Villa Vrindavan: Krishna's Home in Tuscany
By Tattvavit Dasa
Lord Krishna's Renaissance estate has become a Vrindavan temple – and more.
Villa Vrindavan, in Italy, almost looks too old to have a future, but the humble devotees there are confident it will. ISKCON’s oldest building probably, the villa is four centuries old. Naturally, not everything works. A sunken semicircular fountain does not spout. The front roof nobly displays a stopped clock; the bell over it no longer chimes times. When devotees moved in with Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, putting their faith in the Lord’s names and graces they named the hundred-and-twenty-acre estate after India’s transcendent village where Krishna enacted a humanlike childhood. How and why is the project now moving ahead?
Reasons why include the villa’s historical worth and lovely location. It faces Florence, five miles away, due north. Long ago, trees at the front blocked the view of the city, even from a roomy rectangular balcony held twenty-five feet high by a row of sandstone columns. Yet through branches at one spot on the long driveway you can see a tiny image of Florence’s landmark: Santa Maria del Fiore’s six-hundred-year-old dome.
Six years ago, I read Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ross King’s award-winning book about Filippo Brunelleschi’s expertise in constructing the cathedral’s pointed dome. Michelin's guidebook says that Brunelleschi's and the Florentine architects' elegant works recreated the natural harmony of the countryside – the Chianti hills. Tall cypresses, the silver of olive groves, and the vineyards’ aligned, green geometry harmoniously please the human eye. Panoramas of the low-lying hills and valleys unfold from the northeast to the southwest of Villa Vrindavan, some mornings layered with fog.
Across the region of Tuscany, the Renaissance architects built villas or redid some castles as mansions. In the early fourteen hundreds stood a small palace belonging to the Machiavelli family, which was purchased almost two centuries later and taken down by the architect Joannes Baptistae Michelozzi to build what is now Villa Vrindavan, according to Le Ville di Firenze di Qua d’arno, by G.L.O. Cardini. The architect’s name is inscribed on the balcony wall, beneath two busts of Michelozzi.
It is a historic neighborhood – I walked to Niccolo Machiavelli’s house in five minutes. After fourteen years of government service, he lived there, exiled from Florence (replaced by Michelozzi), and in 1513 wrote The Prince. He informs readers that in politics the ends justify the means – even good leaders act unethically. Machiavelli also indicates the attrition of human life’s spiritual value; as it wears away or is removed from people, they are no longer thought of as souls worth saving or as made in God’s image. This justifies war, because people are then no more than animals. The Catholic Church banned the book.
I imagined comparing The Prince and Bhagavad-gita: Krishna teaches the prince Arjuna about the soul and dharma, prescribing a theocentric life that boosts true happiness in relation to worldly duties and ultimate spiritual aims. To shut down destroyers of dharma, Krishna drove Arjuna’s chariot at Kurukshetra, a place of dharma. Krishna says that the resolute determination for dharma does not arise in the minds of rulers and others too attached to worldly power and pleasure (Gita 2.44). Among humans, Krishna’s divinity is sublimely present as the ruler who protects the people (Gita 10.27).
Eventually, Michelozzi’s villa was sold seven times, starting in 1715. The third owner, the Fenzi family (possessing banks and railroads), enriched the villa to the point that Cardini says it “encapsulated the aspiration to opulence and elegance of the second half of the nineteenth century.” During World War II, the Machiavellian Nazi army occupied Florence; an Allied bombardment on July 26, 1944, nearly destroyed San Casciano, a town near Villa Vrindavan. In 1979, ISKCON became the villa’s notable, uncustomary owner.
Under Krishna’s Supervision
Matsya Avatara Dasa (Marco Ferinni) contributed to purchasing and renovating the villa. He was the temple president and one of Italy’s largest furniture designers in 1981, when he was profiled in this magazine. His father, Chaitanya-Nitai Dasa, a retired director of a construction firm, repaired the villa and remodeled the ground floor of a two-story adjunct farm building – the long limonaia, a winter storehouse for lemon trees – as a Vrindavan temple, with chandeliers, a marble altar and floor, marble-embellished walls, and marble-framed windows and mirrors.
For thirty-five years, people have congregated in the temple to hear talks about Krishna and sing the Hare Krishna mantra.
The upper floor of Villa Vrindavan’s temple is used for Krishna’s cooking, paraphernalia, and clothes. Karuna Rasa Dasi, a determined but gentle devotee, has dedicated a decade to supervising the deity services that she and the devotees perform. She is married to Rohini Kumara Dasa, who supervises the forest, cuts logs for the community’s stoves, and sells logs.
The devotees care for five cows and a calf, a service that includes cutting, drying, and baling hay grown on the villa property. In October, picking olives and making olive oil start. The villa takes the service of idealistic young volunteers in WWOOF, a worldwide network helping organic farms.
People trek and cycle on the villa’s forest roads, which are old and wide, with drains and stone walls. Via Romea, the ancient road to Rome, runs near the villa, intersecting its forest roads, and now mayors, along with Villa Vrindavan, are seeking funds to revive it as an outdoor attraction. David, who is developing the forest for tourists and may start renting bicycles to them, informed me that Mediterranean trees retain their leaves all winter.
Villa Vrindavan's first president, Matsya Avatara, no longer lives there, but he visits on special occasions from his home about an hour away. He lectures on many topics these days, including the composite topic of Dante, the Bhagavad-gita, and human psychology. In 2009 I saw him speak on Dante at Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s seven-hundred-year-old town hall – the Italians have a particular regard for Dante. For years as a boy, before going to sleep Matsya Avatara learned the Commedia by hearing his paternal grandfather recite it. (I happened to start reading it, in Laurence Binyon’s rhymed translation, when I was thirty-six – myself “midway through life,” as the opening line went, announcing Dante’s spiritual crisis.) In Matsya Avatara's hometown, Ponsacco, Pisa, his Center for Bhaktivedanta Studies has a wide, even international, outreach: pastoral, academic, governmental.
One of the Center’s graduates, Pietro Leemann (Matsya Avatara’s disciple Parameshvara Dasa), is a teacher of new cooks and a respected farmer-chef. His Swiss parents were schoolteachers and advocates of a natural diet. He owns a natural-cuisine restaurant in Milan – Joia (try the recipes at joia.it) – rated “one star” by Michelin. That's good – and a rarity for a vegetarian restaurant. The English title of his fourth book is The Spice of Life: A Vegetarian Cook in Search of Truth. I met him one sunny Sunday afternoon at Villa Vrindavan after he spoke on food to an outside group that confers about values for peace.
Recently, the villa converted parts of its east and west wings into a guesthouse, providing rooms for visiting devotees and members of groups who rent large rooms in the villa for such activities as shiatsu and tai chi. Attendees at classes, forums, meetings, seminars, conferences, and chanting festivals – and the Sunday visitors, some with leashed dogs – gather for meals and conversation in the hillside park on the south side, created by Emanuele Fenzi, or sit in basement rooms with arched ceilings off the park, including a cozy three-room, family-run restaurant, located beside the neat new bazaar called Magic India. In the high season, a restaurant near Machiavelli’s house draws one to two hundred cultural tourists daily, a restaurant worker told me – a number the villa’s restaurant could also handle.
One weekend, forty Indian-dance students and teachers simultaneously used three renovated halls for different dance practices. The halls are also used for exhibitions, yoga practice, martial arts. Murari-Chaitanya Dasa and his wife, Monica, teach the Vedic martial arts. Their classes promote safety in devotee communities, inspire law-enforcement agents in liaison with the couple, and introduce their students to Krishna consciousness via a moral code for kshatriyas, extracted from Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Time to Fill the Villa
A few years ago, the Italian devotees finally arrived at an answer to a very important question that lingered for decades: What will give the villa an inner identity again? Its two main floors both have one immense room and four large rooms, all with high ceilings. These floors connect by a wide, arched, thirty-step stone staircase. Could all ten rooms be integrated?
For their answer, the devotees harked back to the early eighties, when about ten Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) artists lived in or around Villa Vrindavan. A few senior artists from America taught new painters, and an art professor from Florence also taught at the villa. Besides forming an art academy, the BBT artists met dozens of established Italian painters and began a gallery by hanging paintings in some of the villa’s rooms and the temple room. But everything stopped in the mid-eighties, after an impasse due to managerial setbacks.
Twenty-five years later, Krishna transformed Villa Vrindavan into a stunning art gallery by a stroke of serendipity. This was the effect of the synergy among several devotees: Jnananjana Dasa (a BBT painter), Pandu Putra Dasa (Jnananjana's patron), Mahaprabhu Dasa (director of the Museum of Sacred Art in Belgium), and Parabhakti Dasa (Villa Vrindavan’s president). [See the sidebar on page 50.]
Before the ribbon-cutting at the villa doors, on September 24, 2015, I saw Jnananjana beaming with a smile. His twelve-year project – a collection of twenty-four grand paintings of Mahabharata’s episodes and intrigues – fit perfectly into the ground floor, without anyone having planned the match. An average framed Mahabharata painting is six feet high, and there are five rooms of them.
The gallery displays sixteen sculptures. The upper floor holds thirty-one paintings, by various artists, of Rama, Krishna, and Chaitanya, plus a room for Srila Prabhupada’s murti and three beautiful paintings of his predecessors by the Italian artist Prashanta Dasa.
In a speech at the opening, Massimiliano Pescini, San Casciano’s mayor, said, “The gallery is auspicious for the future of Villa Vrindavan, because it makes it an important cultural center. This challenges the people in the area to work closely with the Hare Krishna community, and it shows them the importance of dialogue with the Indian community – both of which point to a better future for the devotee community.”
Visiting from Rome, Basant Gupta, India’s ambassador to Italy, called the art gallery – dedicated to Lord Krishna and Lord Rama – unique. He complimented ISKCON on its fiftieth anniversary of learning and teaching the Bhagavad-gita worldwide. He even quoted some of its verses.
Weeks later, Jnananjana told me how and why his art keeps pace with the Renaissance aesthetic:
Italy is the source of Renaissance art. Surrounded by Renaissance art while growing up, I became sensitive to this artistic sensibility. It’s a manner of figurative painting that is lifelike and three-dimensional. It creates an illusion of depth. Renaissance painters treated the painting as a window into space.
Srila Prabhupada called our BBT paintings "windows into the spiritual world." They show the loveliness of the highest reality. Prabhupada thought that Indian art looked either mythological or too regional (Odishan art, for instance). Since this was the first time Westerners were learning that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Prabhupada thought that Krishna should be realistically shown. All reality comes from Krishna, so just as we paint real trees and persons, we should show Krishna as a person.
It’s challenging for artists to naturalistically render a transcendental figure whom they’ve never seen. Krishna’s body is not subject to nature, with muscles, bones, and skin. He needs to be drawn as a gentle form, with gentle lines. Realistic lighting helps in doing this sort of art. Divine bodies are self-effulgent – the sun is the only experience we have of that. So shadows on Krishna have a bright or light color to give the idea that His body is spiritual. Christian art was once Gothic, and transcendence was represented by a gold background. A divine image occupied the foreground and merged with the golden spiritual background. Renaissance painting introduced the representation of space through perspective. This and other innovations signified a secularization – compared with earlier methods – of how spiritual content was painted. Christian artists began painting naturalistic representations of God and heavenly beings. Renaissance artists sometimes used the human figure to represent perfect or mystical bodies, with a sky, a landscape – everything. Later came the highly ornate Baroque art. These two forms of Italian art, grounded in realism, were pictorially ideal for the new Krishna art.
Renaissance and Baroque art also dealt with sentiments and relationships. Sometimes the realism yields to showing relationships and expressions of behavior in a poetic way. This is conducive to representing Krishna’s rasas, His loving relationships and personal pastimes with His devotees.
Of course, Indian decorative elements stylize the realism of the transcendental figures. I followed the Mahabharata tradition and used ethnic references in my portraits of the characters. The Mahabharata is full of descriptions of opulence, so gold is really highlighted in this collection. The warriors’ effulgent costumes, chariots, weapons, and property are elaborately painted to signify their advanced status and opulence.
Florence is the root of the Renaissance and is said to have the greatest concentration of art, in proportion to its size, in the world. And Villa Vrindavan embodies Renaissance architecture. Now Krishna art, by our adapting the Renaissance aesthetic, has entered Western culture and fit into it.
A generalization about the artist’s concluding point is that contextual factors support Krishna consciousness and can build bridges to it. These themes were discussed at an academic conference held at Villa Vrindavan in July 2010.
The Swedish scholar Jan Olof Bengtsson presented a paper saying that Westerners “need subjectively to feel that the Hare Krishna religion is their own, not just in terms of its attractive novelty, and not even just in terms of its universal truth, but also in terms of something that connects to or is, if possible, identical with their own existing cultural identity, their own past, their history and traditions.”*
Krishna is the source of all beauty, Jan Olof said, so anyone visiting San Marco, San Lorenzo, the Duomo, the Uffizi, and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence is perchance close to Krishna.
Besides seeing Michelangelo’s seventeen-foot-tall David – in the classical pose known as contrapposto, with one leg holding the figure’s full weight and the other leg forward, causing the “hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles,” the Accademia Gallery says, “giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso” – anyone who also views the all-beautiful form of the Lord of Vrindavan will be much closer to Krishna.
David resembles Krishna: both famous youths killed gigantic opponents to protect the people they lived with. Krishna, the source of everything, says He is the prowess and ability in man (Gita 10.8, 7.8), be he hero or sculptor.
The Villa Vrindavan experience complements the cultural tourists’ visits to Italy, and Florentines can have an inner experience of Krishna’s all-attractiveness through art, books, dance, music, meals, walking, shopping, farming, and a variety of classes. Buses from Florence stop at Villa Vrindavan’s entrance.
*Jan Olof Bengtsson, “The Hare Krishna Movement and Western Cultural Identity: Education, Preaching, and Conversion,” ISKCON Studies Journal, Vol. 2 (2014): p. 28. (Online: http://isi.sdgaudio.org)