by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
Villa Pisani at Bagnolo in Palladio's Four Books of Architecture, 1570

Rebirth of the Roman Villa

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 21 May 2005


There are over 3,500 historic villas in the Veneto and Friuli regions of northeastern Italy, many of them built in the Palladian style. The number of houses and public buildings in the rest of the world inspired by the 16th-century architect would be impossible to calculate.

The rediscovery of the Greek and Roman past that fueled the Italian Renaissance brought about a transformation of architecture. But why did the Palladian model of classical revivalist building come to be influential above all others?

The answer to this, and much else besides, is provided by 'Andrea Palladio and the Venetian Villa: From Petrarch to Carlo Scarpa' at the Palladio Museum in the architect's Palazzo Barbaran da Porto. This enlightening exhibition, curated by Guido Beltramini and Howard Burns, chronicles the origins and development of the villa, Palladio's ascendancy, and his enduring legacy. The show continues until July 3, with tickets available that include entry to a dozen additional sites in the region.

The humanist poet and scholar Petrarch pioneered the renewal of the Roman idea of the gentleman leading the good life at his country retreat, removed from the cares and distractions of the city. He himself lived out this idyll from 1368 until his death in 1374, at the villa he had built among the Euganean Hills at Arqua, south of Padua.

Petrarch was of Tuscan origin, yet his experiment in rural living was carried out in the Veneto. The region, even then, had achieved unusual peace and security. It was, on the whole, free from banditry and foreign invasion, making life in the country an appealing prospect.

This early humanist also set a trend in his close involvement in the design of the house. It lacked the major classical features that came to define the Renaissance Italian villa, but destined as it was for study and the reception of cultivated visitors, Petrarch made sure that the interior had plenty of light, the ambience was elegant and the outlook on the surrounding landscape pleasing - all priorities in Palladio's later designs.

The first villa with a classical temple front, an innovation often attributed to Palladio, was in fact constructed at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, in about 1485. It was created by the architect Giuliano da Sangallo in collaboration with Lorenzo de' Medici. The application of a pagan temple portico to the façade of a domestic building was adopted only gradually. Palladio made it his trademark, and revolutionized its prominence and significance by building porticos that projected from the main body of the building.

Palladio (1508-1580) was of humble birth and apprenticed as a stonemason, but his lively mind and exceptional abilities brought him to the attention of the Vicentine elite, and in due course to the most learned and forward-looking of the Venetian aristocracy. This educated company enabled him to familiarize himself with ancient and modern architectural writings, and to go to Rome and elsewhere to study monuments in situ.

Very few Roman villas survived in anything like their pristine states, and before the age of systematic archaeological excavation, Renaissance architects had to rely on interpretations of often obscure classical texts and visible remains. Along with his contemporaries, Palladio believed that the ruins of the Temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli outside Rome were those of an immense villa, possibly that of Augustus, with the owner's quarters at the center, linked by porticoed subsidiary buildings to the sides. Erroneous though this interpretation was, it had an epoch-making impact on his designs for modern villas, integrating for the first time the proprietor's home with barns, haylofts, dovecotes and other farm buildings in a single architecturally coherent unit.

The Venetian economy was undergoing profound changes when Palladio began to practice as an architect. Venice's eastern empire, despite determined resistance, was being lost to the Ottomans. At one time the Serenissima had looked almost exclusively to the sea to enrich herself through trade, but in retreat the state turned its attention increasingly to its mainland possessions.

Agriculture became a necessary, even fashionable, pursuit for the ruling classes and rising mainland gentry. Living in the country no longer denoted, in Karl Marx's phrase, 'rustic imbecility,' but a worthy, patriotic cause, sanctioned by some of the noblest and most laudable of ancient Romans.

But people of this standing could not be expected to live in traditional farm houses amid the typical haphazard arrangement of barns and laborers' cottages. If they were to live the good life of the Romans, they must find suitably well-ordered, salubrious and comfortable accommodation. Palladio, like no other architect, could provide them with what they required.

Palladio's villas were not necessarily expensive to build. In the more modest ones, the only classical feature was the temple front. In almost all cases, pillars were made of brick, rendered with stucco (mixed with ground stone to give the appearance of marble). But site was important. Palladio recommended building close to rivers, then the arterial roads of the region. His villas were positioned not only so that the surrounding landscape could be enjoyed, but also to be seen. The distant view of a Palladian villa, then as now, evokes an impression of dignity and measured grandeur.

However, Palladio would not have succeeded but for his total grasp of function and detail. The living quarters had to be habitable both in summer and winter, hence fireplaces in every room. Latrines and drainage had to be located so as to exclude unpleasant odors. The attached farm buildings had to be efficiently proportioned and well ventilated, and capacious enough to house animals.

Curiously, the most famous Palladio villa of all, the Rotonda on a hill just outside Vicenza, was not considered by the architect a 'villa' at all. It was built principally as a place of resort and entertainment and not the center of a working farm, so it did not qualify as a villa in the Roman sense.

Regardless of his local acclaim, Palladio would not have achieved his huge international influence but for his 'Four Books of Architecture,' a uniquely accessible guide to creating a Palladian building. Even those of his most ardent foreign admirers who made it to Italy, from Inigo Jones to Lord Burlington, the builder of Chiswick House in London, saw only a small sample of his villas on the ground. They, too, were substantially obliged to rely on 'the book.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023