Where Venice’s last Doge died, where Napoleon stayed and where Sting played

The Veneto region of Italy is famous for its beautiful Palladian villas which did so much to influence the typical eighteenth century English country house. We have visited a handful of these villas on previous trips to this region and knew what splendours to expect. However, we were quite unprepared for the glories of the Villa Manin which is near Passariano on a secondary route from Udine to Trieste.

The villa owes its sixteenth century origin to a Friulian Antonio Manin who, having lost territories in Dalmatia as the Venetian republic’s power diminished, decided to concentrate on land and expanding his agricultural domains.

In succeeding centuries the villa was added to with barcòn (Venetian for service wings), a classical portico and, most astonishingly, a monumental exedra consisting of two semi-circular arms, almost horse-shoe shaped, which embrace the front area of the villa.

The Villa Manin has been the scene of the most disparate events. In 1796 Napoleon stayed with his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, whose amorous entreaties in such gorgeous surroundings he could not possibly have refused. (Or did he?)

Here too Napoleon signed the treaty of Campoformido (or Campoformio) which brought the Serenissima republic of Venice to a tragic end after almost a thousand years of independence. Indeed, the last Doge died here in this bed:

In subsequent years the villa went through highs and lows until, in the second half of the last century, it had fallen into a sorry state of decay and was sold by the last of its noble owners to the region of Venice in 1962 for the equivalent of £ 70,000, on condition that it be restored to its original glory.

After years of restoration the villa has reached something of its former splendour despite the fact that most of the original furnishings have gone.

The exterior is dazzling and owes its present appearance largely due to the architect Domenico Rossi who brought in some French influence in the neo-classical design. Next time we’re in the area we must visit Udine where the cathedral’s façade is also by Rossi.

The interior has some very fine features. The chapel is in a typically ornate baroque style and houses the ancestors of the Manin family.

The villa’s ‘garage’ houses some fine examples of old carriages and landaus.

The Villa’s park, designed by Ziborghi in an English landscape style influenced surely in part by Capability Brown, is huge and one could spend a whole day just walking around it.

This sweet little sign says ‘please don’t tread on the grass here, the narcissi are just about to be born’.

The villa’s piano Nobile has rooms painted by Dorigny, Amigoni and Oretti with some youthful contributions by Tiepolo before he became the greatest of eighteenth century decorative artists.

Today the villa has new life as a centre of restoration of works of art particularly those damaged by the terrible Friuli earthquake of 1976 in which almost a thousand people died. It also holds art exhibitions ranging from Sebastiano Ricci to Kandinsky, The one we saw during our visit had as its theme World War one which in 1917 raged only a few miles away from this seemingly idyllic arcadia.

The Villa is also a sort of Italian ‘Woburn Abbey’ with pop concerts given by such groups as Kiss, Iron Maiden, Radiohead and Sting. Pity the Stones didn’t choose this place instead of Lucca -there would have been much more room and I might have even been able to get a ticket!

There’s also a very atmospheric bar and restaurant, an adventure trail for children in the park and very helpful staff.

Indeed, I was not only impressed by the prodigious villa itself but also by the almost National Trustian way it was managed. I do hope that more of Italy’s magnificent country houses will emulate Villa Manin in bringing new energy into properties which could so easily have crumbled into dust.

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