The Brenta Riviera in history

The Brenta Riviera in history

Patronized by Casanova, Galileo, Byron and D’Annunzio, sketched by Coronelli and Costa, painted by Tiepolo, Cimaroli, Guardi and Canaletto, praised by Goethe and Goldoni, the Brenta Riviera hosted the royal families of France and Russia; here Napoleon, the Hapsburg and the Savoia families spent some time.

A territory that tells centuries of history.
On April 17, 1345, the High Council of the Republic of Venice repealed an act that until then had prohibited the citizens of the Serene Republic from purchasing land on the mainland; thus some interests of the noble families of the Veneto moved from trade to the mainland and along the banks of the Brenta.
The possibility of more extensively exploiting the lands owned on the mainland raised the issue about closer control of production.

The birth of the Venetian Villa

This is why the country residences were built: they met the new requirements and united the Lord’s dwelling and the service buildings in a single complex. This originated various types of villa:
– the farm-villa for those who had found a new source of wealth in agriculture;
– the temple-villa, a meeting place for artists and intellectuals;
– the palace-villa, a representative building and the location of huge parties and banquets;

Incisione di Vincenzo Coronelli, palazzo Cappello a Stra con burchiello e tirante XVIII secolo

always and everywhere, sumptuous dwellings designed by famous architects, decorated and frescoed by sublime painters, to bear witness to a season of glory.
The “Venetian Villa” generated the trend of “villeggiatura” (literally, spending vacations in a villa), which developed in the Veneto between the 15th and the 16th centuries and continued in the next two centuries, until the fall of the glorious Republic of Venice in 1797. It was for this aim that nearly 2000 villas were built in the Veneto that still bear witness to a century-old culture in architecture.
From the sixteenth century, the waterways and the rivers that could be easily reached from Venice were dotted with sumptuous summer residences.
The Brenta Canal branch connected Venice to Padua together with other waterways; it was the trendy canal, a place of delights and the ideal continuation of the Grand Canal in Venice. Here over seventy luxury villas flourished.
The banks of one and the other side of this river are full of palaces and the delightful houses of the noble families, and of the richest citizens, with orchards, gardens, and well-populated villages, to such an extent that those who sail it have the impression of navigating inside a town all along its 16 mile-long course that forms an almost uninterrupted village, which links the metropolis of that State with the City of Padua.” (Vincenzo Coronelli, 1697)

The Arcadia in Brenta

L'Arcadia in Brenta - Edizione di Ginnesio Gavardo Vacalerio_, pseudonimo di Giovanni Sagredo

Great architects such as Palladio, Scamozzi, and Frigimelica designed summer residences for the Venetian aristocrats who spent their “vacation” on the mainland, in a true Arcadia of Ladies and Squires who played, sang, experienced love affairs and told tales.
Giovanni Sagredo was the author of “L’Arcadia in Brenta” (1667), published under the pseudonym of Ginnesio Gavardo Vacalerio; it was a collection of tales from the second half of the Seventeenth century set on the Brenta Riviera, one of the most famous holiday locations at the time. A merry band of Venetian noble people spends eight days in villas, gardens, fish ponds and beautiful places of that golden Arcadia.

Charles de Brosses

And it is on the Brenta Riviera that Carlo Goldoni sets, in the middle of the Eighteenth century, his “Arcadia in Brenta”, a comic opera about aristocrats and wealthy bourgeois from Venice and their longing for spending a holiday on the mainland. The owner of a villa on the Brenta Riviera invites a small crowd of guests to this location, recreating a miniature Arcadia; a lively, yet greedy brigade that devour all that they find and later move to another villa to continue their carefree vacation.

The Burchiello

Burchiello sul Brenta

The wealthiest aristocrats spent their holidays here, not too far from the city: they left Venice on comfortable boats called Burchiello that navigated upstream the Brenta navigable canal. These boats were forcibly pushed by oars from St. Mark’s Square across the Venetian lagoon to Fusina, wherefrom they were pulled by horses to Padua along the Brenta Riviera. The Venetian aristocrats moved with the Burchiello also the elegance, the refinement and the luxury that were peculiar of the city of Venice.

Enrico III

In 1574 the Brenta waterway, from Venice to the Portello in Padua, was sailed by a procession of boats that accompanied Henry III, King of France, on his way back from Poland; the king was fascinated by the beauties and grandiosity of the route and wanted to spend some time at Villa Foscari La Malcontenta.

Giacomo Casanova

In his “Story of My Life”, Giacomo Casanova tells about his experience on the Burchiello in 1734 together with Baffo, a famous erotic poet from Venice.
Of the many descriptions of the Burchiello we would mention the one written by Charles de Brosses (1739): “… the most graceful offspring in the world, very much alike our water coaches but more beautiful, and infinitely cleaner and elegant, with a small lobby for the servants, a cabin upholstered with Venetian brocatel, a table, and two corridors decorated in Moroccan leather, taking light from eight real windows and two glass doors. We found our accommodation so pleasant and comfortable that, contrarily to what we usually felt, we were not in a hurry at all to get to our destination, even more so since we had a lot of food, and wine from the Canary islands…

Ritratto di Charles de Montesquieu 1689-1755

In September 1728 Montesquieu gets to Venice, and sails on the Burchiello along the Riviera: “on the Brenta, a river turned a canal by means of four locks; and so just one horse pulls a rather large boat and twenty-five miles are covered in eight hours. Along the Brenta are beautiful patrician dwellings. Nobleman Pisani has started one that will be extraordinarily superb … “.

Carlo Goldoni

The Burchiello becomes almost a small stage where the most diverse social classes mix. Goldoni wrote a short poem about this and observed them all while: “I was on the boat from Padua, that is on the Burchiello / that sails the Brenta every morning” and adds then: “Large was the crowd  of varied people, / They were all seated orderly; / there were polite persons, ordinary persons: / a mix of different characters”, “I’m referring to the one that can be rented to cover / the distance to Padua every morning; / and not of the large Barcaccia that sails at night” “Of that graceful Boat / decorated with mirrors, and engravings, and paintings, / which moves forward by one mile every twenty minutes / as a good tow pulled by horses”.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe

In 1786 Goethe arrives in Padua, visits the Botanic Gardens and, then, goes to Venice. He thus describes the journey along the Brenta Riviera:
Just a few words about the journey from Padua to Venice: the journey on the Brenta with the Burchiello, a public means of transport, and with a very respectable company (Italians stand on ceremony among themselves) is nice and pleasant. The banks are beautified by gardens and pavilions, little villages overlook the shore, lined in places by the bustling main road. Because the river is regulated by locks, the barge must often make small stops, and passengers can take advantage to take a look at the village and enjoy the fruits that are offered in abundance. We then go back on the boat and continue our way, through a bustling world, all fertility and animation.

Giuseppe Zais - Ritrovo nel parco della villa con gioco dell'altalena

It was the time of excitement for vacation during which, as Goldoni wrote “everybody enjoys immense freedom, plays cards, eats, and organizes dancing parties and shows”.
The journey along the Brenta Riviera was fascinating and amusing; in the slow progress amidst villas and weeping willows, Ladies and gallant men, aristocrats and adventurers, comedians and artists livened up the life on board, making the river journey picturesque and pleasant.

Gabriele DAnnunzio

Moreover at the time of vacation people used to go from one villa to another, with happy groups of friends moving from one villa to another, from one party to another, spending their time in magnificent receptions and sumptuous banquets that may last as long as one week.
A riverGabriele D’Annunzio would write in his work Fuocoonce magnificent and glorious in the sonnets of gallant abbots when thanks to its current the Burchiello boats descended the canal, full of music and pleasures.

The arrival of Napoleon and the death of the Republic of Venice

Towards the end of the Eighteenth century, with the fall of the Venice Republic caused by Napoleon in 1797 the hardships of the Venetian dolce vita had repercussions on the mainland; several Villas closed, parties and banquets disappeared and so did the dolce vita of the Brenta Riviera. Since the number of passengers and trips diminished, also the luxury regular service of Burchiello was finally discontinued.
Overburdened by fees, taxes and confiscations levied by the Napoleonic government first and by the Hapsburg rule later, and following the cancellation of the great privileges on trade, the great Venetian aristocracy disappeared mostly. The villas often became a shelter for farming equipment and the river was sailed only by boats that transported coal, timber and poor wares; a long period of decline invested the Brenta Riviera.

The Brenta Riviera comes to a new life and the Burchiello sails again

Burchiello viaggio inaugurale, 1960

In the 1950s, at the same time with the first development of modern tourism, some interest in the rediscovery of the Riviera rose.
After 150 years, in 1960, the Tourism Board of Padua rediscovered and proposed again – as a tourist route – the regular service of the Burchiello, following a brilliant intuition of its Director Francesco Zambon. A white steam boat of World War I – which had taken the victorious Bersaglieri foot soldiers to Trieste – was fully renovated with sofas, a bar and toilets on board, a luxury for those times, and assigned to this service. The regular service of the Burchiello was officially opened in 1960 by the then President of the Council of Ministers, and then President of the Italian Republic, Antonio Segni. The service saw a remarkable increase in the number of passengers.
Meanwhile, the economic operators in the tourism industry began to invest in major awards and gastronomic events. Mindful of the large banquets in villa, handed down from history, they retrieved and proposed again a large part of the prestigious seafood cooking skills that had been lost in the decline period.
The taverns were turned into trattorias and restaurants little by little; some Villas were restored and new accommodation facilities were created; some historic homes were opened to visitors, others were transformed into hotels.
The preconditions for the revival of tourism on the Brenta Riviera began to take shape; tourism grew up with a great flowering of restaurants and new accommodation facilities.