It appears that the entire Veneto region is its own lesson in geography. It was early August, and we had just left Ferrara, taking the highway up past Treviso and all the way to Conegliano on a Wednesday morning, ready for the second leg of our six day adventure up north. I had my eyes trained on the countryside. The church spires that reached up towards the heavens, standing in flat stretches of land. The lines of trees growing in perfect order, row after row, and the birds zooming by overhead. Entire fields taken over by Prosecco vineyards and then the mountains that seemed to sprout up in the distance, just one or two, until you could see more of them, marching down toward us as we approached. And then the Po River itself, which we drove over with me glancing down, peering out at the longest river in Italy as it flowed, lazy and slow, on its way toward the Adriatic Sea.
Last year we had spent some time in the Veneto region as well, stopping to see paintings by the great Renaissance masters of Northern Italy. At the time we were fully entrenched in the art of Venice and the surrounding area, and each stop felt like a pilgrimage on our way toward the sea. We stopped for an altarpiece by Giorgione in his hometown of Castelfranco. We visited churches and city halls and entire theatres designed by Palladio. We gazed up at paintings by Giovanni Bellini and Veronese, standing opposite each other in a church in Vicenza. And we made it to Venice of course, the most Veneto town of them all, perched like a pearl on the edge of the sea. I had made up my mind that this year we would continue our search for Renaissance art by stopping in the small town of Conegliano. But as we drove up past everything that we’d seen before, a part of me couldn’t help but compare the two summers — last year we went to the mountains, should we go this year too? Perhaps we are not as adventurous as we’d hoped, but I do like to go back to places I already know — the Veneto, the mountains in Friuli, Venice — and to find a way to know them even better.
We parked outside of the city center of Conegliano and walked along the river, past the city gardens until we found the main gate. Conegliano is the type of hamlet that dreams are made of — cotton candy lanes and whitewashed buildings and facades covered in frescoes that had faded over time. It was almost pastel, like it had been sketched out in chalk and filled in with pinks and greens and whites. It was not much like Castelfranco at all, to be sure — for Castelfranco was truly a castle, and this town felt like the setting for a Renaissance play. It was the home town of the famous artist Cima da Conegliano (which was why we were there), but you wouldn’t even know it by the looks of the place. There was very little sign of him at all, except for a little restaurant called Cima and a sign hidden under a porticoed arch that read: the house of Cima, this way. We walked on over, and the door was closed and locked shut, dust on the shutters, with a hand written note saying visits were only available on Saturday mornings.
It was just as well. We’d really only come to see the cathedral, and we walked right up to it, past a very odd piazza anchored by an Art Deco style theatre, all in white, and down and endless road of porticoes, with shops (all closed for the afternoon) and restaurants and little bars. I’d read about it in my guidebook — inside the cathedral, whose facade is decorated with those same faded frescoes, there is an altarpiece by Cima himself, the only painting of his in the entire town. It is called a Sacra Conversazione (sacred conversation), with Mary and Jesus standing amongst the saints. We had only come to know Cima’s art recently, but his masterpieces are par for the course when studying Venetian masters, and there’s something special about them — different than the others. Something a little magical. The faces of the saints — Saint Catherine, holding half a wheel as an indication of her martyrdom, or Saint John, his hands pressed together in prayer — are filled with expression and a kind of hard line, a bright sharp edge that fit them right into the fantastical landscape of rocky cliffs and jagged mountainsides and pools of crystalline water that serve as a backdrop to most of his paintings.
But the church was closed. We pushed and pulled on the hardwood doors — to no avail. It was 10 to 1, and I quickly looked online to find out if the tourist information center was open (it was, for another 10 minutes). I rushed back down that row of porticoes with Antonello following behind and found the office — one of the many buildings we’d passed by unaware. I stopped inside.
“Excuse me, when does the church open?” I asked, out of breath. The woman who was sitting there slipped a mask over her face as I walked in and looked up at me, as if half expecting someone to burst through the doors.
“Not until 3 pm,” She said, looking at her watch. She handed me a map of the town (which was not much bigger than a sliver). “Perhaps in the meantime you can visit the castle?” and she drew a clean red line on the paper, leading up to a small box that appeared to be high above the city. “It’s a fifteen minute walk.”
I sighed, thanked her, and walked out, paper in hand. We’d only really meant to stay for an hour or so — to stop at the cathedral and then keep on driving, all the way up to the mountains that awaited us in Friuli, just beyond the Veneto. And yet here, if we wanted to go inside the cathedral, it appeared we’d have to wait. What was even left to discover here in Conegliano? I was already growing claustrophobic in this tiny walled village, wondering if it made more sense to just cut our losses and get on our way, take off before the afternoon traffic. This time, it appeared, was nothing like last year at all — our adventures were already going terribly awry. But no, we were already here. We decided to wait it out. We settled in — we had lunch at a sidewalk cafe that served pasta with pesto and sliced bread tucked away in a little paper bag. We had mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. We poured glasses of wine and sat there, admiring the buildings all around. We waited. We sipped our wine. We had nothing else to do.
And we still had nothing else to do as we finished our lunch, when it was only 2 in the afternoon (we still had until 3 before the church opened). I looked back at the map, smoothed it out on the table as we drank our coffees. There was that red line that the woman at the tourism office had traced, up the staircase and all the way to the castle at the top of the hill, and I glanced around the town thinking: what else is there to do? For Conegliano — with all of its charms — felt more like a ghost town at this hour, at this part of the day, in the sweltering heat of August when all of the locals had taken to the beach or the mountains, or somewhere far away, and all of the tourists — all three of us — were waiting for the church to open.
So the castle it was. Once you get past all of the whitewashed buildings and the soft pastels of Conegliano, you reach these big stone walls that reach up up up above the city, toward a hilltop lookout overhead. That is where the castle is, and you have to walk it all the way — steep steps that are not easy to walk with my flimsy sandals — zigging and zagging. I started sneezing (I was still getting over a cold). Antonello started cursing the slippery stones and rocks as we made our way up. It was hot and sweaty. Other people came down the hill and were seemingly fresh as daisies, bright and bubbly, and here we were, sneezing and disgusting and basically your worst pandemic nightmare. We couldn’t help but laugh. We broke out in laughter on that final stretch until we were standing there, the castle before us, at the very top of the hill.
Later we’d go back down. We’d finally make it to the church (it opened half an hour late) and see the altarpiece by Cima da Conegliano and stop in front of other paintings before making our way back to the car and back out onto the road, up toward Friuli and the days ahead. But now there was this castle, complete with towers and a grassy lawn (and parking spots — we could’ve driven up here? I announced in a loud whisper as we headed up more stairs). There was a friendly little restaurant, and people (all of these people! Here’s where they all were!) sitting and drinking beers and delighting in the cool shade of an oak tree on this hot hot day. We meandered lazily. We went to one side and then to the other. We peered up into the castle itself, trying to see as much as we could before the walk back down.
And then we saw it — that view. One side of the castle was open to a view of the mountains and the valley below, and it was splendid and sunny and bright. We walked over to the stone wall that was standing between us and those mountains, and I pointed out at the villages, at the roads that curved up craggy cliffs, at the churches with their steeples, each one taller than the next, on top of sturdy hills and these quiet corners of the Veneto, both distant and close at the same time. Out there, the landscape looked much like the paintings of Cima da Conegliano — no longer fantastical at all, but right here, in his own backyard. It made sense — didn’t it? — to stumble all the way up this hill and find what we’d been looking for all along: Cima da Conegliano was painted into these landscapes before us. He was part of the land itself.
We stood there some more. Antonello a little longer than I did, his eyes fixed into the distance, peering out. Beyond the castle and the churches and the villages on the hills, the foothills began, and if it wasn’t clear to us already, where we were going wasn’t far behind. That’s where we’re headed, I thought.
And we would be there by the time morning came.
Today I’m listening to: Mood Ring by Lorde.