charge a 20% to 35% commission. A half-day excursion with one of their private guides — all of whom are academically-qualified specialists — is $350 (plus entrance fees when applicable); a full day costs $660. The private visits also have a price: touring the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta adds $590; that breathtaking, two-hour stroll through the Doge’s Palace another $1,500. Expensive? Our solitary sunset view from the roof was beyond price.
Hustling through Venice, most visitors miss the Veneto’s attractions. They miss a deeper understanding of Venice as well.
Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the patrician families of Venice built more than 4,000 villas in the nearby Veneto. Today some of these once-grand houses are ruined shells, a few are museums, and many are still private homes — but even some of these can be visited through arrangements made by companies such as Select Italy. We rented a nimble Fiat Marea for our independent day trips through the region.
In Search of the Masters
The finest of the Veneto villas were designed by Palladio, who lived and worked in this region from 1508 to 1580. Their interiors were lavishly frescoed, with trompe l’oeil painting by Renaissance masters like Tiepolo and Tintoretto.
Nothing was left to chance in a Palladian design; although spaces and views feel natural, they’re created by calculation and artifice. For example, the stunningly simple Villa Emo in Fanzolo — a high central cube framed by long, arcaded wings that end in dovecote towers — was sited so that its avenue of poplars frames a distant, pyramidal peak in perfect balance.
Villa Emo — today the home of the 18th Count Emo — is open during the summer as a museum. But our trip was in February. No problem: Select Italy had contacted the Countess, who welcomed us for a private tour of her home.
Later that afternoon, we continued to Villa Giustiani at Roncade, to taste wines produced by its owner, Count Vicenzo Cianni Bassetti. With walled grounds and battlements, the circa 1520 villa is considered transitional between the gothic and Palladian styles.
Alas, we got lost on the way, and did not arrive until after dark. The Count and Countess immediately insisted we stay to supper. He showed us the winery while she and their teenaged son Claudio cooked. Then we all sat around the kitchen table for a simple meal washed down with their own Merlot.
Into the Country
Another day we drove along the Riviera del Brenta, a 20-mile canal graced by villas which run from the Venice lagoon to Padua. (In summer, you can make the trip by boat.)
We joined a tour at Villa Pisani in Stra, overwhelming with its baroque décor and 114 rooms. In contrast, we also admired the refreshing purity of Villa Foscari at Mira, where we had another private visit — with the elderly caretaker going ahead to throw open shutters. The only house along the Brenta by Palladio, Villa Foscari’s clean cubic shape was reflected in a shimmering curve of the canal.
Select Italy’s thoughtful planning enabled us to have a dream trip to Venice and its environs. But the best moments in travel are serendipitous. We were lunching one day at a fine little place in Venice, nibbling on a traditional local salad of marinated sardines.
The restaurant was called The Assassins, and we fell into a reverie about the days when Venice was the capital of a vast trading empire, a center of subterfuge and illusion and dream. Then we saw something that made us doubt what century we were in.
A gentlemen at the next table pulled from his pocket a red velvet pouch. From it he slowly poured a heavy golden chain into his companion’s hand.
A token of love ... blackmail ... a promise? Venice continues to guard her secrets well.
For details, contact Select Italy — Tel. 847-853-1661; Website: www.selectitaly.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Italy.”