Robert Howard makes some interesting discoveries in Northern Italy…
The chances are you’ve never heard of Mirano.
All right, he must mean Merano, some of you are thinking, the resort in the mountains close to Austria and the clever-clogs among you are no doubt thinking I mean Murano, the little island in the Venetian lagoon. Well, I suppose I have to admit the clever-clogs aren’t too far off, but wrong for all that. I do mean Mirano.
Mirano (VE), as it appears in more official documents, is a small town just a few miles into the Venetian hinterland. From the bus terminal in Venice, one of the local orange buses will get you there in less than an hour. You could also cycle in that time as the country is flat, a part of the plain that stretches behind Venice up to the foothills of the Alps.
What links the Alps to Venice is, of course, water. Rivers pour down towards the lagoon, canals radiate out from the lagoon into the countryside, the land which has kept Venetians fed for centuries. Qui siamo in campagna, the locals often say with a self-deprecatory tone as if conscious of their supporting role in the city’s history. We’re in the countryside here. Well, that’s true but this is monumental countryside.
For the canals that brought food in also brought art out.
Trapped in their gilded cage, the noble families of Venice must have longed for open spaces and broader vistas. And, of course, the grass is always greener in the countryside. So, land was acquired and the architects engaged and gardens designed and the boats loaded. And so we have Mirano.
Twice a year they came. Four times the country folk had the spectacle of prosperous households slowing drifting across the plain. One of man’s elaborate responses to the rhythms of nature. They came at the beginning of the summer when the threshers were busy with the grain and again in October drawn this time by the grapes. There was a port at the entrance to the town and from here the Via Barche – the Street of Boats – leads to the squares.
Now though, if you arrive by daylight, it will be the Campanile that begins the story. Clearly a first cousin of the bell towers of St. Mark’s and the island of San Giorgio. Easily twice as tall as the tower of a country church in England. An uncompromising, four-square edifice of red brick to support its belfry. The only landmark you’ll need, vaunting its architectural allegiance – and no doubt every other form of allegiance – to Venice.
And yes, you will think – turning a corner in and around the Piazza – that it is leaning just a little to one side like some to its forbears in the city. ‘We’re quirky too,’ could be the message, ‘but not as much as them.’
I didn’t arrive in the daylight, but I soon sensed the quirkiness of the town in less dramatic details. Next to a bar, a pair of massive gateposts yards apart supporting equally massive stone ornaments like the bases of fountains… and behind them a car park.
Then, as you walk, you will gradually notice the frequency of these gateposts some half hidden by the lush vegetation tumbling along the garden walls. And some distance behind the gates, the villas.
You’ll find Villa Barbarigo, Villa Barbarigo Astori, Villa Giustinian Morosini… the names of Venetian noble families are strewn across Mirano like visiting cards. Villa Erizzo, Villa Corner Renier, Villa Van Axel, Villa Lando…
The Barbarigo and the Giustinian also have palaces bearing their names on the Grand Canal. The Barbarigo provided the city with two of its Doges during the Renaissance and a Barbarigo is a permanent resident of the National Gallery in London in a portrait by Titian. The Giustinian saw one of their sons become Patriarch of Venice. A story behind every pair of gateposts.
Yet, despite the plethora of names and histories and egos, there is a striking harmony to it all. You have the feeling that in designing their country houses they had agreed to follow the rules of the game.
The villas were built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries yet they show little sign of the Baroque theatricality in fashion in other parts of Italy. The model is still very much the Renaissance villa of Venice. The tone sober, the structure simple. Three floors, the main floor not the ground floor but the first, the middle of the three.
Known as the piano nobile, it was designed to express the status of the owner. It is quite noticeable for its central balcony directly above the doorway but even this is small and austere and most often of stone of a cold grey. Behind the balcony, an array of three windows sometimes quite narrow. A lighter touch of elegance. The remainder of the facade is symmetrical and more often than not a plain rectangle and even the chimneys look shy and almost apologetic.
This obvious attachment to tradition generally lends the town a restrained and measured demeanour so that it may require a leap of the imagination to understand how Mirano became home to the most flamboyant artist of the Italian Rococo.
Giambattista Tiepolo was born in Venice in 1696. Sixty-one years later, on Christmas Eve, he bought a villa a mile or so from the Campanile. He was spending the proceeds of his work north of the Alps in Wurzburg where he left behind a massive ceiling fresco modestly titled Allegory of the Planets and Continents. Later, he would be called to Madrid to decorate the Royal Palace. But he kept his villa in Mirano so perhaps, despite all his apparent urbanity, his heart was in the fields of his home. Before leaving for Spain, he made a painting of St. Anthony performing a miracle which is still in the church just off the Piazza. His villa is still here too.
And Richard Wagner has also been here… well, in spirit perhaps. He died in Venice in 1883. Some years before, a Venetian nobleman had had the idea of building a small, but picturesque castle in Mirano. The Castelletto, conceived in late Romantic style, stands on slightly raised ground overlooking a lake opposite Villa Erizzo and is reminiscent of a Victorian folly. Two years after the end of the Second World War, it became the setting for a film version of Lohengrin.
A short distance from the lake runs the river Muson. It was this waterway that inspired the Venetians to build their villas here in the first place. Cross it now and through the trees you’ll stumble upon another product of Mirano’s Romantic past. A sprawling English park. The English park was originally conceived as a reaction against the regular, symmetrical forms of Classicism, so it is certainly in enemy territory here. Intriguingly, though, lost somewhere out in the middle of the vast lawn stands one lone classical column complete with its capital. No-one seems to know why it is there. But with its setting, it could easily have come from the brush of Salvador Dali.
As you leave the park you will pass Villa Giustinian Morosini and head for the gate. The gateposts are of grey stone elaborately sculpted to look just like knotty tree-trunks.
Quirky? Well, I still think so… And yes… the next time one of your friends mentions Merano or Murano, you might decide to tease them a little….’Oh, you must mean Mirano, that nice little town near Venice… oh, you haven’t heard of it? …. I am surprised.’ If you do decide to, enjoy it.
Robert Howard is a language teacher and translator. He is currently based in Mirano, Northern Italy.