The precise location of heaven on earth has never really been established, but it could very well be a villa nearby to Venice in Northern Italy.
A villa is part of an ongoing tradition in architecture dating back to antiquity. In the sixteenth century Venetian master architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), successfully revived the antique style because he believed ‘the study of ancient remains was the power and moral force behind Roman civilization’. This was when villas were built to cultivate the head, the heart, the body and the soul.
Long before Andrea Palladio began his passionate pursuit to build the perfect house, in the form of a villa in the countryside, the word architectural genius was only associated with those who built temples, cathedrals and palaces.
Palladio because of his insight and rare vision changed all of that.
The readily adaptable architectural formula that he developed was so successful that 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 that 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 domestic house into an art form.
In many parts of the western world his continuing influence is clearly evident in ample porches, vaulted cellars, columned porticoes, grand ceilings, gracious gardens, grand cornices and front door pediments.
Palladio believed a villa should be ‘placed on a hill with a wonderful view, beside a river’ or, nearby to a natural spring.
The ready availability of a water source was important to the agricultural premise of a villa and the ongoing good health and wellbeing of its owners.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States agreed. He built his villa Monticello (1769 – 1809) on a mountaintop in Charlottesville, basing its architectural formula on the works in Andrea Palladio’s publication I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture).
They were first published at Venice in 1570. Jefferson reputedly said to a Virginian neighbour ‘Palladio is the Bible. You should get it and stick to it’.
The patricians of Ancient Rome 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.
The importance of ‘family’ became a subject for discussion in many treatises from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries when the building of domestic residences became an important activity.
Following the troubling times of the Middle Ages the notion of privacy for a family was a new focus and it became 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 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 in the nearby Veneto a small group of simply splendid master’s houses were 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 Andrea Palladio that villas built in his style 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.
On the exterior the rough cast or rusticated basement level often acted as a podium for smoother faced upper stories reflecting the growth of the family in architecture from pastoral beginnings to reaching sophisticated heights.
The five orders of architecture at the foundation of ancient classical Roman architecture are distinguished by the design of the capitals that surmount the villa’s 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 resembles ram’s horns and he used them skilfully in solving a problem of how to turn corners in a classical building.
The main entrance of a Palladian villa was usually under a pedimented portico supported by columns. It sheltered the entrance door of a villa, which you generally (there were exceptions) ascended stairs to reach.
The Piano Nobile was accessed by way of an external flight of stairs. This offered a grand approach to what is essentially a country house, which was adapted by Palladio from the projection in front of an ancient temple. Palladio’s portico is probably the most copied of all his architectural inventions and is found in France and England, in the Americas and in Australia.
A regular patterning of windows, whose frames have attached practical shutters, relieved the façade of a villa.
They could be closed to keep out the heat in Campania, the mistral winds in Provence in the south of France, or the flies and relentless heat of an Australian summer. Villas have since Palladio’s day been transposed around the world providing a focus for family life.
A villa 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 based on measurements relating to the scale of the human body, reinterpreted by Palladio from the ancient treatise of first century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius.
A villa was meant to accommodate the topography of its site and its garden setting was at its very ‘heart and soul’.
Recycling water to the master’s house was of great concern to a villa’s overall planning, because it was such a precious resource.
If there was an ancient natural spring nearby its waters fed a fishpond and serviced the house. Finally, it was piped back outside to irrigate the gardens and orchards.
Andrea Palladio was one of the first conservationists, concerned with respecting and preserving the natural environment.
During the sixteenth century mural painting emphasized a villa’s architectural style. The principal room or sala had trompe l’ oeil, or to trick the eye painted effects. They extended space visually and frescoed landscapes framed by classical columns alternated with real windows looking out onto real landscapes.
They provided a harmonious connection to the external world, while ennobling the landscape.
Sparsely furnished by our standards furniture in a villa included carved coffers, cupboards and great beds. The bed was the most important piece of furniture in the house, both practically and symbolically. This was primarily because of its importance in the begetting of an heir for the family dynasty, which at the time was vital because it was an ideal route to power.
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 worldwide architectural revolution that was profound.
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.
A villa established in the countryside of Italy is a place in which its owners can feel happy, secure and content, despite the demands of our ever changing society and the rapid advance of technology. It 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, Writer, Publisher, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014