Lost city of the Veneto

Vicenza, neighbour to Venice and Verona, is often overlooked, says David Newbold

Sent out to north-east Italy where a particularly grisly murder has been committed, Sergeant Lewis in the TV series Morse quickly comes a cropper. "Vie-sen-zer?" he queries as he steps off the train and peers at the big blue and white sign. "Vi-chen-za," Inspector Morse drily corrects. Half-way between the two big V towns of the Veneto, Venice and Verona, Vicenza is Veneto minore but with a grandeur all its own. "Rome in miniature, a theatrical invention" was how novelist Guido Piovene described it - and it's easy to see what he meant. For such a small town, it is jam-packed with self-important looking buildings. Gothic, Renaissance, but especially neo-Classical palazzi line the streets and seem to browbeat the passing pedestrian into accepting its ethos of provincial prosperity.

Vicenza, for most people, means Andrea Palladio. The hand of the great 16th-century architect is everywhere: in town houses, in churches, in the Palazzo della Regione in the main square, and in the patrician villas outside the town. The exquisitely proportioned Villa Rotonda, which nestles at the foot of the hills just south of the town, provided the setting for most of Losey's Don Giovanni; the town scenes were set in the Teatro Olimpico, Palladio's last work (finished after his death in 1580 by Scamozzi). Built along the lines of a Roman theatre, it expresses to the full the Vicentini love of the theatrical: the permanent scenery, representing seven streets in the city of Thebes, and studded with statues, is an astonishing plaster-on-brick construction in trompe-l'oeil. Any actor who makes a wrong entrance will ruin the carefully calculated play on perspective and the credibility of the elaborate scene collapses like a house of cards.

But Vicenza is not just Palladio. This year marks the tercentenary of the birth of Giambattista Tiepolo, perhaps the greatest European painter of his time. Born in Venice, Tiepolo was extraordinarily prolific: it was said of him that "he could paint a picture in the time it took another artist to mix his paints". He worked all over Europe, commanding high fees (the only place he refused to go was Stockholm, because the King of Sweden didn't pay well enough). Clearly a man ahead of his times, on occasions he managed to get his travel expenses paid as well. Some of his finest mature work can be seen in Vicenza. In fact, it would be hard to find a more "Tiepolesque" town. Paintings, altarpieces, and, especially, the superb frescoes which adorn the villas represent virtually all the stages of his long career.

On occasions, as in Villa Cordelina in nearby Montecchio, Tiepolo was able to bend the architecture to the imperative of his own artistic vision. The frescoes here were commissioned by a wealthy lawyer, Carlo Cordellina, and it was the artist's job to reflect the power and status of the villa's owner. Lawyers, according to the contemporary Venetian playwright Goldoni, were the next best thing to nobility. So, on opposite sides of the main hall, Tiepolo portrays the wisdom of two great conquerors (Alexander and Scipio) when called to pass judgement on the defeated. From the ceiling the allegorical Triumph of Virtue and Intelligence over Error oversees the two secenes and compounds the homage to Cordellina.

But the best frescoes are to be found in the Villa Valmarana-ai-Nani, just round the corner from the Rotonda, painted at the peak of Tiepolo's long career. The owner wanted an oasis of detachment and serenity, which Tiepolo interpreted to mean total immersion in the arts. Gone are the allegorical references to the owner: what we have is a succession of scenes from the Iliad, the Aeneid and the two great 16th-century masterpieces Orlando Furioso and Jerusalem Delivered. Heroes in stock poses and languishing heroines, "tantalisingly disarrayed to leave bare a bosom or a leg", bring together poetry, colour, drama and the latent sexuality reminiscent of great opera. Morse, no doubt, would have approved.

Many visitors to Vicenza, just passing through, never do make it to the villas, because they are out of town. Others are on a day trip from Venice, about 40 miles to the east. But this year the Tourist Office (stealing a march on Venice) has come up with a "Tiepolo weekend" package to entice visitors to stay over. The main attraction is an organised Sunday jaunt round the main villas (with a pick-up from the hotels), and the package - which is available from now until October - includes discounts on car hire, guided tours and meals in selected restaurants. Highly recommended are restaurants belonging to La Rua, an association of young chefs dedicated to preserving (or rediscovering) the Vicentino gatronomic heritage. Be sure to try the bigoli all'anatra (a sort of hollow spaghetti which soaks up the rich duck sauce) and various dishes involving baccala (the Vicentini can do wonders with dried cod). If you travel in a group, you can arrange for a sumptuous Tiepolo dinner (such as the artist himself might have enjoyed 250 years ago) in the Villa Cordellina, complete with arrival in horse-drawn carriage, waiters in period costume and the pleasant strains of a quartet playing Vivaldi. Prices per day for two people (with breakfast) at the 20 or so hotels participating range from Lir88,000 (pounds 35) at the two- star Aster, to Lir234,000 (pounds 95) at the top-of-the range Villa Palma, which last year won an award for the most beautiful hotel bathrooms in Italy. It is situated near Bassano del Grappa, a town famous for its Palladian covered bridge over the river Brenta, about 20 miles north of Vicenza; Bassano, which guards the entrance to the southern Dolomites, is well worth a visit in its own right. Naturally, it has its own Tiepolos (in the museo civico) and is the final destination of the Sunday circuit.

The Tiepolo experience begins, however, with the welcome drink when you arrive in your hotel. Called Cocktail Tiepolo 300, it is made from pomegranate juice, maraschino cherries and prosecco (sparkling dry white wine produced in the Veneto). The swirling vermillion hues are meant to recall the master in some of his finest frescoes, says its creator Renato Cumerlino; it tastes quite nice as well.

! Vicenza lies equidistant between Venice and Verona and is a 60km train journey from either. BA (0345 222111) flies daily from London to both cities. Return fares start at pounds 119. Further information from the Italian State Tourist Office (0171 408 1254), 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY and the Vicenza Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel/fax 00 39 444 320854), Piazza Matteotti 12, 36100 Vicenza, Italy.

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