Veneto: Asolo

Via Roma in the centre of Asolo.

Ah, Asolo! This lovely little town in the foothills of the Dolomites was high on our list during our most recent summer holiday in Italy. And yet for some reason we kept procrastinating visiting it until the very last day of that holiday. We were certainly not disappointed when we finally got there. Asolo can be counted among the most charming and picturesque towns of the Veneto. It is located some 20 kilometres east of Bassano del Grappa and about 40 kilometres northwest of Treviso. Asolo’s centre is a limited traffic zone, so it is probably best not to take your car there. We parked ours at a covered parking in the Via Cipressina, directly off the Via Forestuzzo, the road leading to the centre. The parking proved to be both convenient and affordable. We then walked further up the hill, learning a bit more about the history of Asolo on the way. Metal plaques that are part of the pavement sum up the highlights in the town’s past.

Catherine Cornaro

Asolo is definitely an old town. Like the town of Este further to the south, it already existed during the Roman age, when it was known as Acelum. Acelum was a town of the native Veneti, who were gradually absorbed by the Romans and ended up thoroughly Romanised. Yet the town won lasting fame only during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, when Catherine Cornaro (1454-1510), a Venetian noblewoman and the last Queen of Cyprus, took up residence here, in a fief granted to her by the Republic of Venice. Catherine’s story is a fairly depressing one. In 1468, at the age of fourteen, she was married by proxy to James (or Jacques) II of Lusignan. James was an illegitimate son of King John II of Cyprus (1432-1458). Upon his death, John had been succeeded by his daughter Charlotte, who in turn had been ousted by her bastard half-brother. James needed a powerful ally, and found it in La Serenissima, which was eagerly looking for ways to gain possession of the strategically important island of Cyprus. A marriage between James and a Daughter of Saint Mark – the official title given to Catherine after the wedding – was the perfect way of achieving just that goal.

Castello della Regina Cornaro.

Catherine did not sail for Cyprus until late November of 1472. Just a few months later, Catherine was pregnant, but James was dead. Some travel guides will repeat the claim that Catherine (or her uncles) poisoned her husband, so that Cyprus could become part of the Venetian maritime empire. But this accusation is most likely spurious, and there is no tangible evidence to back it up. Catherine now ruled as regent for her infant son James III, who died in August of 1474. The Daughter of Saint Mark was now formally Queen of Cyprus, but the island was effectively ruled by Councillors sent by the Venetian Senate. Cyprus had been a vassal of the Mamluks of Egypt since 1426, but in 1487 the Egyptian sultan Qaitbay sent a warning to the Cypriots that his enemy, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II, was planning to annex the island. This offered the Venetians an opportunity to forge an alliance with the Mamluks against a common enemy, the Turks. When a plan was discovered regarding Catherine’s remarriage to a son of the King of Naples, the Venetians decided to intervene: Cyprus was to be incorporated into the Venetian empire.

Metal plaque with the titles of Catherine Cornaro.

In early 1489, the Queen of Cyprus was forced to abdicate, and the island was formally ceded to Venice. It would remain in Venetian hands until the Turkish conquest of 1570-1571. Catherine returned to Venice, and in October of 1489, she arrived in Asolo, where she would spend the next twenty years “at the centre of a cultivated if distinctly vapid court”.[1] The painter Gentile Bellini and the cardinal and poet Pietro Bembo were members of that court. It was the latter who coined the verb asolare for the bittersweet life, lacking  liveliness or spirit, that Catherine had to live in what was effectively a golden cage. In other words, asolare is anything but the more famous dolce far niente. There was nothing dolce about her stay in Asolo. In 1509, Catherine was expelled from Asolo by the Austrians and took refuge in Venice. There she died the next year. Her tomb in the church of San Salvador has an inscription that mentions all her grandiose titles: Queen of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia. In reality, she had been a Queen of Air.

The castle where Queen Catherine lived is still there (see the image above). The Castello della Regina Cornaro is a large and sturdy building that dates back to perhaps the tenth century. The notorious Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259) used to live here in the thirteenth century. He was an important lieutenant of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (see Veneto: Monselice). Ezzelino had snatched the town from the Bishop of Treviso, the previous owner of Asolo. The castle later served as the residence of the podestà of Venice when Asolo came under Venetian control. The building now houses the Teatro Duse, named after an important actress who had close ties to Asolo (see below). Visitors may climb the Torre Reata, which offers a nice view of the valleys and hills.

The Duomo of Asolo.

Exploring Asolo

Assumption of the Virgin – Lorenzo Lotto.

Our tour of Asolo started at a wonderful restaurant called Antica Osteria Al Bacaro, which can be found in the Via Browning, just south of the Duomo. The Osteria serves excellent food at very reasonable prices. The portions are large, and the terrace outside is the perfect place to eat lunch or dinner during the summer. The aforementioned Via Browning is named after the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), who fell in love with Asolo during his stay there and named one of his volumes of poetry – his last to be exact – Asolando.

After lunch, we visited the Duomo. This church was built in 1747, replacing an older edifice. It was a very hot day, and it was nice and cool inside. The interior of the Duomo is plain and simple, and above the high altar we can admire an eighteenth century copy of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, the original of which one can see in the church of the Frari in Venice. Do not forget to search for the true artistic highlight of the Duomo in the left aisle. Here we find an interesting work by the painter Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556 or 1557). Lotto’s version of the Assumption of the Virgin was painted in 1506, a year mentioned on the painting itself. The painting shows the Virgin being carried up to Heaven by four angels. Witnessing the miracle are Saint Anthony the Abbot and Saint Louis of Toulouse. The Virgin has the face of an older woman, and it has been claimed that Lotto gave her the face of Catherine Cornaro. This claim is certainly plausible, as Catherina would have been about 52 years old in 1506. It is not impossible that the Signora di Asolo commissioned the painting from Lotto herself.

If you continue down the Via Canova, you will arrive at the church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. For a long time, this was the location of Lotto’s Assumption, but the painting was taken – or taken back – to the Duomo in 1826. The small church was built in 1346 by the lay brotherhood of the Battuti (the ‘Beaten’; the brothers practiced flagellation). The building was later enlarged, and the church we see today dates from 1573. Its one and only highlight is a fourteenth century fresco cycle about the life of Saint Catherine and the Passion of Christ. The frescoes, which were covered with plaster in the eighteenth century and were only rediscovered a century later, are not exactly in mint condition. And they certainly cannot be compared to for instance those in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova as regards artistic quality. And yet, the fact that they are still there after all those centuries makes them somewhat special. Included in this post is a picture of the Flagellation of Christ, a theme that the Battuti must have been fond of.

Frescoes in the church of Santa Caterina.

The lush green hills of Asolo.

If you want, you can walk down the Via Santa Caterina and the Via Santa Anna. After about ten minutes, you arrive at the cemetery of Sant’ Anna. Here are the graves of two famous women, Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) and Freya Stark (1893-1993). Duse was a well-known Italian actress from the silent film era. She had died in Pittsburgh in the United States, but her body was taken back to Italy and interred in Asolo where she had lived for some years. Freya Stark was an explorer and writer of travel books. Although she had been born in Paris, she spent much of her childhood in Asolo. And this is where she died as well, at the ripe old age of 100.

If you still have energy and time, try climbing dozens of steps to visit the medieval Rocca di Asolo, the town’s castle high up on a hill. But be warned: when we visited the town in the summer of 2017, the castle was closed for maintenance. We would have loved to admire the view from the ramparts of the castle, but unfortunately it was not to be. We decided to admire the view from the stairs and the road instead, ignoring a Scandinavian tourist who claimed there was nothing to see. She was dead wrong. The view was a bit blocked by trees and other vegetation, but it became sufficiently clear to us why Asolo is called ‘la Città dai cento orizzonti’ – ‘the city with 100 horizons’ (a term coined by the poet Giosuè Carducci). We will certainly return to Asolo one day.


[1] John Julius Norwich, ‘A history of Venice’, p. 367.

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