Site and history
In its original configuration, the area covered by the Barco fitted perfectly into the reticular layout of the centuriated territory of the Roman municipium of Asolo that was founded in the 1st c. BC. Stratigraphic and archaeological studies conducted between 1988 and 1992 by the Fondazione Benetton Studi e Ricerche defined the layout of three different walled sectors within the general area occupied by the estate. The larger, rectangular area, occupied 50 hectares and was enclosed within a walled perimeter of over 3 kilometres. The second area covered about 2 hectares, with the south side stretching to about 100 metres and with dwelling houses along both the east and west sides. The third area, a kitchen garden covering approximately half a hectare, had three entrances on the south side of its perimeter.
An obvious and decisive factor influencing the choice of the site was ownership; the land had evidently already belonged to Caterina’s family in the late 15th century. A further determining factor was the availability of water, which was drawn (very certainly from the early 16th c. onwards) from a source at Crespignaga, a hillside village to the east of Asolo, and transferred to the Barco by means of a conduit, and also from a subsidiary canal predating the year 1493 leading off from the main Brentella/Caerano waterway.
Caterina expressly referred to the water supply at the Barco when she compiled her will, in which she determined to transfer to her brother Giorgio the ownership of “… our Barcho […], together with its conduits and supplies of water, which flows - and will continue to flow in future - within the area of the Barcho, across our land and also to the fountain, and which must be brought to the said Barcho from the village of Crispignaga”. Caterina Cornaro’s main biographer, Antonio Colbertaldo (1556-1602), attributes to the Queen of Cyprus herself the decision to initiate the construction of the Barco "in a beautiful country area".
It was moreover Pietro Bembo who apparently suggested that the park should be called "Il Barco", a word that may be linked to the word ‘parco’ or the Greek 'paradeisos' (‘heaven’), conveying the concept of a garden, and ultimately deriving from a Persian/Sanskrit root. Both the name and the structural layout of the Barco Cornaro were in any case reminiscent of other similar estates that had been seen by Giorgio Cornaro at Vigevano (la Sforzesca) and at Fossombrone (the Barco Bellaguardia of the Montefeltro family).
The Barco di Altivole nevertheless presented an original character owing to its location, a triple set of walls, the articulation of its architectural components, the garden, the abundance of its water supply and the extent and quality of internal decorative elements. The many treatises on architecture and agriculture available at the time (the Trattato di Architettura by Antonio Averlino, known as Filarete (1400-1469), written in 1464 ca., De re aedificatoria (1450 ca.) by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472), and De Agricultura by Pietro de' Crescenzi (1233 - 1320), published in Venice in 1495) offered sources of inspiration and were evidently referred to when the Barco was designed and simultaneously conceived as a ‘villa di delizia’, an agricultural estate and a structure providing a system of defence.
In the planning of the green areas there is a definite reference to the silk garden described in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (the Dream of Poliphilus) attributed to Francesco Colonna (1433-1527) and published in 1499. Construction work began in 1491 with the development of a pre-existing structure owned by the Cornaro family. The drawings are attributed to Francesco Graziolo, an architect from Lombardy, and the management of the site and works to the master builder Pietro Lugato from Asolo.
It would moreover appear that Giorgio himself had a quite a predominant role in the planning and construction of the Altivole estate if in a letter dated 1509 Giovanni Gonzaga actually states that the Barco had been “created for Messer Giorgio Cornaro”. Moreover, in 1502, work at the site had presumably already reached an advanced stage of completion as, while writing to his brother Carlo, Pietro Bembo already recalls a period when Caterina had stayed at the Barco and refers to the tordera, a tall isolated tower surrounded by a moat fed by water coming from the source at Crespignaga.
The three original and basic elements of the complex were described in 1509 in an eloquent summary written by the previously mentioned Giovanni Gonzaga, who refers to “uno Palazio cum uno Zardino et uno Barcho fatto per Messer Giorgio Cornaro” [a stately residence with a garden and a ‘barco’ made for Messer Giorgio Cornaro].
The first element of the estate indicated by Gonzaga is a ‘palazzo’, a stately home presenting a beautifully decorated façade and interior. Following a study conducted in 1988-1992, there is no longer any doubt that the palazio referred to is the surviving building, having a length of 119 m and a depth of 12 m. It was formerly believed that a 'queen's palace' had existed at this site but this was evidently due to the imagination of the anonymous creators of two drawings preserved at the Civic Museum of Asolo dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The ‘palazzo’ rather coincides with the area used as a vegetable garden, enclosed by a wall with three entrances, which was reserved exclusively for the pleasure of the queen and her guests and for the cultivation of rare plants and scented herbs. Near the garden, a fish pond, supplied with water from a conduit leading off from the Brentella canal, created the north border of the property. The captions in the 17th-c. drawing relating to the different sectors of the 'surviving monument' are in fact more reliable.
These include (from north to south): a segment of the structure indicated as the Quartier cavalaria or stables (it is not known when this structure was demolished); the house of God (a church); a doorway leading into the so-called 'sala', accessible from both sides of the building through rounded arches; a splendid and well-illuminated loda (loggia) with five arches supported by elegant columns of the Ionic order, and inside which there was a beautiful fountain; the Palajo di officiatura (administrative section); another portal; and, finally, the Quartiere di fanteria (the guards’ quarters).
The garden, the second of the general areas of the Barco, occupied the remaining sector between the extant east building and a building of the same length, that extended along the entire west side and possibly contained storage rooms and granaries. At the centre of the garden, the 17th-c. drawing shows a grande pozzo [large well] or rather a fountain, to which water was supplied through a complex system of conduits that would have also been connected to the fountain in the loggia. The entrance to the Barco, within a tall tower, as seen in the map by Girolamo Tomasoni (1716), was at the midpoint of the short walled perimeter on the south side. Four other towers of lesser height dominated the four corners of the second walled perimeter.
The third area of the estate, which Gonzaga also refers to as the Barcho, occupied approximately 50 hectares enclosed by the walls of the first perimeter. Dominated by the tordera tower, this area was used for hunting and grazing. Antonio Colbertaldo wrote that Caterina “came here to spend most of the summer and to take part in hunting activities and bird-snaring excursions and that in this area there were many roe deer, hares, deer and rabbits”.
These activities occurred in an extensive wooded area indicated in the 17th-c. drawing. Despite considerable damage, the Barco survived the events of the period 1509-1510 during the War against the League of Cambrai. At the end of the conflict, on becoming the owner of the Barco after Caterina's death, Giorgio Cornér ordered necessary restoration work to be carried out, which made it possible to frequently invite as his guests his own sons Marco and Francesco, both cardinals, and, in 1521, also Angelo Beolco, otherwise known as Il Ruzante.
Beolco held an oration at the Barco in Marco’s honour, followed by a second oration, probably also held at Altivole, in honour of Francesco Cornaro. For this ‘luogo di delizia’ at Altivole, a long, inexorable phase of decline began in the second half of the 16th century and the rural character and functions of the buildings forming the estate were accentuated, gradually becoming dominant features of the complex. To a large extent, the structures were modified by the farm labourers of the Cornaro family themselves and by subsequent owners, with functional adaptations introduced in accordance with the agricultural activities carried out.
In the year 1808, Marina Pisani, the widow of Nicolò Cornér Giustinian, sold all of the family property existing in the Montebelluna, Asolo and Castelfranco areas, including the Barco, to the brothers Antonio and Francesco Revedin, who, according to the historian Antonio Pivetta, had the towers and perimeter walls demolished. In the mid-19th century, ownership of the Barco was transferred to Antonio’s son, Francesco Revedin, and the estate was given by will to Fanny Bassetti Rinaldi in 1869.
The ownership of the property was subsequently transferred various times until 1975, when it was purchased by the Ministry of Antiquities and Fine Arts. It was ceded in 1976 to the Province of Treviso, and has been privately owned since 2009.
The only extant portion of the Barco dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries is the long building corresponding to the 'palace' seen by Giovanni Gonzaga in 1509. No visible traces remain of the vegetable gardens, the fish pond, the garden and fountains, three sections of surrounding walls and the five towers and also the stables adjoining the north side of the oratory.
The interiors between the Sala dei Pavoni [Hall of the Peacocks] and the Officiatura [administrative section] were modified and adapted, while the Fanteria [guardroom area], damaged by fire in 1979, was rebuilt, with the exclusion of the east wall. The segment at the south end no longer exists.
The various areas of the building are united by a long series of frescoes conceived according to a specific iconographic plan. The fresco paintings assume a key architectural role in delineating the subdivision of the floors and unite the various elements of the façade. In addition, the landscape scenes were conceived so as to create a direct link with the surrounding environment and the views visible from the windows of the various nuclei of the structure.
No documentary references exist concerning fresco painters operating in the Asolo and Treviso areas in the late 1400s and early 1500s who may have decorated the Barco. Painters active in the area included Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea da Murano, Giorgione (1478 - 1510), the brothers from Treviso Girolamo (1455 - 1497?) and Pier Maria Pennacchi (1464-1515 ca.) However, the only person referred to as having worked at the Barco is a certain Veronese artist known as Leonardo (“formerly Bartolomeo”), who also lived at the Barco between 1507 and 1530.
The decorative work in any case contains references to the humanistic culture of the client. Sources of inspiration for the allegories, symbols and myths were the Dream of Poliphilus (1499) and the Asolani (1505). Partially restored in 1926, thoroughly cleaned and consolidated in the years 1962-1963 and treated also in 1997, the frescoes were subsequently subjected to a thorough intervention, providing for their consolidation, disinfection and cleaning, the integration of gaps and overall protective measures, completed in the year 2000 under the supervision of the architect Teresa Marson.
From north to south, the sequence of the current nuclei of the Barco includes: the Church, the Doorway or Hall and Loggia (open to visitors), the ‘Sala dei Pavoni’ [Hall of the Peacocks], the Salone [large hall] the Stairway, the Administrative Section and the Guardrooms (visits currently not permitted).
The Oratory is rectangular with a square apse, unlike the (demolished) original semicircular structure. Radically restored in 1945 on account of serious damage to the wall structure, the façade presents a door with mouldings surmounted by a blind arch, two lateral single-light apertures and a small rose window.
The small church was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the late 18th century and, from 1805, to the virgin martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria. In the interior, within a false architectural cornice, a frieze runs along the south wall. Here, vases and pairs of angels support medallions containing figures of prophets and saints.
St. George (third from right) is depicted with a dragon’s head and wearing a helmet. Above the frieze, three lunettes include three medallions depicting various Prophets. On the opposite side we note another lunette with a Prophet, two medallions with the Angel of the Annunciation and the Holy Virgin and, above, the Dove of the Holy Spirit. In the front section it is possible to see two saints beneath the single-light window on the right-hand side; these figures were formerly thought to be Anthony of Padua and Peter and, more recently, John the Evangelist (holding a book, with long hair and a beardless face) and St. Francis of Assisi (with the long cross and cassock).
The colours of the robes of the two saints (yellow on the right-hand side, purple to the left) provide the dominant chromatic themes of the entire front section, with yellow appearing in the upper decorative section and purple in the lower area. In the large upper scene depicting St. George and the Dragon, only a part of the horse and the rider's face can be seen.
Portal or hallway
This is an almost square room, open on two sides and presenting a series of rounded arches with capitals in sandstone, connecting the garden area to the open spaces enclosed by the wall of the first perimeter. In the façade, a simple architectural configuration creates a contrast with decorative elements comprising twin columns, cornices, brackets and scrolls, with everything culminating in a false triumphal arch having a keystone in the form of a putto supporting a cartouche.
At the sides of the arch a composite decoration can be seen, which continues along a large portion of the façade of the building. From the bottom upwards, one will note a false tapestry with polychrome octagons; a frieze depicting rams and plant motifs, enclosed by moulded cornices; two narrative sections set against landscape backgrounds between pairs of Corinthian columns, with a penitent St. Jerome on the left and Apollo and Daphne on the right; and a bright ochre frieze set against a blue background, creating a crowning upper element (running along the entire building) with winged horses, the tails of which extend into plant-like motifs, alternating with medallions containing profile portraits.
These latter elements, reminiscent of classical Roman art, were a dominant feature in 15th-c. references to the styles of antiquity. Inside the room the walls present a continuous frieze, in which can be seen (set against green, purple and red backgrounds) sections containing plant-like elements alternating with false bas-relief segments (showing putti playing or riding fantastic animals); these components are linked by medallions decorated with profiles of human heads. Under the frieze, on the left and right-hand sides, there are two crests of the House of Cornaro. One of these is a Cardinal’s crest, showing two white eagles (probably assigned to the Cardinal Marco Cornaro, Giorgio’s son and a nephew of Caterina), while the other (belonging to Caterina) contains three rampant lions and five crosses set within a moulded frame in false bas-relief.
This is a rectangular-plan building, open on the west side and presenting five arches supported by five columns and two half-columns. A pair of two-light windows in stone are located on the east side. The room is decorated with frescoes both internally and externally.
On the façade, painted pendentives appear between the columns with tondi containing barely visible crests. On the right and left-hand sides, near the upright section of the arch, there are white winged figures with a shield.
On account of the central position and functional uses of the loggia, the frescoed facing and architectural cornices are likely to have caused it to be perceived as a structure projecting outwards with respect to the adjacent buildings. Inside, around the four sides of the room, a frieze is set against a red background. This contains alternating classical motifs of sea gods, dolphins, urns, vases and plants.
At the centre of the frieze on the west and east walls are the arms of the Cornaro family. A third crest with yellow and green stripes is positioned in the frieze on the north wall. Under this element, on the east, west and north walls, there is a moulded cornice in monochrome yellow supported by false corbels, alternating with plant-like festoons bearing three different varieties of fruit.
On the east wall, between the two-light windows, there is a false architectural structure that contained a fountain placed exactly in line with the midpoint of the large archway of the entrance. Above the painted cornice a large impressive crest of the Cornaro family is surmounted by the two-headed imperial eagle.
The area beyond the Loggia: Hall of peacocks – Large Hall – Stairway - Administrative section – Guard's quarters (closed to the public)
The images of the frescoes on the facade beyond the loggia are now very indistinct on account of their poor condition. Continuity with the entire series of decorations is ensured by recurrent mullion windows and the two large strips showing rams at the first level and winged horses beneath the eaves. In the lower part of the front the polychrome octagon decoration has been maintained. Six large frescoed sections enclosed by coupled monochrome columns can still be seen between the windows on the first floor.
Old photographs of this area of the Barco reveal the leitmotiv of an idyllic landscape, imbued with references to antiquity that would have been typical of the cultural interests of Pietro Bembo and Giorgione and possibly stemming from topics that Caterina may have discussed with artists and the erudite men of letters whom she often frequented.
The framed portions contain allegorical scenes. In the first panel appear a winged figure and an archer, while in the second area, beyond the mullion window we see two lions, traces of two female figures and a face (probably female).
This area of the façade coincides with the ‘Hall of the Peacocks’: so-called on account of a set of images of peacocks with closed tail feathers set against a floral background between two superimposed rows of tiles. A third panel, previously interpreted as the Judgement of Paris, shows two female figures, each with a child, one of whom, painted in an upright position and shortened, seems to be moving away from the woods behind her.
In the following panel, two hares (or rabbits) are reminiscent of the hunting activities carried out at the Barco and, symbolically, also the goddess Aphrodite, who doted on these animals, known for their fecundity and speed. Inside, in the Salone (hall), there is a decorative strip on a red background, with griffins holding vases with their left claw. As in the case of the hares, the imaginary griffin assumes a symbolic meaning of domination, combining the qualities of the lion (the earth) and the eagle (air).
Further south, in a large panel of three sections with Corinthian columns we find a large female deer resting on a green meadow and, in the background, the turreted walls of the Barco, trees and a row of hills. A crest of the Cornaro family is located close to this point. In the last panel, a young servant, standing on a beach and holding a rod, seems to be observing a fisherman and his boat and, beyond this, a nude male deity hovering above the waves.
The Barco's other life
The decline of the Barco began in the second half of the 16th century, when it was gradually transformed into an administrative centre for the agricultural activities of the vast Cornér estate.
In the early 1700s, the land registry of Asolo referred to a palazzo dominicale [stately home] and a tore [tower] but the entire area between the first and second perimeter was recorded as being used for the cultivation of cereals and comprised lawns and a vineyard area.
In 1810, the Sommarione [register] of the Napoleonic cadastral recorded the presence of the oratory and the south entrance tower, which was later demolished, however no mention is made of Caterina Cornaro’s residence, which is described solely as a sequence of case da massaro [farmhouses or rural buildings].
Ever since that time and in fact until just a few decades ago, the Barco has survived as a village within a village, as a string of rural buildings stretching along the entrance lane. Its rooms finely decorated with fresco paintings were converted into a kitchens, bedrooms, hay lofts and animal sheds and the constant coming and going of people and farm animals created a microcosm in its own right, the protagonists of which were the habitual residents themselves, known as the ‘barcaroi’.
At various times the two resident families of farm workers (the Baldisser and Fantin families) formed an overall group of nearly one hundred individuals, but the number gradually decreased until the houses were abandoned at the end of the 1970s. These families and the others that preceded them lived at the Barco after its brief, early period of splendour and it was on account of the harsh conditions of life of the tenant farmers that large sectors of the original structures and the interior and external decorations were sacrificed.
Old photographs convey an idea of the life of these people. A photograph of the early 1900s shows a group of men, women and children posing in front of the Barco, the structures of which, at this point, had been totally adapted to the requirements of rural life even though they might still convey a sense of its former glory on account of the visible frescoes.
Another image from the 1960s shows the humble abodes of a small rural community; the old structures now provided a backdrop to quite a different world. Until our recent understanding of its extraordinary historical and artistic importance, the Barco continued to survive as an almost anonymous set of rural buildings. It is hoped that our newly-gained awareness will lead to further studies involving the history of this exceptional site.
- Barco della Regina Cornaro in Ville venete: la Provincia di Treviso, a cura di Simonetta Chiovaro, Venezia 2001, pp. 7-9.
- Biffis M., Altivole. Barco “della regina Cornaro”, in Gli affreschi nelle ville veneto. Il Cinquecento, a cura di G. Pavanello e Vincenzo Mancini, Venezia 2008, pp. 106-111.
- Caterina Cornaro. L’illusione del regno, a cura di Daria Perocco, atti del convegno di Asolo, 9 ottobre 2010, Sommacampagna 2010.
- Cecchetto G., Altivole. Storia, società ed economia di una comunità rurale dell’alta pianura trevigiana. Con note storiche al patrimonio artistico, Dosson di Casier 1988, pp. 216-223.
- Colasanti F., voce Corner (Cornaro) Caterina, in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Roma 1979, vol. 23, pp. 335-342.
- Dal Pos D., Museo Casa Giorgione, Cittadella 2009, pp. 99-109.
- Fossaluzza Giorgio, Castelfranco, la Marca e Treviso, in Le Vie di Giorgione nel Veneto. Ambienti, opere, memorie, a cura di Lionello Puppi, Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo, Giorgio Fossaluzza, Milano 2009, pp.55-57 (il saggio pp. 25-95).
- Gullino Giuseppe, voce Corner Giorgio, in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Roma 1983, vol. 29, pp. 212-216.
- Il Barco di Altivole. Contributi per la conoscenza, a cura di Teresa Marson e Luciana Piovesan, Treviso 2000.
- Il giardino veneto: storia e conservazione, a cura di Margherita Azzi Visentini e contributi di Rosario Assunto, Milano-Venezia 1988, pp. 86-87.
- Marton Paolo-Bellieni Andrea, Marca nobilissima. La provincia di Treviso, Ponzano Veneto 1999, pp. 62-63.
- Orsini Laura, Anonimo: Barco di Caterina Cornaro ad Altivole, fine XVIII secolo, scheda del disegno (Asolo, Museo Civico, inv. 894), p. 261, in Andrea Palladio e la villa veneta da Petrarca a Carlo Scarpa, a cura di Guido Beltramini e Howard Burns, Venezia 2005.
- Piovesan L., Il Barco della regina Cornaro ad Altivole, vol. XVI della Storia di Asolo, Asolo 1980.
- Povoledo E., Accademie, feste e spettacoli alla corte di Caterina Cornaro, in La Letteratura, La Rappresentazione, La Musica al tempo e nei luoghi di Giorgione, a cura di Michelangelo Muraro, Roma 1987, pp. 133-161.
- Puppi L., scheda: Anonimo, Il Barco di Caterina Cornaro, XVIII secolo, disegno a penna e inchiostro, Asolo, Museo Civico, inv. 894; Anonimo, Il Barco di Caterina Cornaro, XVIII secolo, disegno a penna e inchiostro, Asolo, Museo Civico, inv. 893, in Giorgione, catalogo della mostra di Castelfranco Veneto, 12 dicembre 2009-11 aprile 2010, a cura di Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo e Lionello Puppi, Milano 2009, pp.387-388.
In the net
- Regione Veneto: mini-site dedicated to the Queen Cornaro and the Barco
- Wikipedia: Barco of the Queen Cornaro
- MagicoVeneto: The castle of the Queen in Asolo, many nice pictures
- Progetti: An attempt to re-create in modern forms the original magnificence of the complex "Barco"
- Museo Giorgione: Barco Cornaro, writings of Anderson, Puppi, Luciani, Farronato and others
- Archivio Antonio Cederna | Historical pictures of the Barco
A PROJECT ORGANISED BY THE MUNICIPALITY OF ALTIVOLE (2012)
Coordinated by Arch. Elia Bresolin, Department of Cultural Affairs and Dott. Giuseppe Volpato, Public Library of Altivole
Texts by Dott. Giacinto Cecchetto
Acknowledgement is due to the owners of the property for their courtesy and collaboration. Fondo Tarvisium - Numeria S.G.R. SpA