a brief outline of the history of the villa

based on notes from a university course, all complains go directly to my professor and then likely, into the trash (:

The Villa is a type of upper-class house or mansion with it’s origins in the 2nd Century B.C.E in the Roman Villa, a countryhouse generally reachable within 1 or 2 days from Rome. Though we talk about two types of Villas to be exact, the Villa Rustica and the Villa Suburbana. The first of which is a proper countryhouse with agriculture (as mentioned above) while the latter exists at the edges of a city with perhaps a somewhat lesser scope.

Villa Adriana, early 2nd Century B.C.E. located near modern day Tivoli.

A few things should be noted initially, first, the Villa cannot be neatly separated from other upper-class and aristocratic houses. The histories of the Countryhouse, the Château or the Schloss are intertwined and one should rather look for family-similarities and a historical connection to the Villa in order to identify it rather than a concrete set of characteristics. Another is the differences of nobility in different lands. While the Italian nobility was rather urban and tied to a home city, this was in stark contrast with the traveling King and Nobles of Germany and France. This can also explain some differences between what we tend to call a Villa and for example a Schloss, that is, fortification, seemingly more necessary for a roaming King that perhaps couldn’t count on a city’s loyalty as much. However, let us return to the Villa.

While at first the Roman Villas, beside their agricultural trappings, were quite similar to our modern understanding of such houses though there were of course some differences and intricacies to their role in society, being gathering places for the powerful and a way for the owners to both relax from city life(as is common today too) but also to manage the Villa, thus “showing off” skill and virtue. Interestingly enough the Roman Villas didn’t just spread around in Italy and the Mediterranean but also prominently, to Roman Britain. Yet the role of the Villa should not remain stable forever. With the decline and the change in the Western Roman Empire so did the Villa change, becoming more isolated and fortified when the upper-class could not as easily afford safety from criminals and hungry peasants as before.

Castello del Trebbio( 1184), as one can see calling it a “castle” is fitting.

And so we move through the dark ages to the beginning of the Renaissance. Here once again the Villa should regain it’s role as a countryhouse though not without the birthmarks of times past. The first Villas of that time, such as the Medici Villas or the earlier Castello del Trebbio were quite defensive in character though even within the first years they would quickly become more “relaxed”, losing the fortifications they had.

These Villas would become prime settings for politics and discussion. Especially after Cosimo the Elder’s foundation of the Platonic Academy (headquartered in the Villa Medici at Careggi) in 1445, the study of Plato and Humanism would become increasingly important for the politics of Florence and Italy. It was also at around this time that Leon Battista Alberti would write his De Re Aedificatoria, his treatise on architecture based on Vitruvius’ De Architectura.

Villa Medici in Fiesole( 1457). Though austere, much less defensive. With prime location and gardens.

Moving along further we can see the spread of the architectural style outside of Florence in examples such as the Palazzo Te in Rome, which, alone for it’s Camera del Sole e della Luna and it’s Camera dei Giganti needs to be noted as they feature beautiful murals and ceiling paintings. Here we can also see the weakness of terms such as Palazzo or Villa (Suburbana), as the Palazzo Te could be called a hybrid of the two. The style of Villas would go back and forth a bit as we can see for example in the Villa Farnesse in Caprarola which regained some of the defensive character we saw earlier and would become somewhat of an archetype in itself.

Palazzo Farnesse in Caprarola(1573). With extensions resembling a star-fort.
Villa d’Este, Tivoli near Rome. ( 1560)

The next step for the Villa was the expansion beyond agriculture, putting more weight into gardening( and landscaping). At best this change can be seen in the Villa d’Este of Tivoli or Pratolino in Vaglia. The Villa d’Este especially though would become a prototype for European Nobility due to it’s powerful use of water and would even inspire the Château de Versailles. It’s impressive Water Organ, fountains and the cool atmosphere can easily impress and calm any modern tourist if only it weren’t for a thousand others. It was also after this point where fountains became a symbol of power for the European Great Families.

Villa d’Este, Tivoli. Oval Fountain.
Appennine Colossus at modern day Pratolino.

One way the Villas of Italy spread their influence is, surprisingly, not over the Alps directly(though that happened as well) but indirectly over the British Islands, owing to the Grand Tours of the gentry that would bring over great works of architecture. Curiously following the lines of Catholic missionaries and Roman conquest. Since that British style would further influence the continent as the British and Irish missions would spread Christianity to the Germanic and Celtic tribes. But let us backtrack for a moment, what exactly did the British Tourists, visiting Italy for education, status and “pleasure”, bring back to the Islands aside from (continental) Gothic Revival? Largely it was the architectural works of Andrea Palladio who built his “Four Books on Architecture” on the aforementioned works by Alberti and Vitruvius.

Villa Carpa “La Rotonda”. (1580) One of Palladio’s most famous buildings. Even thousands of years later the influence of the Pantheon is visible.

Translations of Palladio, the personal experience of British Dilettantes(in the archaic sense of ‘art lovers’) as well as works such as Vitruvius Britannicus by Colen Campbell lead to a counter-movement against the Baroque of the time. Campbell himself was involved in building fundamental Palladian buildings such as Stourhead Estate. I would rather focus on another complex though, Stowe House. In these English countryhouses we can see a continuation of the more recent trends in Italy, landscaping and gardening since it is here where we see the first parks as we know them today. Unlike today these were not open to the public, yet their form is quite similar to contemporary parks. The landscaping of Stowe was undertaken by perhaps England’s most famous gardener and landscape architect, “Capability” Brown making it not only important for Palladianism in itself but also for the parks it featured. Stowe House also possessed, as an “attraction” a small Gothic Temple, designed by James Gibbs, which brought some Gothic Revival to the estate.

Stowe circa 1880.

The Villa would from here on continue and spread for example in Palladian revival in Prussia, Austria and America through architects such as Otto Wagner and his Wagner Villa I. One earlier example of Palladianism spreading, that I believe should be noted at least because it is interesting, was Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Orchard, who after reading “I Quattro libri dell’architectura” as well as some inspiration by one Filippo Mazzei decided on a Palladian style for his estate.

Monticello Orchard, Charlottesville. (1772)

Villas further developed and broke from their traditional role as places of nobility as well as from their traditional architectural tradition with styles such as Bauhaus and architects such as Wright.

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