The Veneto hills offer more than a countryside getaway – it’s here that some masterpieces of sculpture and architecture can be discovered on a day trip
Driving towards Monte Grappa mountain, an imposing temple resembling the Roman Pantheon starts to dominate the landscape at some point. The Tempio Canoviano on the hilltop of Possagno, built according to the drawings of Antonio Canova in the neoclassical style in 1822, is a strong visual reminder of the importance of this little village in the Veneto, where visitors are able to discover and understand the roots of the famous sculptor, and learn about his pivotal role and legacy in relation to contemporary art in Italy.
The Canova Museum, now presided over by Vittorio Sgarbi, is a place-making enterprise for Possagno, a town which boasts only two thousand inhabitants, but attracts dozens of thousands of visitors. Today it’s projected as a full-immersion experience where one can arrive in the morning and leave late, discovering every part of the museum’s complex at a comfortable pace and taking breaks for meditation, picnicking al fresco or simply reading a book in the fragrant garden full of flowers and magnolia trees with an unbeatable view of the hills and mountains.
It’s good to start the itinerary from the striking Gypsotheca (the largest in Europe) which displays the original plaster cast models by Canova that were the basis of his further marble copies now belonging to the collections of the most important international museums, such as ‘The Three Graces’, ‘Mars and Venus’, ‘Hercules and Lichas’. Built in the style of a classical church, and intended to be illuminated by natural light, the Gypsotheca was partially ruined during WWII. In 1955 the reconstruction of the left wing was entrusted to Carlo Scarpa, who intervened with his signature spiritual, modern, minimalist touch. Seamlessly united with the original XIX century structure, it’s a triumph of light flowing from the angular glass windows, and a harmonious union with the surrounding landscape thanks to a stretch of water just outside the corner where ‘The Graces’ are exhibited to divinely reflect the sunshine on their bodies in different moments of the day.
As Scarpa commented about his work, “It was not about paintings, but sculptures, and sculptures were not marble or wood, but plaster cast. And the sun, moving on a sculpture, never has a negative effect as it happens inside a room when it reaches certain points only and some paintings are left in the shade, yet there is nothing making works of art wonderful like powerful sunlight”.
The Gypsotheca was the first museum to be rethought by the architect, just before he started work on the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, where he expanded his vision conceived for Possagno: smooth natural ‘pastellone’ floorings, austere plaster walls and rough metal details, modern wood and glass boxes to present smaller items. Today the Scarpa Wing of the Canova Museum, finished in 1957, is a destination in its own right for architecture lovers, who then proceed further into the Veneto to discover Scarpa’s last masterpiece, usually referred to as the most integrated of his works: the Brion Tomb in nearby San Vito of Altivole.
The Canova Museum boasts another contemporary intervention: the Gemin Wing built in 1992 by the architect Luciano Gemin, who was previously a follower of Carlo Scarpa and who collaborated with him in 1976. His wing is a tribute to the maestro, exploring the natural elevation of the land and featuring a room with openings on the roof for the sunlight to flow from above, and integrating a complex glass window system which unites the inside with the outside and allows the visitor to observe the Scarpa Wing.
The whole complex is where the ancient and the modern delicately intertwine, enabling the visitor to explore the connections between epochs and understand the roots of things. The newly restored birthplace and family home of Antonio Canova is decorated with the furniture of the time and showcases an important collection of his drawings that provide an insight into his favourite motifs in art such as female dancers, while the ‘atelier’ displays his tools, preparatory sketches, wood forms and plaster cast models which facilitate a deep understanding of his techniques.
As for the temporary exhibitions, there’s always something to inspire a visit, even for those who already know the museum – such as the recently opened ‘Canova and Power’, which revolves around works from Giovanni Battista Sommariva’s collection. The stunning plaster cast model of the Penitent Magdalene made by Canova in 1795 is an absolute must-see. One of the most deep, sensual and evocative works of the master, almost atypical for his style and striking with Bernini-esque naturalism and emotion, it is in itself a reason for a trip to the museum. The private room in which the Magdalena is exhibited is completely dark, conceived perfectly for admiring this incredible piece.
Having been nurtured with art in all forms, it’s almost obligatory to finish every trip to Possagno by discovering its masterpieces of gastronomy – all of them inspired by Canova, naturally. Just a few metres from the museum, you’ll find Pasticceria Aurora, a benchmark spot for the connoisseurs of meringues. Here they reach a truly neoclassical perfection, with airy, fluffy and melt in the mouth egg white dough combined with light, harmoniously middle-sweet whipped cream. It’s said that the movie director Tinto Brass would regularly stop in Possagno to admire Canova’s nudes as well as Aurora’s famous ‘meringhe con panna’.
The second local foodie landmark is the Canoviana, a local sweet cake made at Osteria Roer: a marriage between a traditional focaccia and the Veneto’s pinsa, a puffy cake with nuts and dried figs, best enjoyed with a glass of dry prosecco – of course, a local one, as Possagno is in the heart of Prosecco land.
- Direction Possagno: in search of plaster, meringue and Carlo Scarpa - March 31, 2023