CALISTOGA — A cow put his head out of a wall, placidly surveying its domain: a bedroom. Hercules holds up the roof on his forearm. The long-nosed clown Pulcinella dances on a tightrope above the fireplace; a model of the solar system floats in the air nearby. Native Americans gaze out solemnly over a room decorated with antlers. A Titan spouts a geyser into the air.
This is just the inside of the Ca’Toga Villa in Calistoga.
Outside, its five-acre grounds are equally a garden of astonishment and delight, from the rhinoceros who greets visitors to the shell-studded grotto, from the “neo-Baroque” Trojan Horse to Temple of Diana, complete with illuminated phases of the moon.
“It’s always nice to do something monumental,” reflected the Venetian-born artist Carlo Marchiori, as he led a tour of the world he has spent the last 25 years creating: the Ca’Toga Villa in Calistoga, “a prodigal return to my roots.”
Marchiori opens his matchless villa for tours each year from May to October. This year, to support Arts in April, the public-spirited Marchiori agreed to begin the tours one week earlier, on April 26. During the visiting season, one tour is offered on Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m. at Marchiori’s Calistoga gallery, Ca’Toga Gallerie D’Arte, at 1206 Cedar St. From there, the trip goes not just around a corner and down a street to Ca’Toga, but back in time and into the mind of an artist.
To visit Ca’toga Villa is to get a glimpse into a world where fantasy and illusion co-exist winningly with reality, where everyday objects become works of art, and where you never know what you might meet around the next corner.
It began, the artist explained, as a wish to “recreate what I had left behind,” when he left Italy as a young man. Growing up in post-World War II Italy, he said, inspired the imagination: “We had no toys.”
After studying art at the Instituto Pietro Selvatico in Padua, Marchiori immigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada. “I washed dishes and dug ditches,” he said, before going to work as a commercial artist. His subsequent career in film and animation took him around the world and brought him to California. “It was inevitable,” he said. “I was not a guy to shovel snow.”
Marchiori found five acres just north of Calistoga, a site that looks out at the city’s geyser and beyond it, Mount St. Helena. The landscape reminded him of the countryside of Italy’s northern Veneto region. “There was nothing on it,” he said. He began to plan a place that would be his home, as well as a showcase for his art.
“The villas in the Veneto shine with the unpretentious splendor that Andrea Palladio idealized when he married a palace to the countryside,” Marchiori wrote in his book, “ Festa Veneziana a Ca’Toga: The Imaginative World of a Venetian Artist in Napa Valley.” The Palladian villa, with its the symmetry of the facade, sense of harmony with nature, and echoes of pagan nostalgia, “was a haven, a shelter for the humanist.” He decided he had to build a Palladian villa in Calistoga,
“I told the architects (Paul Bonacci and Lucy Schlaffer) “Give me a shell,” Marchiori said.
Inside, he went to work, creating the trompe l’oeil art that covers the walls, ceilings and doors. For the walls, he painted his Hercules and others on sections of canvas that were secured to the walls like wall paper.
“It looks like fresco,” he said with a grin, “especially after three glasses of wine.”
Commedia dell’arte, the Italian comedies presented by traveling troupes of actors that originated in the 16th century, was one inspiration for his decor. Its stock characters appearing here and there, peering around a door or out of a faux picture frame. Marchiori also created his own version of works by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian artist known for his nerve in reducing powerful men to arrangements of fruits and vegetables (including the Holy Roman Emperor Rudoph II).
He permitted himself deviations from the Palladian style, adding in modern items such as the conversation pit in front of the fireplace in the main salon, and a nearby kitchen where he can talk to guests while he cooks. In place of a ““stupid crystal chandelier” he opted to hang a model of the solar system.
His admiration for Native Americans led him to decorate “the Wild West room” with portraits he painted, and furniture made from antlers.
And what inspired the bucolic cow room? “There were so many beams (in this house). I could not turn it into Versailles with these beams — so I thought, a nice country scene — cows. After all, you have to cook with whatever you have in the fridge.”
Inside and out, he created his world with a combination of found materials, some from Home Depot, others that he shipped from Europe. “I scrounged,” he said, to create the Roman pool, the statues, columns, temples, and follies that dot the grounds. Salvage from Portuguese wrecking yard became “a gold mine,” he said, “elevated into Roman ruins.”
And where did he get the name, Ca’Toga?
He explains this, as well in his book:
“In 1905, Admiral Heihachiro Toga of Japan defeated the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. This victory much impressed the Venetians, and the word “togo” became part of their dialect, a synonym for a smart guy, a winner, someone who is capable and with it. Ca’ is short for ‘casa’, meaning ‘house’, and ‘toga’ is spelled with an ‘a’ to match the feminine ‘casa.’ Stick the two together and they become Ca’toga … take the three middle letters out of Calistoga and you get Ca’Toga again, a tribute to the town in which the villa is situated.”
Story after story unfolds as Marchiori conducts his tours. “People come away charged with the possibility of creativity,” he said. “It’s your own little gold mine, creativity, even if you have to buy a book (to begin). It keeps people busy — creating instead of shopping.”
And he cautioned a visitor following him through the grounds, past lions, and crocodiles, a giant head of Pantalone, and another of a Roman emperor. “You cannot tell everything. Ca’toga must be, for each visitor, a surprise.”