Perfectly encased within the ancient walls of the 12th century fortress that dominates the valley, it preserves testimonies of its thousand-year old history and of the important personalities that inhabited it. Asolo, elusive and mundane, constantly suspended between fiction and reality. A place whose soul lives greatly through the pages of the books that have been written and the paintings that have been painted, and the memories and stories documented here.
Asolo was founded in Roman times but saw its brightest moment during the Venetian domination, and particularly during the reign of Caterina Cornaro, the exiled Queen of Cyprus, to whom the Serenissima Republic of Venice gave the governance of the town. Here, Caterina created a magnificent Renaissance court of artists and literates and left a clear imprint in the spirit of the city for the centuries to come as an ideal of beauty and a place of freedom.
Protected and protective of its exclusivity and yet open to all manners of visitors, Asolo has welcomed thinkers, literates, philosophers, travellers, politicians, jet setters and the international élite well after the end of Venice’s splendours: Eugene Benson, Henry James, Carlo Scarpa, Marius Pictor, Filippo De Pisis, Igor Strawinsky, Ernest Hemingway are just a few of the illustrious personalities that passed through. In turn, what these personalities found here was not just history, allure and breathtaking beauty – both natural and architectural – but also a quiet retreat to just be and create. A place where like-minded people came to hide; a chance for harmony and for a higher form of connection.
Perhaps one of the most famous books written here is Gli Asolani by Pietro Bembo. Dedicated to no less than to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, the book contains dialogues on transcendent love set at the court of Queen Caterina Cornaro and soon became an important influence in Italian and international literature. The romantic English poet Robert Browning, for one – who also lived in Asolo and used it as a backdrop for much of his work – credits Bembo with inventing the poeticism “asolare”, the word upon which he based his last work “Asolando”.
“…Asolare—to disport in the open air, amuse oneself at random.”
It’s a word one can very much use today to describe its laid-back, casual-yet-put-together atmosphere. Being elegant without trying too hard is what Asolo does best, even to this date.
But Asolo was first and foremost a town of strong women. From its revered Queen, Caterina Cornaro, who made the city the most attractive literary heart of its time, to Eleonora Duse, the actress who revolutionised modern theatre acting and drew here many of her lovers, including celebrity poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. From Princess Margaret, who would allegedly come here to escape the business of London, to travel writer and explorer Freya Stark, who adored Asolo and made it her safe place amidst her explorations, and who managed to spare it from the devastation of World War II through letters to Churchill.
One of my absolute favourite places in Asolo is indeed Freya Stark’s home. Built on the foundations of the old Roman forum, Villa Freya is hidden behind tall gates and surrounded by the most stunning garden of roses and irises and wildflowers. Last time I visited and walked through it on a rainy day in May, I thought of how it reflected her spirit: elegant, eclectic, brave, and inspiring.
Then again, there are so many beautiful things to see one is spoilt for choice. The historical centre is perfectly preserved and holds much of its ancient appeal, yet it’s largely untrodden by tourists, thus being easy to peruse at a slow pace, head up, so as to take in the stunning architecture. There’s much to see: from Piazza Maggiore down the Duomo, and from the Castello along via Browning, then up to the Fortress before descending to admire the Loggia. But also, there’s a sort of peacefulness that becomes contagious and that forces you to slow down, observe, take in the beauty. A fine respite from busier destinations in the region, with all of the charm and none of the rush.
Villa Freya; the Castle of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, Renaissance woman; the home of 20th century iconic actress Eleonora Duse
Rocca Braida (Fortress) for unmatched panoramic views of the surrounding hills and valley
Wineries Bele Casel & Case Paolin
Palladio’s Villa Barbaro in Maser (with Veronese frescos all over the inside)
The walled town of Castelfranco Veneto beautifully quaint
Aperitivo with local Prosecco Extra Brut Asolo DOCG at Enoteca alle Ore
A traditional meal with a view at picturesque restaurant Do Mori