Monday, November 4, 2019 - by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
My wife, Sandra Wells, and I were planning to write a travel article about Sonoma County, 30 miles north of San Francisco (in the news in recent years because of wildfires, but famous for its 400 wineries, second only to neighboring Napa County). In researching what to do, we had come across reviews of small group tours of Villa Ca’ Toga in Calistoga, belonging to Carlo Marchiori, one of the world’s leading muralists. We rearranged our schedule to take a detour just over the border into Napa, to be there during the last month of its tour season on a sunny October 5, 2019.
It was a 19 mile drive from our Santa Rosa hotel through forests and vineyards to its location on the banks of the Napa River (swollen during rainy season, we were told, but a mere stream when we were there).
The approach on a rural road past a geyser called Old Faithful (one has to pay to see it up close) made it seem like an unlikely location for a tour-worthy mansion. Marchiori, who grew up near Venice, Italy, had bought the 5.5-acre property property in 1985 and, with his partner, Tony Banthutham from Thailand, began creating mock ruins of classical temples and grottos and building the grand house and studio with some help from locals. The black clay of the land meant they had to truck in tons of soil so they could grow everything from pomegranates to roses. They now maintain it mostly by themselves, charging for tours to help defray the cost of upkeep, though Marchiori clearly enjoyed sharing what they have done (and probably gets some new business from impressed visitors). We were joined by three other couples.
Marchiori was born in Rossana, near Venice, Italy, and studied art in Padua, leaving at 18 for Canada, visiting Japan and New Zealand before settling in northern California in 1978, working as an illustrator and film animator. After achieving global success as a muralist (he has been described by art media as one of the top five in that field), the “frustrated architect,” as he described himself, decided to build the villa.
Visitors are first taken through six large rooms in the two-story, 2,500-square-foot mansion and then the grounds, with the total tour about 90 min., time enough to ask lots of questions. Available May through October on Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. (arrive 15 minutes early because there are no late admissions). Adults (13 and older) $40; children (8-12) $20; younger than 8 accompanied by an adult are free. Private group tours are available for a flat fee of $500 for up to 10; more than 10 an additional $50 per person. Low-heeled, soft shoes are required. No pets are allowed. Reservations need to be made online:https://www.catoga.com/villa or send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Marchiori has had clients all over the world, from executives in Silicon Valley who wanted to have something artistically unique in or around their homes to top hotels like the Raffles in Singapore or Bellagio in Las Vegas, which asked him to transform them into modern palaces. The villa and grounds were created as showcases for those considering engaging his services and everywhere he has mixed classical mythology with commedia dell’ arte figures and whimsy.
He told the New York Times in 2001, “I kind of have a sacred obsession to create. One column leads to another. I envision a temple, a fountain, a mythological beast, and I have an artistic greed to complete it…My work is theatrical, but with a wink.”
The design of the villa was influenced by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80), with a trademark raised platform and stairs to the main building, flanked by symmetrical wings, and arched and square windows. Palladio’s creations in Vicenza and Veneto have contributed to the designation of the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But Ca’ Toga was built from scratch using scrap materials like plywood and metal sheathing with inventive tricks to make them look like ancient columns or limestone.
The center of the salone or living room was taken up by a sunken fireplace with the smiling skull of a horse, tables with hands illustrated with comic figures, a wood floor, and comfortable couch, surrounded by art and audiovisual equipment. There is also a crowded library in a neighboring room. Invitations to Marchiori’s parties are coveted by area residents and he rents out the house as a singular site for events.
Marchiori’s mastery of trompe l’oeil three-dimensional illusion was on display on the left side of the living room, stimulating the imagination of clients as to what they might be able to do in their own homes, offices, or hotels. The artist paints mostly on canvas and hangs it on the wall, rather than actually painting on the wall itself, making the process much easier, though sometimes an actual fresco has been called for. On the right side of the living room was in a painting of the Doge of Venice receiving a delegation from Asia. The costume with the mask on the pedestal in the photo was common, he said, for those in Renaissance Venice who wanted to go to gambling houses without revealing their identities, giving them the ability to conceal their losses from public gossip.
On a table were small sculptures for sale and the artist’s work is also available at the Ca’ Toga Gallery in town: 1206 Cedar Street, Calistoga CA 94515 (707) 942-3900, Thursday-Monday 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
The kitchen had a Japanese theme. Hallways and stairways had carved animal heads, masks, or paintings that ranged from classical to fantastic dreams. One bedroom was decorated with Native American artifacts, while another was made to look like it was in a Renaissance palace and open to the sky. At the back was his studio, where we could see an ambitious project he was working on for a local residence.
At the entrance of the property was the winged lion of Saint Mark holding a Bible, the symbol of the city of Venice. A stone rhino was in the center of the large lawn near a ruined shrine to the goddess Diana (Marchiori has made many of his creations seem like part of an archaeological site, as if one is discovering a lost world). Sculptures and stone masks, some fierce, others comic, greeted visitors as they wandered through, coming across a fountain here and a Roman-style tiled pool there, a small lake guarded by an alligator serving as a fountain, an enormous Cyclops face, and a Trojan horse large enough to conceal some warriors. Various nooks and crannies had surprises, like a statue of Neptune and a tiled nook that mixed art eras and messages, showing everything from a dwarf carrying the moon on his back to a man with a scythe chasing a skeleton.
At the end, we relaxed and talked around a table in a beautifully grotto decorated with abalone shells. It was a fun and informative visit and we were all in awe the entire time at the artist’s resourcefulness and imagination. While we have no plans to return (some visitors do multiple times), we highly recommend the tour to anyone with an interest in art and architecture.