The Italian Villa: from ancient Rome to the modern era

Over the last ten years I’ve met more and more people making a ‘tree change’, swapping the stress of the concrete jungle for the tranquillity of the country. They plan a garden to please the eye and stock the table, and a comfortable house with space for pursuits they’ve neglected for years – sewing or painting, sculpture in wood and stone, deep reading – and of course entertaining areas to welcome family and friends.

This kind of a ‘tree change’ is such a common retirement goal that it’s not remarkable, and yet I’m always struck by how closely it conforms to a long-cherished Italian way of life. Millennia ago, ancient Romans acknowledged the importance of finding a balance between the necessary negotium of life – the business, transactions, negotiations that sustain us, economically – and the life of sweet ease, or otium, that feeds our mind, body and soul.

For wealthy Romans, the pleasant life of dolce far niente could be enshrined in architectural terms. The simple farm-building (villa rustica) outside the city walls, where slaves toiled to ensure the patrician family’s income, could be converted into a sprawling manor house or villa suburbana. The owner was still close enough to town to come and go if business demanded it, but thanks to open-air dining rooms, mythological wall paintings, cooling fountains and perfumed courtyard gardens, he and his circle could also make mental and physical space to contemplate life’s higher things. Pompeii’s celebrated Villa of the Mysteries is an excellent example of this kind of farmhouse-to-manor house conversion.

The Villa of the Mysteries on the outskirts of Pompeii, southern Italy, famous for the series of exquisite frescos

In time, villas began to be purpose built to foster this kind of enjoyment and philosophical contemplation. Thanks to the pax romana, danger no longer threatened those wishing to spend time in the countryside – and with wealth concentrated in the hands of the upper classes, these villas reached staggering proportions. Pliny the Younger owned numerous villas (more than one on Lake Como, for example) and spent extensive time moving among them when he wasn’t acting as lawyer or magistrate. He famously advised that the gravel paths of gardens be finely raked so that an owner could walk barefoot among the perfumed plants, his reverie undisturbed by sharp objects.

Thanks to modern archaeology we know a great deal about ancient Roman villa culture: Livia’s wonderful ‘garden room’ frescoes from the Prima Porta villa (one of the highlights of a visit to Rome’s Palazzo Massimo) even provide us with detailed information about the kinds of birds and plants we would have expected to find.

The Garden Room Fresco in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta

But with the breakdown of the Roman Empire and successive waves of invasion, wealthy medieval Italians were less willing to risk spending time in the country. Bandits roamed and wild animals prowled, roads fell into disrepair and the safety of living within a town’s walls looked more and more inviting. Lorenzetti’s frescoes of Good and Bad Government (ca 1338), in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, clearly demonstrate the benefits and protection of urban life in the Middle Ages, as well as the risks of the countryside for anyone foolish enough to consider spending a holiday there!

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. Pictured is the effects of a city governed well
The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect

But the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century changed Italian villa history, as well as art, architecture and intellectual life. Merchants and bankers relied on good roads, so these were repaired. Great dynasties began to expand their sphere of influence beyond cities and into their subject territory (contado), making the countryside safe and attractive again. And a humanistic education encouraged a closer examination of texts describing the ethos, aesthetic and even architecture of ancient Roman villa life. Wealthy humanists who desired to live like the ancients now had all the necessary tools to recreate that lifestyle – and they did. Just think of the extraordinary statement of power, knowledge, wealth and even licentiousness embodied in a place like Mantua’s Palazzo Te, a surburban villa built on the edges of the city to allow a Gonzaga duke to entertain Holy Roman Emperors and his mistress alike.

Palazzo Te: Inside the Pleasure Palace of Mantua, in the Chamber of the Giants, the ceiling and walls of them room portray the Fall of the Giants from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

One of the most well-known Renaissance villa designers was Andrea Palladio. Born in humble circumstances in 1508, he trained as a stonemason but had the great fortune of finding an early sympathetic patron: Gian Giorgio Trissino, a humanist poet and scholar from Vicenza, identified the young Andrea’s potential and encouraged him to focus on design and the study of ancient architecture. (He also graced Andrea with his nickname, Palladio, a nod to Pallas Athene.) With Trissino and other noble patrons from Venice’s mainland territory, Palladio travelled extensively and examined great monuments, such as those in Rome. He was particularly inspired by the literary studies of Vitruvius, the Roman theorist whose ten books on architecture had come to light again thanks to Renaissance manuscript hunters. Thanks to his investigations, Palladio developed a sophisticated architectural theory that advocated for utilitas, firmitas and venustas: utility, strength and beauty. Thanks to numerous commissions for country villas in north-east Italy, Palladio found ingenious ways to ensure that his designs incorporated all three principles.

In the 15th century Venice had embarked on the aggressive acquisition of mainland territory (terraferma), to demonstrate its might over a stato di terra as well as the stato di mar that constituted the traditional powerbase of a maritime republic. Politicians also knew that Venice’s growing population needed bread, and land to grow grain was in short supply in the lagoon city. The terraferma offered the possibility of an agricultural base, and Venetian aristocrats were granted oversight of the production of crops and foodstuffs in the area we now call the Veneto.

Villas in the Veneto: at the top of a hill in northern Italy, stands one of the most recognizable buildings of the Renaissance designed by Palladio – the Villa Capra, commonly known as La Rotonda

Naturally these newly-minted Venetian agricultural officials needed patrician residences on the land they now owned, supervised and regularly visited. Like the ancient Romans in their manor houses, Palladio’s patrons only needed to visit their farms at certain times of the year: at harvest, for example. While the owner was in residence, he might wish to invite friends out from Venice for a party, and he would certainly want to enjoy the bucolic vista from his villa’s windows and long carriageways. But when the patron returned to his palace on the Grand Canal, the farm manager and labourers still demanded practical considerations from Palladio’s buildings and outhouses: storage for equipment and places for animals, for example.

The diverse nature of these architectural design briefs demanded all the ingenuity of Palladio’s three tenets – and as his patrons were frequently short on ready cash, costs had to be kept low. At Villa Barbaro in Maser, for example, Palladio’s design incorporates a central section based on a proud Roman temple, long side wings (barchesse) and two dovecotes at each end of the wings. The temple corresponds to the aristocratic quarters, the barchesse were traditional outbuildings for equipment or stables – and the dovecotes were actually used by the birds flying back and forth with messages for the family’s palace in Venice! From a distance the villa looks like it’s built from expensive stone, but its bricks covered with plaster cost much less. Inside, Veronese’s trompe l’oeil wall paintings create a charming domestic mood – and as the patron was unlikely to visit his farm in winter, frescoes were more cost-effective than expensive tapestries. Palladio’s utilitas, firmitas and venustas in action!

Villa Barbaro, also known as the Villa di Maser, is a large villa at Maser in the Veneto region of northern Italy

Palladio’s Villa Emo in Fanzolo employs these same architectural components – temple front, barchesse, dovecotes – and demonstrates how the modular element of Palladio’s plans allowed him to work quickly and prolifically. At Villa Emo, the visitor approaches the majestic temple front by way of a raised platform of steps, accentuating the grandness of the central section – but at certain times of the year, that same aristocratic staircase was used to thresh grain. Leonardo Emo, the villa’s patron, had special responsibility for guaranteeing the Venetian republic’s food supplies and he experimented on the farm with newly-introduced cereals: Palladio’s design allowed Emo to oversee work in his ‘temple’ while broadcasting his patrician status. When you enter the villa, you begin to understand something else Palladio was coveted for: the dimensions and volumes of each room remain comfortably human in scale and are underpinned by a modulating rhythm that one scholar likens to a classical fugue.

Villa Emo – the residential complex of the Emo family in Fanzolo

Palladio’s designs – for country villas, urban palaces, town halls, churches and even a theatre – have become an inescapable part of modern Western architecture, thanks to the Four Books on Architecture he published (with floorplans) in his own lifetime. In England they made an indelible impression on Inigo Jones, and in America on Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. But with the rising popularity of the ornate baroque style, Palladio’s graceful modular aesthetic required revisiting. Site, aspect and landscape – all of which had been important to Italian villas since ancient times – came increasingly into play, used by architects and designers to amplify the overall sense of drama and theatricality. An obvious example of this is the staggering villa-islands of Milan’s Borromeo family.

Monticello in Charlottesville USA, was the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States

Isola Bella rises out of the waters of Lake Maggiore like a cross between a tiered wedding cake and a triumphant war galley: behind the house, the garden is built up on a series of terraces.

Isola Bella is the most southerly of the Borromean Islands, the group of islands in Lake Maggiore near the town of Stresa

A large theatre, made out of precious rocaille – an ornate but fragile medium that mixes shells, sculpture and plaster and may have given us our word ‘rococo’ – is crowned with one of the family’s emblems, a giant unicorn, and white peacocks still strut and call on the manicured green lawns. There’s not much of Palladio’s utilitas here but that’s beside the point, as Isola Bella proclaims the family’s status and taste to anyone who so much as glances at it. You could think of it as the 17th century in a nutshell!

The “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn and the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos

This potential to broadcast a personal message in one’s villa complex – loudly or subtly, depending on the patron – takes on interesting inflections over time. Near Isola Bella, another of the Borromean Islands, Isola Madre, was developed in the 19th century into a botanical garden in the English landscape style.

Isola Madre is the largest and most northern of the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore

In a taxonomic garden such as this, exotic plants – like nandina, common to so many Australian gardens – announce the intellect, refinement and innovation of the patron.

Isola Madre is home to an elegant villa surrounded by extensive botanic gardens

Villa Carlotta, on sublime Lake Como, allowed Georg of Saxe-Meiningen, husband of Princess Charlotte of Prussia, to indulge his own botanical green thumb: its extensive grounds are covered in a riot of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias that thrive in the pre-alpine microclimate of the lake.

Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo on Lake Como

The original owner of Villa Carlotta, Gianbattista Sommariva, constructed this magnificent residence across the lake from the house of his great rival, Francesco Melzi d’Eril. Melzi rode the turbulent waves of Italian politics post-Napoleon and pre-Unification and, like Sommariva, was an admirer of Antonio Canova, whose neo-classical sculptures are featured in both these villas on Lake Como. Here the beauty of this extraordinary landscape sets off the neo-classical buildings and artworks, and it’s said that Liszt was inspired to write his Dante Symphony while spending time at Villa Melzi.

Villa Melzi fronts on Lake Como, situated in the town of Bellagio. It is famous for its surrounding gardens, including Japanese maples, American redwoods, rhododendrons and azaleas

Lake Como has long drawn adventurers like Melzi d’Eril. In the 20th century, for example, the 18th-century Villa Balbianello – one of the most beautifully situated of all Como’s villas – became the cherished residence of supermarket mogul and explorer Guido Monzino, the first Italian to lead an expedition up Everest.

The glorious position of Villa del Balbianello, situated on the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d’Avedo, on the western shore of the south-west branch of Lake Como

Perhaps the combination of soft lake views and the sublime mountains beyond simultaneously soothes and stirs charismatic people – like George Clooney, whose lakeside villa is always pointed out to visitors.

The view over Lake Como from Villa del Balbianello

Naturally our own ‘tree changes’ are unlikely to resemble those of George Clooney… or Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of George IV, at Lake Como’s Villa d’Este… or Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus in her gilded Renaissance cage at Asolo. And yet the principle remains the same: we are embarking on the ancient Roman search for otium that embodies the Italian dream of villa life, still so resplendent in the beautiful villas and gardens of northern Italy.

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