Venice Marathon at Villa Pisani

Sunday, 23rd October: Venice Marathon starts this morning from the enormous and imposing Villa Pisani which rises majestically from the sandy banks of the River Brenta.

I first visited this sprawling palace in the summer of 1980, that’s a long time ago now. In those days it was also know as Villa Nazionale, a throw back to the Mussolini years. The property has been in state ownership for more than a century. It was originally built by the Pisani family, wealthy aristocrats from Venice, who wanted to show off their success and importance by constructing the largest villa (a palace really) in the countryside just outside the city. Building started in the 1740s. The property was modelled on Versailles and occupies an imposing meander on the River Brenta. It is huge and includes an enormous courtyard area at the front, which will be used today for the 15,000 marathon runners who will start the race from here.

Villa Pisani consists of a vast ornate central building, complete with every kind of architectural decoration. There are two symmetrical wings to the palace, a private chapel and a vast, elaborate stable complex. The parco (gardens) are sprawling and include a reflecting pool that runs for hundreds of feet and a really difficult labyrinth (maze). But of course none of the runners really pay attention to the palace looming above them, they are too busy preparing for the 42 kilometres that stretch ahead of them. They are limbering up, stretching and chatting nervously with friends.

But before we start on the race today let me tell you just a little bit more about the history of Villa Pisani and why we should always pay attention to events in the past.

When Napoleon and his Austrian allies invaded the Venetian Republic and took control in 1797 they effectively brought an end to an independent republic that had survived for a thousand years. Venice was an important maritime city and had control of the trading routes of the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries. If you were shipping goods from Italy and Greece to Istanbul or Egypt or North Africa or the Dalmatian coast the chances are the Venetians were in charge of that trade route and you’d have to pay them a tax to move your goods. The Venetians also built and owned many of the sailing ships in the Mediterranean, so if you need a ship you’d need to buy or rent one from the Venetians. So all in all the Venetians had the shipping trade sewn up.

Venice was at it’s most wealthy and powerful in the 1500s and 1600s – by the time Napoleon arrived the city was already in a weakened state. The focus of Mediterranean trade had moved to the Atlantic and to trade with America (The New World) and poor Venice was left to decline. When Napoleon and the Austrians arrived there wasn’t much left to defend. Napoleon spotted Villa Pisani and immediately requisitioned it as his headquarters. It’s probable that Napoleon spent just a night or two there himself. However his nephew was based at Villa Pisani for several years. There’s something about the scale and size of Villa Pisani that has always impressed adventurers with big egos. No wonder the villa attracted the attention of so many famous people over the years.

It was here at Villa Pisani that Mussolini and Hitler first held talks in 1934. The palace was almost certainly chosen because it was the biggest and most impressive of the Palladian villas. Hitler is quoted as saying,

…’Ci siamo riuniti per tentare di dispendere le nuvole che offuscano l’orizzonte della vita politica europea..’ which translates as, ‘We are meeting here to attempt to disperse the clouds that are blocking the horizon of political life in Europe’

This should be a salutary warning to all of us, that people can say things that sound reasonable, even when their intentions are not. Both participants were dictators and determined to reshape Europe to their benefit. Today Villa Pisani remains a fascinating place to visit – huge gardens, amazing location, vast rooms and halls. There are interesting ceiling paintings by Tiepolo (the 18th century fresco painter and genius of his day). There’s also a superb maze in the garden, a labyrinth, which is so fiendishly difficult that there is a spotter’s tower in the centre, usually occupied by a staff member, who may (at their discretion) assist those lost in the maze.

Villa Pisani, Stra and River Brenta. The starting point of the Venice Marathon & the labyrinth


In today’s Venice Marathon the runners set off from the front courtyard of the Villa Pisani, and they run, following the course of the River Brenta in an easterly direction through the small villages and towns of the Veneto countryside. For the first 20 kms of the route the runners pass endless Palladian villas and beautiful walled gardens. It was this delightful countryside that attracted Venetians away from the lagoon, especially in the hot, humid, summer months. The runners will progress through Dolo and Mira, Oriago and Malcontenta before continuing through the nasty industrial area of Marghera (thank you Mussolini) and then into Mestre and San Giuliano, where the runners then take the causeway, which links Venice to the mainland. Once in Venice the runners proceed through the historic centre and St Mark’s Square. The finish line is Sette Martiri, which is near the Biennale Gardens. Total distance 42 kms. I’ve just heard, as I write that the winning time was 2 hours and 8 minutes set by a Ugandan runner. Quite incredible.

I watched the race today from the steps of an abandoned 17th century villa that looks over the Brenta at Mira Porte. The race began at about 09.40 am and immediately there was a buzz and electricity in the air. The runners had to cover 12 kms to get to my vantage point. Andrew, my husband was following the race on his computer in England. He was giving me updates on the location of the runners. An elite group of invited runners led the field from the first seconds of the race, mostly runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Their progress was blisteringly quick. Those kilometres seemed to melt away beneath their feet. First they were in open fields, by the wreckage of villas destroyed by a typhoon several years ago, next they were at the Old Mill in Dolo (painted by Canaletto). Then they were closing in on my position, they were just around the corner. Helicopters hovered in the sky above me, filming aerial shots, a police escort of cars and motorbikes with flashing lights arrived. It was all very exciting.

Villa Pisani, Stra and the Brenta waterway, our base for The Writer's Retreat in the glorious Veneto region, 18-24 Sept, 2022
Villa Pisani, Stra and River Brenta. The starting point of the Venice Marathon

As the runners poured through the small town of Mira Porte and I observed them from the steps of my abandoned palace, I was struck by their determination, single-mindedness and bravery. Forty two kilometres is a long way, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s the distance from London to Windsor. The distance from Paris to Versailles or the distance from Monte Carlo to Cannes. It is a long way to run. The runners were all ages and every nationality, from professional athletes to club runners, all having a go. The running club of Treviso had several people in wheel chairs who they were pushing around the entire course – so impressive. Runners had balloons and costumes. One enterprising group even had funky music to keep them motivated. All running, running, running as best they could.

All the while the River Brenta was running too, alongside the runners, it’s load of water and fish and weeds making it’s way under gravity to the Venetian Lagoon and then on the Adriatic Sea. The river marches on all day every day, passing the Palladian villas of the Veneto region, splashing the wooden posts that mark the quays and the channels. The runners and the river flow past Villa Malcontenta, a masterpiece by architect Andrea Palladio, one of his earliest works, that dates from the 1560s. Officially the house is called Villa Foscari, but it’s been called Malcontenta for years, after the beautiful young wife of the owner who was effectively imprisoned there. Her crime was to enjoy the social scene of Venice too much! A bit like Casanova, she didn’t know when to say no, so the story goes.

From Malcontenta the runners have to cover a rather nasty industrial area known as Marghera. This is the industrial part of Venice, developed in the 1930s by, you’ve guessed it, Mussolini and his henchmen. Here there are horrible petro-chemical plants (mostly disused), an oil refinery (in a state of ruin) and other nonsense that should never have been built on the shores of one of Europe’s biggest and most important wetland areas. Then the runners make it through to San Giuliano where there’s a newly created park, freshly surfaced, smooth roads and a feeling of urban renewal. Just a few kilometres on and they reach the causeway linking Venice with the mainland. The Causeway is 5 kilometres long and can be brutal on a cold and windy day. Marathon day, fortunately was calm and sunny, with very little wind.

Once in Venice the runners are surrounded by the architectural genius of this amazing city. If the pain in their bodies permits them, they can think of Marco Polo and Robert Browning, Lord Byron and of course the self-styled genius, wit and raconteur Casanova himself. Their route in Venice takes them alongside the Giudecca Canal, through St Mark’s Square and along Riva Schiavoni (where playwright Carlo Goldoni found his inspiration) and on to the Riva Sette Martiri and the race end. Even as a spectator the event is humbling and inspiring. I can’t even begin to imagine what the feeling is like for the competitors.

Venice Marathon – course map courtesy of World Marathons – with thanks


24th October, 2022

The elite runners cover the distance from Villa Pisani to Mira Porte (12 kms) in about 40 minutes.

An incredible spectacle – thank you to all!

2 thoughts on “Venice Marathon at Villa Pisani

  1. I don’t know if you are FISHING for compliments, Janice, but “FISH” is definitely the arconym which comes immediately to mind on reading this article, which I can only describe as FISH:
    Superb and
    Heuristic/Hortative –
    which has prompterd me to learn more about both the Villa Pisani and the Marathon.
    Thank you yet again for broadening our horizons!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Runners are inspiring to me–that’s never been a thing I’ve aspired to do. Your background story made this marathon even more intriguing. Glad you got to witness it!

    Liked by 1 person

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