In sunny Calistoga, artist Carlo Marchiori has built a grand estate, resplendent with dramatic murals and monumental “ruins”
By Diane Dorrans Saeks
Photographed by Adrián Gregorutti
In the shadow of the Palisades Mountains stands an ornate villa that looks as if it belongs along the banks of the legendary Brenta Canal in Italy’s Veneto region. With its symmetrical loggias, soaring Corinthian columns and sunny porticos, the somewhat mysterious residence appears to have been conjured up by the great 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio himself and transported to the outskirts of rustic Calistoga.
Really, it’s the 25-year project of Carlo Marchiori, a self-described voracious creator, and a man of great wit and passion.
With tongue in cheek, the artist, 73, calls his estate Villa Ca’Toga. It’s a virtual forest of sculptures, “ruined” temples, tall pine trees, wisteria-covered loggias and graceful rose arbors. Past tall stone gateposts topped with Pulcinella finials, he has created his own operatic world with an oak-shaded river-side amphitheatre, a nymphaeum with water spouting from under-ground hot springs, and enough noble statues of gods and goddesses to populate Old Rome.
“I bought five dusty acres in 1986, thinking I would build a weekend house with a studio where I could paint,” says Marchiori. “I asked some young architects to design a barn-like structure, and I slowly built the villa around it, column by column.”
Marchiori was born in the Veneto region of Northern Italy (the heart of Palladio territory), so it’s no wonder his tastebuds are tickled by the elaborate buildings and grand mannerisms of the Italian Renaissance. In fact, growing up in the town of Bassano del Grappa, he cycled to school over the Ponte degli Alpini, designed by Palladio, who was an everyday influence in Marchiori’s cultural and aesthetic education. “The villa is my fantasy interpretation of his work, but with a certain decorum and humor rather than pompous grandeur,” says Marchiori, whose days are spent painting, shaping sculptures and dreaming up new projects.
Ca’Toga’s interiors are decorated with 30-foot murals of Greek gods in muted fresco tones, frolicking Commedia dell’Arte figures and colorful Venetian grandees costumed for a ball—all reminiscent of the gallant paintings by Tiepolo and Veronese which adorn Palladio’s most famous villas. Marchiori’s lively scene is detailed with ribbons, leaves and silk gowns that, painted in minute detail, seem to flutter. A young man in an elaborate jeweled turban appears to gaze out to the room. Vividly portrayed long-tressed ladies engage in whimsical conversation.
The effect is sumptuous and historically correct, joyful instead of formal or campy. “My work is very gestural and opulent but always with a sense of fun,” Marchiori says. Quite frankly, he has never encountered a plain surface he could not embellish. “I see a white canvas, and I’m already imagining a Piranesi fantasy or a poetic interpretation of an Italian fable painted in sepia,” he explains.
Perhaps most impressively, Marchiori has built his house and all of his garden ornamentation on “four bucks and courage,” using construction-site cast-offs and even broken concrete sidewalks hauled in from town. Temples are knocked together from roadside finds, house paint, chipped tiles and architectural salvage. “Palladio himself used short-cuts,” Marchiori notes. “A Venetian noble who commissioned a villa often did not have the funds for a grand estate. I’m never aiming for a pretentious aura. The effect I prefer is as if the owner had to pawn his family silverware to pay the gardener.”
Throughout the property, each painting, sculpture and column is antiqued and roughed-up, to “age” it hundreds of years. Marchiori builds, then paints, stains and daubs the rocks, cement blocks and found materials. “After millions of brushstrokes,” he turns rubble into impressive statues and grottos. “I build everything by hand and never use machinery, other than an old concrete mixer,” Marchiori says. “Architecture is my hobby, and since I’m an artist, I improvise to achieve the effect. I keep the finishes loose. I’m not a pedantic academic.”
The seasons are his accomplices; wind, summer heat and dust add a convincing patina of centuries gone by. An ancient-looking stone grotto glows with the nacreous light of hundreds of abalone shells affixed to the walls. A tall head of Pan constructed out of cracked bricks and rocks, mouth agape, seems unearthed from an archaeological dig.
Indeed, Ca’Toga is a work in progress. Recently, the artist was seized with a creative fervor to craft a six-foot rhinoceros sculpture to stand on a grassy mound near the property’s columned entrance. “I’m very hidden away here, but I thought it would be an intimidating creature to guard my privacy,” says Marchiori. “He’s massive, but there’s usually a little sparrow perched on his horn. So, in reality, he looks pretty friendly.” The handsome creature was built with steel mesh and modeled in cement. Marchiori has let the elements do their thing; already, the rhinoceros has gathered moss.
The artist, who arrived in San Francisco in 1979, has completed large-scale murals for hotels such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas and various Trump casinos. Other projects include a fantasy Tuscan landscape for a winery, grisaille panels for a Los Angeles house and the elaborate ceiling of a villa in Napa’s Rutherford appellation. He recently completed murals depicting interiors of a Venetian palazzo for the Del Dotto Estate Winery in St. Helena, and he is working on new tabletop ceramics featuring Venetian masks and Tiepolo-inspired figures. He designs them and paints charming portraits for his Ca’Toga Gallery in Calistoga. “Living on the property has provided me with so much inspiration,” says Marchiori. “I feel a constant flow of creativity—dreaming up a new folly, preparing for an art show in Bangkok or making console tables of deer antlers and faux-marble tops.” Marchiori has a multitude of fans in the Napa Valley and beyond. Invitations to his costume balls at the villa are coveted.
The town of Calistoga, which, 30 years ago, seemed so remote from San Francisco, is now a popular weekend destination for his friends. An enthusiastic host, Marchiori cooks dishes inspired by his Veneto heritage, like risotto with local Portobello mushrooms, as well as his own California version of five-minute pasta—topped with pesto made with pine nuts, herbs from the garden and avocado. It’s accompanied by bottles of his favorite Napa Valley red.
“I return home and enter my own dream world,” he says. “It’s a fantasy, and it’s my reality. I wake up, and I can be in 16th-century Vicenza. My spirit is uplifted. It’s the best way to start the day. It’s like living inside a painting.” •