The Patricians of Ancient Rome established villa culture in their desire to enjoy the coveted pleasures of country life.
In the first century before Christ, Horace the poet dreamed of a place far away from the bustle of the capital, one where he was not jostled by crowds, stressed out by his dealings with highly placed persons, or subjected to the consequences of trivial gossip.
In his villa a man could relax, read the books of the ancients, sleep or rest as his mood dictated while enjoying the excellent wine and fresh food of the region, in great abundance.
During the medieval period throughout Europe bitter rivalry and warring factions dominated everyday life.
From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century in Italy art, literature and learning was reborn and under the encouragement and patronage of princes, popes and potentates would rise to new heights of achievement.
Using the rediscovery of their own ancient classical past the all powerful family factions of Italy turned their energies and attention to building development in the cities and in the countryside.
Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was born at Padua in the first decade of the sixteenth century. He grew up in the republic of Venice, becoming an architect and great traveler.
He wore a track up and down to Rome over the years where he avidly studied what remained of the architecture of antiquity.
He believed that ‘the study of ancient remains was the power and moral force behind Roman civilization’. He discovered that the Romans had been skillful at reinterpreting the ideas of others, especially the Greeks.
In 1570 at Venice in Italy, where he had grown up, Andrea Palladio published his four books of architecture.
It provided his illustrations of the classical orders, which came from some of the most important buildings of antiquity together with his own ideas for works in architecture in plan elevation and section, many of which appeared on par with those from antiquity.
Palladio produced a style of refined classical architecture that was in direct contrast to the more elaborate ornamentation and forms carried out elsewhere in Italy at that time.
The delightful villas he built in and around Venice and the nearby Veneto were designed to be in harmony and balance with man and nature and of a scale that was acceptable to both.
He believed the setting for the villa was at its very ‘heart and soul’.
The new style of architecture Palladio would develop during his lifetime would have a sense of calm and order because it was based on his interpretation of measurements gleaned from the ancient treatise of first century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius.
Palladio re-interpreted Vitruvius’ ancient measurements exploring many different ratios to achieve pleasing results.
He turned to antiquity to produce his buildings less as a model than as a key to a harmonic language that would create the perfect balance between culture and taste. He also studied the remains of ancient sites at Naples, Piedmont and Provence, often travelling dusty dirt roads on foot until old age and infirmity finally prevented him.
The plans of his layouts, which still exist, reveal beautifully proportioned rooms that allowed for flexibility of function and purpose.
He included vestibules for receiving visitors, galleries for showing off paintings, sculpture and other precious collections of coins and gems plus the necessary rooms that could be utilized as bedchambers and antechambers.
All the living rooms could change with the seasons…bedrooms could move to the coolest side of the house in summer and warmest side in winter. With the invention of printing and the wider circulation of books as well as scientific studies he designed a special room solely for this purpose.
A gentleman’s studiolo was what we would today call a study or library and it was usually adjacent to the bedchamber.
All the rooms in his villas whether large or small had proportions based on the scale, proportion and relationship of the parts to the whole of the human body. These were rigorously applied.
These ideas may seem fairly commonplace to us today, but at the time, they were virtually unknown and therefore, revolutionary.
During the sixteenth century any other form of decoration remained subservient to architecture and mural painting was a means of emphasizing the architectural elements.
Palladio used the genre of Trompe l’ oeil painted effects to extend space visually and bring the outside in.
Interior frescoed landscapes were framed by white columns and alternated with real windows looking out onto real landscapes.
They provided a harmonious connection to the external world, while ennobling the landscape.
Artist Paolo Veronese was particularly skilled at this type of artistry and would be employed to complete the painted rooms at the Villa Barbero at Maser.
For Palladio as an architect to reach great heights and be regarded as the best in his field was only possible by gaining both recognition and support.
During the sixteenth century this meant having at least one great patron, one who thought beyond himself and not looking to receive monetary or favour rewards.
He needed to be a true Renaissance man…one whose thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more and Palladio found those patrons in the renowned scholarly Barbaro Brothers, Daniele and Marcantonio.
The Villa at Maser he would design for them would become much admired and imitated. He wanted to provide them with building that was all at once functional as well as accommodating to the topography of its site.
An important agricultural villa it had flanking wings designed to house agricultural implements, farm animals and protect the crops from the elements as well as store the wine.
Palladio was concerned with using, respecting and conserving natural resources.
At Maser he placed dovecotes in symmetrical towers at each end of the flanking wings, catering to the medieval tradition of attracting doves and other fowl to the Lord’s table.
On the façade of one tower a giant astronomical clock tracked the heavens. The villa was sited halfway down a gentle slope with an ancient natural spring servicing its occupants with all their water needs as well as feeding the fishponds and finally irrigating the gardens and orchards.
Everything was meant to be recycled.
For his clients the Foscari brothers Palladio designed a small compact villa without flanking wings, a simple country house meant for rest and pleasure.
He raised it up on a rusticated basement 11’ high to prevent flooding from the nearby River Brenta.
Its site provided a quick method of communication with the city for the family by boat at little expense and to go there from Venice today by boat is still the most successful way of viewing it and understanding Palladio’s intent.
At the Villa Foscari, the basement acted as a podium for the smooth faced upper stories.
The main entrance was under a pedimented portico, which was accessed by way of an external flight of stairs up to the entrance level.
This first floor, known as the Piano Nobile or noble floor, housed the main rooms of the villa.
He used the Ionic capital on its giant columns, uniquely solving a method of turning corners in a handsome way.
The internal murals that decorate the walls are by artist Giambattista Zelloti, one of which is reputed to be the mysterious la Malcontenta, a women ancestor who legend has it had been unfaithful to her husband and was locked away in a small house on the site.
Villas in Palladio’s day were sparsely furnished by our standards. Furniture was limited to large marriage chests, which were portable and they were often elaborately carved and exquisitely painted (cassoni).
There were tables of monumental proportion often topped with coloured inlaid marbles (pietra dure) and cupboards with doors intricately decorated with intarsia (inlay).
Great marriages of state joined families of means together – an ideal route to power.
This was especially true if land was added to the equation.
In this context beds became the most important piece of furniture in the house practically and symbolically because of their importance in begetting an heir to the family dynasty.
For a time the great Alps that surround Italy were a barrier to knowledge for outsiders with only a handful of travelers braving the elements and hardships by land to visit.
In Palladio’s day the Mediterranean was also ruled by foreign empires and pirates, so one had to be very keen, mad, or just plain foolhardy to try.
However eventually they broke through, and Palladio’s villas provided inspiration for many architects to come.
Over the four and more centuries since his death Palladio’s interpretation of the classical style has influenced many and traveled far. From Europe to England, America to Australia his life’s work inspired a dwelling that was simple and solid and one that reflects all our aspirations, needs and leisure requirements.
A villa by architect Andrea Palladio was a place where the owners could feel happy, secure and content, which is after all, what most of us still require and aspire to, a place where one can cultivate the head, heart, body and the soul.
Despite evolving societies and technology the villa became and remains a place where one can dwell “under the tent of heaven”.
During his day Palladio was an innovator and inventive. He was a custodian of classical values and had a keen eye for proportion and style. He was certainly enough of a craftsman to ensure that quality remained the key when expressing the status and ideas important to his clients.
He was above all adaptable and very flexible so there is no doubt in my mind that he would have readily adapted to the computer age without compromising any integrity in design.
Perhaps a villa by Andrea Palladio was the perfect house after all?
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014