Vicenza – more than a Palladian masterpiece.
John Brunton – the Guardian UK 24 Nov. 2012
North Italy’s hidden gem, Vicenza is coming out of the shadows of its famous neighbours. John Brunton steps back in time…
It is Thursday morning, market day in Vicenza, and I am walking through crowds of stallholders and shoppers in the Piazza dei Signori, a grand square dominated by the immense Basilica Palladiana, just restored to its former splendour after six years of renovation that cost a whopping €20m.
At Pasticceria Soraru, I sit down for a cappuccino with Howard Burns, the world’s foremost expert on the architecture of Andrea Palladio, whose statue looks down on our table somewhat forbiddingly. In the same way Shakespeare looms over everything in Stratford-upon-Avon, so Vicenza is dominated by its most famous citizen, whose buildings here, alongside his iconic villas in the surrounding Veneto countryside, are recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
“What would Palladio have made of all this today?” I ask Burns.
“Well, in the 16th century, there would not have been a market here,” he says. “The Piazza was the privileged hangout of the city’s nobles. The Basilica Palladio created was basically a shopping mall on the ground floor, with stores stocked with luxury goods – silks, jewels, textiles, books. It was all in the tradition of the Rialto in Venice, Istanbul’s bazaar, even the souk of Aleppo, which is sadly burning as we talk now.”
The luxury shops are still here, but the immense Grand Hall above, designed for civic meetings and law courts, is now hosting a blockbuster art exhibition, Raffaello verso Picasso, which even before its inauguration attracted 100,000 advance bookings. The exhibition is just one of a host of new events that risk transforming Vicenza from a sleepy tourist backwater into a serious destination that will finally bring it out of the shadow of its more famous neighbours, Venice and Verona.
It is rare for a town off the classic tourist trail like Vicenza to stage such an illustrious exhibition as Raffaello verso Picasso, but this show is definitely going to put it on the cultural map. It is spectacular walking through the Grand Hall of the Basilica, where curator Marco Goldin has put together a stunning collection of 85 paintings, spanning Old Masters such as Botticelli, Titian and Giorgione, Rembrandt, El Greco and Caravaggio, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir and Cézanne, through to modernist paintings by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Andrew Wyeth. While the exhibition will run until the end of January, the Basilica Palladiana will become a permanent venue for cultural events, and there are several newly opened museums that make it worth spending a long weekend in Vicenza, rather than just stopping off for a day trip to whizz round the 20 palaces, villas and the visionary Teatro Olimpico that mark the official Palladio itinerary.
The grandiose Palazzo Chiericati has been beautifully renovated to showcase the municipal art collection, with the current exhibition of historical portraits creatively displayed underground in the ancient kitchens and cellars. A three-year restoration of the 13th-century Chiesa di Santa Corona has just finished, meaning two masterpieces by Veronese and Bellini are now on view again. And a new Palladio Museum has been created by Howard Burns, with the aim, he says, “of explaining the genius of Palladio to a larger audience than just architecture enthusiasts”. What is really surprising about Vicenza, however, is that there is a lot more to it than just sightseeing and museums.
Although there are only around 120,000 residents, this is one of Italy‘s wealthiest cities after Turin and Milan, and the elegant historic centre is full not just of ancient osterias, family-run trattorias and historic cafés, but also cool lounge bars, innovative gourmet restaurants and designer boutiques.
I start by exploring the traditional side of the city, beginning at the Fiaschetteria Da Renzo, a hole-in-the-wall bar hidden down a narrow sidestreet just off the Piazza dei Signori. There’s a steady stream of locals popping in all morning for a quick glass of wine and one of their famous “tartine” – delicious bite-sized open sandwiches filled with anything from boiled egg and anchovy to tuna and red pepper. The owner, Fabio, reckons to make at least 1,000 tartine a day, all using secret family recipes.
Next stop is Osteria al Campanile, one of Vicenza’s oldest watering holes, located right by the towering cathedral. Three generations of the same family serve behind the bar, and this is the perfect place to sample little-known wines from local vineyards – a crisp, white Vespaiolo, the light, pale-red Tai Rosso and the surprising sparkling Durello, which makes a welcome change from the usual bubbly, Prosecco.
Just next door to the Campanile is another institution, Righetti, housed in a 17th-century palace and a brilliant place for a cheap and delicious lunch. The place is always jam-packed, as this is an Italian take on a self-service cafeteria, where the chefs serve up steaming plates of freshly cooked pasta or risotto for €4-5, while plates of tasty grilled vegetables or salads cost only €2-3. Amazingly, the whole place runs on trust: no one notes down what you order, and diners just tell the cashier what they have eaten and drunk when they queue up to pay.
Vicenza has been an important centre of Italy’s gold and silver industry for centuries, but I find the ancient stores lining the ground floor of the Basilica Palladiana are classics in their design, with prices aimed at a seriously wealthy clientele. The region here boasts some of Italy’s most famous fashion names and fashionistas will find all these and more in the smart boutiques that line the main shopping drag, Corso Andrea Palladio. Right at the end, I discover the ultimate foodie address, Il Ceppo. This “gastronomia” is an enticing Aladdin’s cave stocked with every Vicentina speciality, from ”baccalà” stockfish and succulent “sopressa” salamis to asiago cheese and giant jars of “jardiniere” – crunchy raw vegetables pickled in light vinegar.
From around 6pm the whole of Vicenza seems to come to a stop, and the serious business of “aperitivo” gets under way, with bars and cafés quickly filling up, and generous buffets laid out to be served free with the obligatory spritz cocktail. The design and ambience of these bars is far more modern than the traditional osteria – especially places like the Pullmanbar, which has a lively riverside terrace, Caffè Commercio on the Piazza dei Signori, and the ultra-hip Julien, whose clientele look as if they are competing for a place on Milan’s fashion runway.
For my last evening, everyone has been telling me I must try the famous “baccalà alla vicentina”, preferably prepared in the Antico Ristorante agli Schioppi. The dining room is filled with prosperous-looking Vincentini (the economic crisis doesn’t appear to have hit here yet), and the “baccalà”, served on a bed of creamy polenta, is out of this world. What’s more, even a complex dish like this – the dried cod has been imported from Norway’s Lofoten Islands since the 15th century and takes hours of preparation – is reasonably priced at €15.
After dinner, clubbing is not on the agenda in Vicenza, but plenty of bars are open until 2am with live music or DJ sets. I wander back to the Basilica Palladiana, which is even more impressive when it is lit up at night. Hidden in the bowels is Il Grottino, its crowds spilling out and sprawling across the steps of the Basilica. It’s a great place for a last drink, but somehow I’m not sure Palladio would have approved.