On seeing Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House, my first thought was of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Sally and Carl I. Gable’s book seemed to be simply an Under the Venetian Sun. However, even though the books are similar in style and in general location, they do focus on different topics.
The Gables do not focus heavily on food, although Sally’s mouthwatering descriptions of the sumptuous meals served by friends in their new neighborhood did inspire me to cook my own version of a recipe for risotto featured in one chapter.
Nor is it an Extreme Makeover: Italian Home Edition. Villa Cornaro, the 450-year-old home designed by renowned Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and built for a wealthy Venetian family, is in remarkably good condition even to this day. The Gables had no major renovations to mount when they bought the home in 1989. Of course, they did make a few changes — like putting in a kitchen that would be not only practical for their lengthy spring and fall stays but also stylistically balanced with the rest of the house — but it was quite habitable without any demolition or overhauling. In fact, it is remarkably intact: of the five major villas designed by Palladio still in existence, Cornaro has the most original tile and terrazzo floors and original exterior stucco.
So though it is not a diary of making over an old but dilapidated home or a memoir of the clichéd “liberation of uptight Americans amongst the joie de vivre of Italy,” rather a slightly more mundane examination of the day-to-day demands and rewards of owning an historic Italian villa, it is still a delightful read. Anyone who loves old homes and their unique histories and character, not to mention the beauty and culture of southern Italy, will get a voyeuristic pleasure out of imagining being in the shoes of Atlanta residents the Gables as they enjoy their gorgeous but sometimes temperamental (aren’t they all?) home and environs.
Having a hard day? Picture sitting on the villa’s double portico, absorbing the sights and smells and sounds of Piombino Dese, the quaint Italian town in which the villa stands. Wander back in time with Sally Gable as she daydreams about how the house looked when first built, how full it was of busy farm workers going about their daily chores. The author does this frequently: she and her husband have spent their 15 years of ownership visiting other Palladian villas; reading up on Palladio, his designs and the many famous modern-day structures inspired by his then-novel ideas; and consulting with experts about the history of these homes, Venetian city life and politics, summer country living in the Veneto and the Cornaros, the influential family who commissioned and owned the villa for several hundred years.
She writes about some of their findings and how they are trying to solve certain little mysteries on their own, such as the inspiration for the biblical scenery depicted in frescos throughout the main floor of the house. (Carl Gable believes that given the subject matter of the frescos and the “checkerboard” design of the floor, both added by Andrea Cornaro in the early 1700s, along with the reworking of the villa’s exterior stairs, that Andrea was attempting to turn his home into a Masonic temple.)
Despite the fact that most average readers won’t be able to ever afford to buy and maintain an architecturally renowned villa in the south of Italy, Palladian Days is very approachable and somehow lived-in. The Gables have a normal homeowners’ experience in their country estate, stopping leaks, fixing electrical issues, and just keeping everything in running order, just on a grander scale than most. Their friendships, travels around the extended neighborhood and general becoming a real part of their new home are down-to-earth, comfortably approachable and familiar — a satisfying but transporting read for a gloomy winter’s day.
Rated: None. There might be one or two mild uses of language. This book is about people living their lives in and around an old villa, but it’s not about any of their intimate moments, thank goodness.