The precise location of heaven on earth has never really been established, but as far as Signor Rigoni Savioli is concerned, it could very well be the villa owned by his noble family.
Originally known as the Villa Moro Malipiero, commissioned by Nicolò Malipiero in 1557, the Villa Rigoni Savioli was originally built as a haven where a man would be able to cultivate his head, heart, body and soul as part of an ongoing tradition dating back to antiquity.
Sited at Padua, nearby to Venice in Northern Italy, the villa was constructed in what is now known as the Palladian style.
This is because the architecture was inspired by the works of sixteenth century master architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), who grew up in the republic of Venice avidly studying the architecture of antiquity.
He successfully revived the all’antica style because he believed ‘the study of ancient remains was the power and moral force behind Roman civilization’.
Long before Palladio began his passionate pursuit to build the perfect house, in the form of a villa in the countryside.
Up until his age, the word architectural genius was really only associated with those who built temples, cathedrals and palaces.
Palladio changed all of that.
The readily adaptable architectural formula he developed was so successful he gained many followers and imitators in his own day, as well as over the four centuries or so since.
The combination of mathematics, geometry, scale and proportion he subscribed to were easy for others to interpret and also offered an opportunity for them to express their own ideas as well.
Palladio elevated the private house into an art form and, in many parts of the western world, his continuing influence is clearly evident in ample porches, vaulted cellars, columned porticoes, grand ceilings, gracious gardens and front door pediments.
He believed a villa should be ‘placed on a hill with a wonderful view and beside a river’ or, nearby to a natural spring. This was important to the agricultural premise of a villa and the ongoing good health and wellbeing of its owners. And, the Villa at Padua certainly adheres to these aims and has nurtured its owners for over four centuries.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States built his own villa Monticello (1769 – 1809) on a mountaintop in Charlottesville, basing its architectural formula on the works in Palladio’s publication I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) first published in four volumes in 1570 at Venice.
He reputedly said to a Virginian neighbour ‘Palladio is the Bible. You should get it and stick to it’.
It was the patricians of Ancient Rome, who first established villa culture in a desire to enjoy the coveted pleasures of country life. In his villa in the countryside 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.
Everyone in ancient times had a direct link to agricultural production, whether they lived in the city or the country. They were dependent on it for their livelihood either as landowners, labourers, or shopkeepers so needed to remain in tune with nature and the environment.
In Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many of the beliefs and values western civilization treasures the most were reaffirmed
the effectiveness of personal freedom and liberty
the generous toleration of all other religions
pride in self and family with art, in all its forms providing a vehicle for self discovery
The importance of ‘family’ became the subject for discussion in many treatises, and the building of private residences an important activity.
The notion of privacy was a new focus and it was crucial to build in a manner appropriate to one’s station in life, neither too meanly nor too grandly.
A villa in sixteenth century Italy was required to be a polished stylish work of architecture as well as a sturdy, but sophisticated farmhouse.
It was entirely distinct from a farmhouse or castle, the word villa at the time referring to the entire estate.
The main building was known as la casa padronale (the master’s house) or more simply as la casa di villa.
Built in and around Venice, Vicenza and the nearby Veneto there are a small group of simply splendid master’s houses created by Andrea Palladio and his followers, all of which were planned to be in balance with man and nature and, of a scale acceptable to both.
It was important to Palladio that the Villas he built should express what he called convenienza, or suitability.
The master’s house was divided into rooms, each of which had a specific function and purpose. This included vestibules for receiving visitors, galleries for showing off paintings, sculpture and other precious collections of coins and gems, plus bedchambers and antechambers.
With the invention of printing, the circulation of books, as well as the all new scientific studies, a room known as a studiolo was added.
It is what we would today call a study, or library.In a Palladian style villa the basement often acted as a podium for the smooth faced upper stories reflecting in architecture the growth of the family, from its rustic beginnings to reaching sophisticated heights.
The main entrance of a villa was usually under a pedimented portico, accessed by way of an external flight of stairs up to the entrance level. Adapted by Palladio from the projection in front of an ancient temple, the portico was probably the most copied of all his architectural inventions.
The first floor, which you ascended the stairs to reach, was known as the Piano Nobile, or noble floor, and it housed the main rooms of a villa that included the principal room, or sala.
The entrance facade at the Villa Rigoni Savioli is framed by four Ionic Order semi columns, which ennoble its centre and support the entablature and pediment above.
A regular patterning of the windows, whose stone frames are inserted with practical shutters, relieves the rest of the façade.
On the facade the portico projects and an overhanging cornice of dentil decorative ornament highlights and parallels the roofline on the wings, that flank each side of the central block.
This ornament also frames the triangular pediment atop the entrance. And, a coat of arms of the family surmounts the entrance doorway.
The five orders of architecture at the foundation of ancient classical Roman architecture, are distinguished by the design of the capitals that surmount the columns.
They are known as Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.
The Ionic order was Palladio’s favourite and he used it extensively. Its pair of decorative spirals, or volutes resembling ram’s horns.
To live in a villa in the Palladian style and to be part of such a rich heritage in the art and history of humankind must be both a joy and great comfort.
It has a wonderful sense of calm and order, which is all about the relationship and harmony of all its parts among themselves and to the whole.
These are all based on measurements relating to the scale of the human body, which were reinterpreted by Palladio from the ancient treatise of first century Roman architect Vitruvius.
The main characteristics of a villa, such as the Villa Rigoni Savioli is clarity of outline, or formal design; restrained, harmonious design and, in accordance with established ancient forms.
A sixteenth century villa was meant to be accommodating to the topography of its site and, its garden setting was considered at its very ‘heart and soul’.
The building sits today on 20,000 sq m of land with a garden, three orchards, a thermal water well, a Colombara tower, and various barns. On the ground floor there is a splendid cap vaulted cellar.
The ballroom, which once occupied both floors of the central part of the house, was divided after the French Revolution leaving the top half intact, while the bottom was divided into five portions.
Another architectural jewel on the estate is a still consecrated chapel.
A tower in the grounds surmounted by a so-called Ghibelline or swallowtail battlement, with V-shaped notches, is of particular interest.
Its main purpose was its use as a dovecote, which is all about catering to the medieval tradition of attracting doves and other fowl to the master of the house’s table.
Its style however comes out of a time when spectacular towns were built in the north of Italy on high ground far above the valley floor.
And when there were feuding family factions, such as the Guelphs and Ghibellines, who surely inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Capulet’s and Montague’s.
Towers were raised to lofty heights to serve as a defensive standpoint. While allowing a view of your enemies in advance of an attack they also had other practical uses.
More than one legend tells of a daughter shut up in a tower by her father to discourage and protect her from unwanted suitors (who would also go on a great quest to save her).
So in this regard a tower of this type also became a symbol of chastity and virtue.
The tower was originally organized on five levels: the ground floor has a large arched opening that allowed access to the countryside and the height of the fourth string course widens with elegant decorative machicolations (originally they would have had holes big enough to drop boiling oil through onto your enemies).
Recycling the precious supply of water to the master’s house was of great concern to a villa’s overall planning, because it was such a precious resource.
And, if there was an ancient natural spring nearby then its waters were channeled to feed the fish ponds, service the house and finally, irrigate the gardens and orchards.
In this way Palladio was one of the first conservationists concerned with using, respecting and preserving the natural environment.
During the sixteenth century any other form of decoration remained subservient to mural painting, because it was the means of emphasizing the villa’s architectural elements.
The sala (principal room) would not be complete without painted wall decoration in the genre of trompe l’ oeil painted effects.
They were used as a means of extending space visually.
Interior frescoed landscapes were framed by classical columns and alternated with real windows looking out onto real landscapes.
They provided a harmonious connection to the external world, while ennobling the landscape.
Villas were sparsely furnished, by our standards, with great carved marriage coffers and great beds being the most important piece of furniture in the house, both practically and symbolically.
This was primarily because of their importance in the begetting of an heir to the family dynasty, which at the time was vital, because it was an ideal route to power.
Many of the rooms contain frescoes by little known artist Gian Battista Zelotti (1526-1578), who was so well regarded in his day that he was handpicked by Renaissance master Titian to work alongside the man with the larger reputation, painter Paolo Veronese. Zelotti and Veronese completed the commission (1553-4) together in the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci at the Ducal palace in Venice.
At the Villa Rigoni Savioli the paintings evoke scenes from the Bible like David and Goliath, Moses, as well as the chivalrous epic of Angelica and Rinaldo (The Culture Concept/Circle). Zelotti, as well as completing frescoes at this villa in Padua he also worked in other villas designed by Andrea Palladio, notably the Villa Emo and Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta). A fresco cycle at the Castle of Cataio, also near Padua, has only come to public notice this century.
Katia Brugnolo Meloncelli, an Italian scholar has assembled a catalogue raisonée of Zelotti’s works. She attributes Zelotti’s relative obscurity to comparisons with Veronese, who with Titian and Tintoretto, is celebrated as one of the greatest painters of the late Renaissance in Venice.
Veronese seemingly overshadowed Zelotti, even though the man with the great eye for proportion and style, Andrea Palladio, who was a contemporary of this talented artist, “had far more praise for Zelotti,” Meloncelli said.
A delightful fresco of a young Page offering a bouquet of flowers around a doorway is like all the others in this fine villa, in a beautiful state of preservation because they are valued and guarded carefully by the family.
Palladio said that he aimed to build ‘in such a way and with such proportions that together all the parts convey to the eyes of onlookers a sweet harmony’. He was all about ensuring order, not chaos, and his restless imagination contributed to a world-wide architectural revolution that was profound.
Set into the walls surrounding the villa is a consecrated chapel, whose architecture is in keeping with its master’s house. In its interior it has a fine altar adorned with three relief sculptures depicting the Madonna and Child with two angels.
The chapel provides an opportunity for those people today who live and work at the villa to give thanks for their livelihood.
Part of an Italian villa’s reason for existence was to convey a genial hospitality, much like we do today by putting out a doormat saying welcome. It was always meant to be appropriate for those who would live in it, and also offer those who spent their time in its pleasant places, a harmonious experience.
The villa when it was built was meant to please the mind, as well as the eye and it is, and will always be, a place where one can dwell happily “under the tent of heaven”.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2019
Villa Rigoni Savioli (Villa Moro Malipiero)
Palladian Style Villa
via A. Diaz 47
Abano Terme Padua / Veneto 35031, Italy