The grand tour exhibition at the Villa Pisani

Dr. Johnson was of the opinion that a man who had not seen Italy was is some way lacking culture. Certainly, in his day anyone with a classical education did “The Grand Tour” and a recent exhibition at the Villa Pisani demonstrates precisely what educated young people could expect to see.

The Villa Pisani at Stra on the Brenta Canal is probably the grandest villa on that route, an enormous palazzo comparable in style with Versailles. It is one of the many lovely villas along this canal built by the Venetian aristocracy so that they could choose to live sometimes on the mainland, and get there by boat. The interior has frescoes by Tiepolo, and the park has a lake, an orangery, formal and informal walks through woods, and a very intricate maze where (as I know from bitter experience) you can find no way out for hours.

All this is worth a visit, in its own right, especially on one of the days when a flotilla of rowing boats is racing by on the canal and people gather along the banks to cheer them on or to photograph the brightly coloured boats, often decorated with flowers, against the most beautiful backdrop of the façade of the Villa Pisani.
At the moment, though, there is another reason to go to the Villa Pisani. A fascinating exhibition called “The Grand Tour and the Origins of 3D” is on display there. In the 18th century, the grand tour brought young aristocrats from all over Europe to see places steeped in the culture on which their education was founded. By the second half of the 19th century, this journey was being made by the middle classes, but also, interestingly, the experience was made available to the masses at home by means of stereoscopy, a technique for viewing photographs in three dimensions to make the places seem to come to life before your eyes.

The exhibition at the Villa Pisani is made up of 300 original stereoscopic photographs portraying the chief destinations of the grand tour. The photographs are in pairs, to be viewed through lenses designed for the purpose (looking a bit like binoculars) to make the image come to life. It is fascinating to see familiar places as they were over 100 years ago: a horse-drawn carriage piled high with luggage crossing the Alps dwarfed by banks of snow on each side of the icy road, macaroni hanging on racks to dry in the streets of Naples, a European explorer silhouetted against the sky standing on the head of the Sphinx. Quite shocking is the photograph of a public execution in Rome by guillotine as late as the 1880s. People in local costumes tend their animals in front of Greek temples and there’s a surprisingly flooded Piazza Navona in Rome.

In the Gardener’s House in the grounds, next to a beautiful white baroque monument, is a projection room where visitors can watch a selection of the photographs as they were intended to be seen, by wearing a pair of special glasses supplied at the entrance. This time travelling enables viewers to experience a sense of ‘being there’ in the cities and destinations of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the 19th century.

It is quite a jolt to come out of the darkened room and step back into the dazzling sunlight of the gardens of the Villa Pisani in the 21st century.