Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, many of Venice’s wealthy families acquired land on the banks of the river Brenta, which flows from Trentino and joins the sea near to the Venetian lagoon. There are around a hundred villas, a few of which are open to the public.
Two of the most impressive are Palladio’s Villa Foscari at Malcontenta, and the large eighteenth century Villa Pisani at Stra. It’s possible to visit the two in a day, using public transport, although the limited opening hours of Villa Foscari make careful planning essential.
The two contrast nicely with each other. Foscari is relatively small, in the little town of Malcontenta. There are various legends as to where the name Malcontenta derives from, one of which is that a woman from the Foscari family was sent there from Venice as a punishment by her husband for her infidelity. She was obviously unhappy about her exile, hence the name. Only the first floor of the villa is open to the public, and it has several rooms with frescoes, one of which shows a melancholy woman, who may be the malcontenta who was banished here. The villa was designed by Palladio in Roman style, and was deliberately built with the living quarters high above the swampy ground. Its façade faces the river, like the palaces on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Villa Pisani in Stra is huge, and the grounds are unmissable as you pass it on the road between Venice and Padova. The villa was built in the eighteenth century for the Pisani family, one of Venice’s most wealthy, who were at the height of their power at this time. Alvise Pisani became doge in 1735. However, the family fell on relatively hard times, due to gambling debts and their situation was made worse by the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. The family consequently sold the villa to Napoleon in 1807. After the fall of Napoleon, the villa came under the control of the Habsburgs until 1866, when the Veneto was annexed to the new Kingdom of Italy. From then on it remained the property of the Italian state, hosting the first official meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in 1934.
There are many rooms to visit at Villa Pisani, so at least 2 hours are needed. The most impressive is the Grand Ballroom with its vast ceiling fresco, The Apotheosis of the Pisani Family by Girolamo Frigimelica. There is a good audioguide covering all the rooms, which is well worth the 3 or 4 euros extra. Visiting the gardens is definitely part of the experience and children of all ages will enjoy the maze. It really does require persistence, but you will be encouraged by seeing several people who have already made it to the little tower in the middle. One of the villa employees at the entrance gave me a clue by telling me that you have to just keep turning left. In a way this is logical, although apparently there are some mazes where this rule doesn’t work, and I still found I kept coming to dead ends. When I finally got to the middle, I climbed the tower, which gave an overview of the whole thing. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to plot my escape to get back out again, but in the end gave up, and just got going. Eventually, I did get out, spurred on by the knowledge that I had a plane to catch that evening. The maze is open most of the time, but might close in bad weather.