My story today starts far away on a hill in the Venetian countryside, and ends just off the A4 near one of London’s smokier roundabouts..
But first: a priest.
PA to two Popes, he left in the 16th century with a fat cheque. But where does a priest go after a lifetime of sanctified politicking?
Paolo Almerico chose to go home.
Home was Vicenza, in the stunning Venetian countryside. And there, Almerico set about building a daring piece of architecture: a building which would send architects of many countries scurrying for their quills and parchment. His chosen architect? Andrea Palladio.
Villa La Rotonda: the round house. It was inspired by the mighty Pantheon of Rome itself. Built to graceful mathematical proportions – within a perfect circle – it was a square building with four facades, facing out onto the beauty of the surrounding gardens, topped with an extravagant, airy dome.
The young aristocrats of English famiies would come of age and go on Grand Tours of Europe. They would travel, and see life before they settled down to run their estates. And invariably, they would end up on the hill outside Vincenza, gazing at this sunkissed piece of perfection.
And they’d get home, and the English mansions would look sadly outdated. A little stolid, perhaps.
Four English families possessed the wherewithal to recreate the splendour of that perfect building dappled with Venetian light, and see how it fared under English skies.
Nuthall Temple in Nottinghamshire had a grim fate, which can still make us wince today: asset stripped and then packed with explosives and demolished in 1929. Foots Cray Place, in Sidcup, survived until the middle of the twentieth century when a fire destroyed it and it was demolished.
Which left two.
Phil and I have a long association with the third. For though it is a perfect example of a Palladian mansion, it is hidden away, behind fences and walls and signs warning of ferocious guard dogs. When we lived near Mereworth, Kent, we would prowl its perimeters for a glimpse of that imperious domed roof. It has long been owned by a man who chooses to keep it for himself. Mahdi Al-Tajir is a former Ambassador for the United Arab Emirates and the founder of the Highland Spring bottled water company.
It is a treasure kept largely from the people of England, as is its owner’s perogative. It has ever been thus.
One, final Palladian mansion exists. A Grade One Listed treasure built in 1729 by the third Earl of Burlington, it has, miraculously, survived. It has gone through rocky times, with a string of tenants and a tenure as a mental hospital; but no-one has burnt it down or bombed it or demolished it.
It lives off the main A4 artery into London at Chiswick.
The Earl of Burlington himself designed it, sending architect Colen Campbell packing (he took his design off to build Mereworth), and he engaged one of the first landscape architects, William Kent, to provide ground-breaking, lavish Romanesque surroundings, a cross between the gardens at Versailles and what a everyone thought a Roman garden should look like.
Chiswick House lives down a long tree-lined drive. And it is hard not to get unreasonably enthusiastic about its magnificence: if only because both house and gardens were designed to convince you that its owner was Someone.
And the string of visitors! Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Tzars Nicholas I and Alexander I, Queen Victoria of course.
The gardens are as momentous as the house, a story in their own right: and after a £12.1 million project they are as imposing as they ever were. It is said they inspired New York’s Central Park.
It is magnificent. And strolling around is free.
I shall leave you to decide whether the ultimate accessory for a Palladian mansion is warm Venetian sunshine.