by Roderick Conway Morris

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Villa Saraceno Restored


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 5 January 1992

 

The Veneto, the hinterland of Venice in north-eastern Italy, has more historic country houses than the entire British Isles: over 4,000 of them, ranging from immense baroque edifices, with fountains and formal gardens, to simpler, but often architecturally no less significant, farming villas amidst fields, orchards and vineyards.

Given the great age and sheer scale of this patrimony, the ravages of war and time, and the fact that modern Italy has achieved its present economic prosperity only during the last three decades, it should not be wondered at that something like half these buildings are in poor condition, and 1,000 of them in urgent need of rescue from dereliction. The seriousness of the situation may be judged by Andrea Palladio's 19 surviving villas: although their creator was perhaps the most influential country-house architect of all time, who has inspired countless buildings throughout the world, a third of his rural works are abandoned or in distress.

Until now the prime hope of saving such buildings has lain in private proprietors. The Italian government, which this summer voted a further 45 billion lire towards villa repair, and local bodies have also made considerable efforts, but their resources remain inadequate and are spread too thin. It is therefore with interest that an entirely new kind of solution is being watched, which aims to rescue Palladio's Villa Saraceno, and to pay for its upkeep by letting it by the week to visitors.

The project is the initiative of the Landmark Trust, which has already saved scores of historic buildings in Britain. Sir John Smith founded the Trust 26 years ago with the dual aim of conservation and introducing the public to the pleasures of architecture by enabling them to rent the properties. In Sir John's words: "We believe that by using our buildings thus ... the maximum number of people derive benefit from them; and that many visitors who may come just for a holiday go home with an interest awakened which will last them all their lives." The Trust has one other Italian property, an apartment in the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, and is embarking on its first North American venture with the purchase of "Naulahka", Rudyard Kipling's house at Brattleboro, Vermont.

The Villa Saraceno stands surrounded by a patchwork of fields and drainage canals near the village of Agugliaro on the fertile plain between the wooded slopes of Monte Berico and the Euganean Hills, about 25 kms south of Vicenza, the city where Palladio spent much of his working life. The Villa was commissioned in the 1540s by Biagio Saraceno, a minor noble whose agricultural interests were typical of his time. My guides to its history and physiognomy were the architect Ilaria Cavaggioni, who studied the villa in detail for her doctoral thesis, the Landmark Trust's architect John Bucknall, and their historian Richard Haslam.

The cost of the restoration, which has recently begun, is expected to be around £1 million. "But", said Haslam, "to put a villa like this right also requires a tremendous input in historical understanding, interpretation and technical skill. You could have all the money in the world and still get it wrong".

There is an engraving of the Villa Saraceno in Palladio's famous Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (Four Books of Architecture), published in 1570, a dozen years after the Villa was built. The picture shows the main porticoed building much as it is today, and wings composed of barchesse, or colonnaded side barns, on either side. One such barn does exist but turns out to have been added much later, the owners having turned back to the illustration in the Quattro Libri for inspiration, yet not followed Palladio's design very closely.

This is just one of many insights gained by painstaking site surveys and historical investigations, the results of which continually inform restoration decisions. Cavaggioni's researches have yielded a wealth of vital data, but unearthing the building's secrets has been far from straightforward. Biagio Saraceno, for example, left the Villa to his granddaughter. Relatives disputed the will, and carried away on horseback hundreds of legal documents stuffed into suitcases; forty years of litigation ensued, and the papers have never resurfaced.

Palladio's central building is deceptively simple: a plain, brick-built structure with hipped, tiled roofs, but richly satisfying in its balance and proportions. Its purpose was to provide new, comfortable accommodation for the proprietor of an existing working farm. So the prospect from the windows was of a spacious everyday farmyard, with cultivated fields beyond, not the smooth lawns and domesticated parkland upon which many a later American or English gentleman was accustomed to rest his gaze. Nor would the Villa's owners have expected to spend the whole year there, but to come for spells to supervise the management of the estate as well as enjoy the country air.

When the Trust bought the Villa it had not been lived in for 15 years. The other farm buildings, which are also being carefully restored, were in imminent danger of collapse. Yet Palladio's 450-year-old house was so soundly conceived and executed that it was in remarkably good shape. The "superficial" details, too, reveal the architect's concern for durability: even the light honey-coloured intonaco, or plaster, on the façade is still that originally applied by Palladio.

This plaster, said John Bucknall, is one of the features that needs most delicate treatment, since "we're dealing here with architecture only 5mms thick ..." In the past this plaster might have been replaced, but the restorers have rejected this option: "The Villa," said Bucknall, "has an established and dignified personality: using new plaster would be like putting too much make-up on a fine-looking elderly lady." Instead they will repair the missing sections with the same sand-and-lime mix used in the 16th century.

The teams' emphasis on sympathetic recovery rather than comprehensive restoration differs from the philosophy still current in, say, France or Germany, where the enterprise is often to bring buildings back to an "as new" state. And the apparent unanimity of the Italian and British members of the team on the preferability of caution, subtlety and restraint seems a key element in preserving the harmony of this complex joint venture.

The interior of the villa, with its lofty sala, or main hall, deliciously cool even on the hottest summer day, and charming suites of smaller rooms leading off to left and right, poses the greatest challenge of all. Over the centuries this interior has been altered and subdivided, and returning it to an arrangement in keeping with Palladio's original lay-out does demand more radical measures, such as the removal of later partition walls. Happily the frescoes here, as well as those in the loggia outside, are better preserved than they first appeared and, after the sensitive treatment planned for them, should be an additional source of delight.

The final phase, in about eighteen months' time, will include the furnishing of the house, which, with the restored wing, will be able to accommodate parties of up to 15 people, and the re-creation of the brolo , or garden behind the house. This will not be a formal garden, it was not so originally, but, said Haslam, "a fruitful pleasure ground", with grass, an orchard, walks and shady corners.

Could the Trust's approach to the Villa Saraceno be successfully repeated on a significant number of other Veneto villas? Haslam believes it could: "To rescue and repair need not cost any more than more radical and interventionist restoration. But the intitial research stage is certainly very important."

In the case of very large villas with extensive gardens needing a number of staff, he said, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of use as a hotel. Others, whether privately or publicly owned, might be more suitable for opening to daily visitors and for special functions.

"What is essential," said Haslam, "is to discover new purposes for historic buildings. Rescue and restoration is only the first stage. It is finding a new use for them that assures them a long- term future."

A version of this article was published in the New York Times.


First published: New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016