Authors: Sally Gable
What if we're kidnapped! I shake Carl awake. This is too much worry for me to be stuck with alone.
But before I can alarm Carl, our plane leaves the murky cloud cover over Germany and I watch the snowy Alps rising beneath us like a vast white-spumed sea. Then the crested waves subside and we soar out over the glistening Venetan plain.
“Buon giorno! Benarrivati!”
Dick Rush, tall and thin as ever and remarkably unconcerned about his dignity, hails us excitedly as we hurry past the somnolent customs inspectors. His enthusiasm is genuine, though his Italian accent is suspect. His eagerness to emulate the renowned Italian hospitality, evident in his big grin and gesticulations, reminds me of my beloved black labrador Cleo greeting me when I've returned home. Waving his arms like a juggler, Dick chats nonstop of his pleasure in welcoming us to Italy, of
how he and Julie have prepared the villa for us with fresh touch-up paint and new wax, and of the dozens of people coming to a reception in our honor on Saturday afternoon—for we are arriving at Piombino Dese as the new owners of its Palladian villa! As a newspaper of the province headlines its brief article on the event:
ora e “Gable”
now is “Gable”
Dick is accompanied by Giacomo Miolo, who is driving a second car to accommodate all our luggage. It's our first meeting with Giacomo—in fact, the first time we have ever heard his name. His stocky frame and dark, handsome face contrast dramatically with Dick's tall, pale appearance. I defensively assume that Giacomo's silence, baldly highlighted by Dick's ebullience, reflects some resentment of the new American villa owners as economic imperialists. A quick memory of Dick's kidnap insurance flashes through my mind. As we gather our bags and move toward the cars for the twelve-mile trip ahead, Dick assigns me to ride with Giacomo, on grounds that Giacomo speaks only Italian (when he speaks at all, I say to myself) and that I need real-world practice for the Italian that I have been studying in Atlanta. Carl and Ashley travel with Dick.
My conversation with Giacomo begins on a high note: Giacomo says something about what a beautiful day it is, and I understand it! I begin burbling sentences that I've rehearsed in my mind about how happy we are to have become owners of Villa Cornaro, how beautiful the colors of the fields are, the things we hope to do during our current two-week stay.
But a note of mystery pervades the dialogue. To almost everything I say, Giacomo responds quietly,
“Va hayn, va hayn.”
I frantically search my memory of all the Italian words with which my
tutor in Atlanta has armed me, and I can find nothing similar. What is this short, pithy comment that Giacomo is flinging back at everything I say? Julie Rush unravels the mystery for me later in the day after we've arrived at the villa. Giacomo's
, a Venetan dialect corruption of the common Italian phrase
, which figuratively means “good” or “okay.”
Note to diary: Buy Venetan-Italian dictionary
The twenty-minute ride introduces me to the forthrightness that I soon conclude is characteristic of Venetans. If there's something on their minds, they'll speak it. No squirrelly beating around the bush.
Giacomo asks how old I am. I tell him.
He asks how much we paid for the villa. I respond that my husband would not want me to say.
He asks when we are going to sell the villa to someone else, how much money we will make, and whether the buyer will be German or Japanese. I reply that we don't intend ever to sell the villa, that we hope to pass it on to our children, the way the Cornaro family passed it on from generation to generation for 250 years.
Life is opera, as every Italian knows. And if ordinary routine does not provide the requisite drama, then drama must be contrived. These are truths that Giacomo well understands. Accordingly, he is not satisfied to park the car just inside the villa's side gate, as good practice would dictate. He swooshes the car into the villa's front garden, narrowly avoiding uprooting a long row of very old and carefully manicured boxwoods, so that I can step directly from the vehicle onto the broad front steps of the villa. This is the way a true Cornaro would have arrived. With Giacomo's guidance, the new owner will receive no less.
I ascend the steps with all the emotion that Giacomo could possibly have imagined, the effect undiminished by the overloaded tourist handbag that I am carrying, so weighted that I am listing to one side.
The opera continues. In Act II Carl must carry his demure
(wife) across the threshold of their newly acquired villa. With aggressive pantomime Giacomo conveys to Carl a sense of his ceremonial obligations. In a twinkling, Carl scoops me up, handbag and all, and deposits me across the threshold and into my new life—oblivious of the fact that we don't even know the Italian word for “orthopedist” in case he throws out his notoriously quirky back.
Not at the moment, but later, I am reminded that Giorgio Cornaro, who built the villa, brought his new bride to it as soon as it was substantially completed. Would Giorgio and Elena have engaged in such frivolity if Giacomo had been there to instigate it? In those stern times I doubt that even a rich and influential Cornaro would have dared have fun in public.
The Rushes have timed their final departure from the villa to overlap our arrival by a few days. They want to pass along some of the lore they have acquired and ease our entry into Piombino Dese life. Dick shepherds us along Via Roma. First stop, Alimentari Battis-ton, the grocery store at the first door west of the villa. We're introduced to Gianni and Bianca Battiston and open a charge account; needless to say, the process does not involve the completion of any forms. The Battistons have what Americans would recognize as a corner grocery store, circa 1950, but with crowded aisles and two energized checkout lanes. The Battistons and their children, Alessandra and Franco, live over their store in the traditional manner. Yet change is in the air, Dick tells us. The Battistons’ new
is almost ready to open in a brand-new building that Gianni has built two blocks away.
We proceed down the street to open an account at the local
branch of one of the three regional banks represented in Piombino Dese. Currency controls are still in effect, so we open an “external” checking account that, we are assured, leaves us flexibility to repatriate the balance to the United States if we choose. We also open a “domestic” passbook account for the custodian of the villa to use in paying utility bills and other routine expenses. Carl is impressed by the extent of the decorative, but curiously heavy, iron grillwork that has been fitted into the facade of the bank's modernized old structure, which stands at a slight curve in Via Roma.
“They installed that after a bank robbery,” Dick explains. “The robbers drove a truck into the side of the building.” We look at the grillwork again. I'm not sure it could stop a truck, but the truck would know it had been in a fight.
Dick points out other useful sights as we stroll along: the post office, the
(town hall) with the office of Dick's old antagonist, the
. Turning back toward the villa, we pass a
(bread store), an
(jewelry store), a
(fruit and vegetable store), a
(butcher shop) prominently featuring meat both
equine. Note to diary: I wonder if
My Friend Flicka
has been translated into Italian
Most of these shops, like Alimentari Battiston, are located side by side in the former
(bar-KESS-ah) of the villa, which faces Via Roma immediately to the villa's west. In the Venetan dialect, a
is an all-purpose farm building, housing plows and other farm equipment, storing grain, and stabling animals. The
of Villa Cornaro was a particularly handsome building designed by Palladio's famous follower Vincenzo Scamozzi and built about 1592 on the foundations of an earlier farm building. The structure, faced with a long rhythmic loggia of high arches finished in an ashlar pattern to resemble stone, remained intact and substantially unchanged until 1951. Then it was divided and sold off as a long row of shops, with apartments above and sometimes behind. Each new owner reworked his segment to his own taste, usually eliminating the loggia and its arches. Only the Battistons
retained the original facade, at least on the ground floor—the only twenty-five feet of Renaissance heritage remaining in a tangle of bland, fungible shops. Since all signs of the structure's parentage were removed, I call it the “bastardization” of the
Back at the villa, the transition does not progress as smoothly. Julie seems too upset at the prospect of final departure from the villa to provide much helpful advice. A question such as “Do you use wax on the terra-cotta floors?” brings a response that wanders off into the long engagement of the local florist's daughter with the son of the pastry-shop owner, without ever addressing the treatment of floors.
After a 1714 map of the Cornaro estates
Admiring the intercom system that provides communication from floor to floor and from end to end of the villa, I ask which room is represented by each of the ten keys on the intercom dial.
Julie says she's never been clear on that, so she just rings all the buttons each time—a system she has found perfectly satisfactory.
Dick opens the biggest issue that Carl and I must address. Epi-fanio Marulli, the elderly gentleman who, with his wife Elena, first showed the villa to us two years earlier, has decided to retire after all his years as custodian. Fortunately, Dick has identified for us a candidate to succeed Epifanio. Yes, it's Giacomo Miolo, my driver from the airport who proved to have such a highly developed appreciation of the dramatic gesture. I am ready to respond
but Carl and Dick agree that we should meet with Giacomo and his wife Silvana to discuss how such a relationship would work.
In fact, we have caught Giacomo and Silvana at a fortuitous moment. They own several floors of a building across Via Roma from the villa, which until recently they operated as a small hotel with a bar on the ground floor. Now, however, they're in the midst of a big gamble. They've closed the business, borrowed an enormous amount of money—Silvana later tells me how much—and are completely renovating their portion of the building. The bar is being expanded and recast as a much fancier
and sandwich shop; the floor above is being refitted as a small apartment where the Miolos and their two sons, Leonardo and Riccardo, will live in order to be close to their new business and in order to economize. They will be renting out their own substantial detached house eight blocks away.
For now, while the yearlong reconstruction is in progress, the Miolos are left with nothing to do except watch their cost overruns mount, the completion targets move out, and their bank account dwindle. They are ready for a new project—and a little income.
Yet Giacomo is a realist. Once the new
opens he can't be a hands-on custodian for us the way Epifanio was for the Rushes. But he and Silvana promise that they will find others to do what they are unable to do themselves.
We accept this offer for three reasons. First, Dick Rush, who has known them for years, recommends them; second, they seem to be a sincere, hardworking couple who are careful not to commit for
more than they can deliver; and third, we have no idea where in all the world we would turn for an alternative.
From midweek the temperature in Piombino Dese begins to drop. We're convincingly reminded that the Veneto is on the same meridian as Montreal. What seems in August to be a charming eccentricity of the villa can become a major shortcoming in late October: Villa Cornaro has no heating system. There are fireplaces in most of the rooms, all except one of them with mantels designed by Palladio himself and executed in Verona marble, but their flues were blocked off long ago. The fireplaces were never intended to heat the villa through the winter anyway. The villas were built as summer plantation homes, with the families coming out from Venice every spring by planting time, remaining in the country until the harvest, and then returning to their palaces in Venice. So the fireplaces were only to take the chill off a spring or fall evening.
Carl and I knew we were taking a chance in making our inaugural visit in October, but we didn't want to arrive until it was certain that the Italian government would not be buying the villa away from us under its “right of first refusal.” On the other hand, we couldn't bear to wait until spring for our first visit.
By Friday our activities in the villa are more and more confined to the kitchen, which the Rushes manage to heat with a bottled-gas contraption ominously called a
. (Giacomo later advises me that the name is apt; he cautions against using the two of them that are in the villa.) When Carl, Ashley, or I venture into the rest of the villa, we don our ski parkas and look more like downhillers than Italian villa owners. Dick and Julie maintain more dignity but less comfort by relying on layers of sweaters topped by jackets.