Venice wasn’t just a formidable naval power; by the 15th-century La Serenissima had also established a great land empire known as the Terraferma. Stretching as far east as the borders of Milan, traces of the Republic's golden age can still be glimpsed in the art and architecture in towns and cities across the Veneto.
Venture into the countryside around Venice and you will discover elaborate farming estates and grand country palaces built by Venetian patriciate families between the 15th and 18th centuries. These Venetian villas were intended as both economic counters to the city and idyllic escapes from metropolitan life; not to mention, they were very public displays of wealth. The best artists and architects were employed to create these countryside retreats, of which there are over 4,000.
The highest concentration of these Ville Venete (“Venetian Villas”) can be found along the Riviera del Brenta, a picturesque waterway connecting the two cities of Padua and Venice. Many of the villas adorning the canalside are still privately owned, which is why we have created this guide to the best Venetian Villas along the Riviera that can still be visited today.
A brief history of the Venetian Villa
The first Venetian villas of the 15th-century formed part of elaborate farming estates built around a central courtyard with stables and outhouses. Noble families reinvested the fortunes they built from trade into self-sustainable agricultural complexes.
However, it was Andrea Palladio who revolutionised the design of the Venetian Villa in the 16th-century, marrying practicality with architectural beauty. Mixing business and pleasure, the Venetian Villa became a country retreat as much as it was a working estate. Read our guide to the Best Palladian Villas in Veneto for more about this iconic architect and his famous designs beyond the Riviera del Brenta.
It was also in the 16th-century that the construction of the Brenta Canal began. The new waterway established a direct link between Padua and the Venetian lagoon and became a popular destination for aristocratic families to build their bucolic retreats. Wealthy Venetians would travel by Burchiello — an ornately decorated barge — from the centre of Venice to their country villas. You won’t find such a spectacular concentration of palatial Venetian villas like this anywhere else in Veneto.
Our top pick of Venetian Villas along the Riviera del Brenta
The Riviera del Brenta offers a peaceful alternative to the busy centres of Venice and Verona; it is a scenic area to simply go for a drive or ride your bike along the riverside. If you can, it is worthwhile approaching some of these villas from the water. Although a more touristy experience, you can take a mini-cruise which includes a visit to some of the main Venetian Villas along the waterfront, as well as an introduction to their history.
Villa Foscari, Malcontenta
Villa Foscari is a secluded Palladian villa situated on the banks of the River Brenta, just 18 minutes by car from the centre of Venice. Also known as La Malcontenta or “mal contenuta”, the villa’s name relates to the nearby river, which tends to burst its banks.
The villa was commissioned in the 1550s by Nicolò and Alvise Foscari, two brothers from one of the most powerful families in Venice. Like many of Palladio’s designs, Villa Foscari is perfectly symmetrical, surrounded by peaceful shaded gardens. Inspired by the architecture of ancient Rome, it was always intended as a “villa suburbana” rather than a working farm and was divided into two independent apartments for each brother.
Inside, Renaissance frescoes of the arts and virtues, as well as scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis adorn the walls, completed by Battista Franco and Zelotti, students of Veronese and Michelangelo’s school in Rome. This opulent country mansion has played host to the likes of Henry III on his way to becoming King of France and Winston Churchill. In the early 20th-century, it hosted beau-monde socialites like Cecil Beaton and Le Corbusier; Peggy Guggenheim even tried to buy the villa in the 1960s.
La Malcontenta is still a private residence so you must book at least 10 days in advance as they limit how many people can visit. It is open Friday to Sunday, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm in the summer months.
Known as the “Versailles of Veneto”, the palatial Villa Pisani is, in many ways, responsible for the fame of the Riviera del Brenta. The magnificent Baroque estate was commissioned by Andrea Pisani Alvise, the doge of Venice, in the 18th-century. However, after the fall of the Republic, the Pisani family had no choice but to sell the villa to Napoleon. Since then it has hosted countless European monarchs, including an Austrian Empress, King Charles IV of Spain and the Russian Tzar Alexander I.
Villa Pisani is now a national museum dedicated to 18th and 19th-century art, but you can still visit around thirty rooms decorated with original frescoes, paintings and furniture, including Napoleon's apartments. In the ballroom, marvel at Rococo master, Tiepolo’s exquisite allegorical ceiling painting, “The Glory of the Pisani Family'', before venturing into the vast, French, landscaped gardens. The long perspectives were inspired by the gardens at Versailles and it is here that you will find the famous, monumental maze.
The villa is open to exploring on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Wednesday and Friday mornings, and all day Saturday and Sunday.
Villa Widmann Rezzonico Foscari is a late Venetian baroque gem at the heart of the Riviera del Brenta. It was built in the early 18th-century for the Serimann, a noble Venetian-Persian family. In the mid-1700s it was bought by the Widmann family and adapted to the French Rococo style.
A typical, idyllic Venetian villa, the country mansion sits in an extensive and peaceful garden, complete with cypress and horse chestnut trees, a landscaped pond, romantic roses and stone statues of classical gods and nymphs. The villa is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 4:30 pm, with guided tours of the mezzanine and first floors, fully decorated with period furnishings.
When you enter the front gates of the Villa Contarini, it is hard to imagine that its life began in the 17th-century as a working farming estate. It feels more like a royal palace than a villa-farm. The current baroque facade is thought to have been an adaptation of an earlier design by Andrea Palladio, though few traces of the original villa remain.
The villa isn’t actually on the Riviera, but since it still sits practically on the River Brenta between Padua and Vincenza, we couldn’t resist including it. You can wander the gardens and expansive grounds at your leisure, but the house is only open for guided tours. Villa Contarini is open every day except Wednesday during the summer months, from 9 am to 7 pm.
Rent a Venetian Villa of your own
Our handpicked collection of villas near Venice and Verona are steeped in history, offering an even more immersive experience of the Venetian Villa and surrounding Veneto countryside. Retrace the footsteps of Venetian nobles at the 17th-century Villa Michiel or enjoy a glass of local wine within your secluded wine estate at the 16th-century Ca’di Lista. The latter is a breathtaking hunting lodge built by Dario Variotari, an apprentice of Veronese, replete with vibrantly frescoed interiors and an immaculately landscaped garden.
You can even stay in a luxury villa designed by the master himself, Andrea Palladio. Once a farming estate, you won’t be short of space at the magnificent Villa Zambonina; frescoed loggias, marble bathrooms, Italianate gardens are just some of the sumptuous features you can expect to enjoy here. Give us a call today to find out more about your dream Venetian Villa rental.