Guide to the Venetian Villas

From Palladio to Tiepolo: the quest for the harmonious relationship between man and nature.

Guide to the Venetian Villas by S. Poletti. Photo by Archivio Medoacus and A. Gabbana. Graphic design: T. Formenton. Cartography: M. Rigo. Proof reader: M. Doni

Medoacus would like to thank the proprietors of the venetian villas for their kind assistance in the realization of this work.

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Guide to the Venetian Villas

The Venetian Villas In The History Of The Veneto

The first “villas” in the Veneto date back to the period of Roman colonization, starting from the 200 BC. The Romans transformed the landscape through extensive reclamation works and the surveying and plotting of agricultural land, something still evident today in the grid system of the road and waterway networks.

The landed gentry built residences outside the cities, in which to stay in certain periods of the year so as to attend to their agrarian interests and rest from the bustle of city life.

The barbaric invasions led to social and political upheavals and devastated cities and country areas alike. Farming folk especially those dwelling close to the lagoon shores began to flee their land and seek haven on the islands of the lagoon. The need for defence from invaders eventually led to the end of open farming as the populace took refuge in castles that became economically self-sufficient. From the 4th century onward, Benedictine abbeys were established and received bequests of vast landholdings.

Gradually the work of reclaiming the marshes and uncultivated lands to prepare them for agricultural use – recommenced. The settlements known as Corti (walled villas or farms) date back to the Late Roman period that featured a type of villa with a separation between the owner’s quarter (pars dominica) and the part allocated for agricultural pursuits, for accommodating the peasants, and storerooms (pars massaricia).

Against a background of sweeping changes, between the 9th and the 11th century Venice grew to become a great sea power, its fleet steadily growing. In exchange for consistent aid, Venice obtained important concessions from Byzantium which allowed it to use eastern ports.

In the 13th and 14th centuries the mainland experienced the Age of the Communes or city-states and then with the concentration of wealth in the hands of the chosen few came the Age of the Signorie or Lordships. The recovery of trade and the rebirth of the city led to the rise of a newly emerging middle class and a climate of relatively good political and economic stability encouraged its members to build just outside the city walls.

Their modest houses featured a garden, a pergola, a “vineyard” or a fountain. Here, they could relax in the summer, enjoying the countryside in the company of erudite friends and men of letters, successors to the culture of the ancient Romans. There are very few remaining traces of these houses in the Veneto because when Venice started huge fortification works on the mainland in the first half of the 16th century, any buildings that were close to the walls were eliminated.

The Republic of Venice era

We can, however, obtain some idea from the Casa del Petrarca (Petrarch’s house) at Arquà, considered as the prototype of the Venetian villa. In the blessed solitude of this modest house far from the distractions of the city, the poet could devote himself to God and to his studia humanitatis. The 14th century saw noble Venetian families investing for the first time in estates in the areas of Treviso and Padua and the transformation of pre-existing rustic edifices or castles into manor houses. Agriculture stood for quite a safe investment in “foreign land”, compared to the rather more risky merchant shipping trade.

Thus, Venice gradually expanded into the Veneta mainland: Treviso, Conegliano, Castelfranco, eventually, by the beginning of the 15th century, taking Vicenza, Padua and Verona. There are essentially two types of country house in the course of the 15th and the first decades of the 16th century. First there is the villa-castello with such castle-like features as battlements, towers, turrets and walls (as at Villa Paltinieri at Poiana Maggiore, Villa Giustinian at Roncade, or Castello Da Porto Colleoni at Thiene).

Then, there was the villa based on the typical Venetian warehousetype house, with the same kind of interiors: the arcading on the ground floor, and often too the Gothic windows on the piano nobile, the first and grand reception floor (of which Villa Dal Verme at Agugliaro near Vicenza is a fine example). The League of Cambrai was formed in 1508 to counter Venice that had expanded as far as the Adda River and Friuli and was southwards harrying the Papal lands of Romagna. The Serenissima eventually came out of long drawn-out war in 1517 with its dominions mainly intact. There followed years of organisation and construction.

The Venetian Senate drew up radical plans for the city’s fortification and for a complete re-organisation of the administration. Hydraulic systems were carefully regulated, completely altering the territory and reclaiming vast expanses for agricultural lands in an urban planning and cultural operation that was the result of the Humanism that had found such fertile terrain in Padua. Many nobles contributed to this work, and first and foremost among them was the Venetian Alvise Cornaro, a Paduan by adoption, who was convinced that the Serenissima should look to “good agriculture” for its future.

Men of letters and artists met in his villas, music was played, plays were performed he was Ruzzante’s patron architecture was discussed and, likewise, agrarian and reclamation systems. And thus began the tradition of the Villa Veneta and the country manor became the central driving force of the economy and culture.

It was in this period of economic growth and of the reaffirmation of the classical ideal of the domusvilla in the classical tradition of the farm estates described by Catone, Varrone and Virgilio that Palladio was to meet the man of letters Giangiorgio Trissino, a most highly cultured member of the Vicenza aristocracy and dilettante architect who was restructuring his villa at Cricoli.

Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio is the outstanding architect of the mid-sixteenth century. His art ideally fulfilled the aspirations of the nobility and wealthy gentlefolk of the period, attaining at its best a perfect combination of the practical and aesthetic requirements and “adapting to the landscape”. Perhaps this was the main reason for the success of the Palladian model in the centuries that followed, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries.

In the course of the 16th century, the practice of frescoing the interiors with biblical or mythological motifs became more widespread as: these interior rural scenes reproduced the country settings of the villa itself. The patrons themselves began to be portrayed playing their roles, putting on concerts, in their ballrooms, at their games, or pictured in scenes of everyday life.

And the painters were artists like Veronese or members of the Zelotti or Fasolo families. Between the 16th and the beginning of the 17thcentury, Scamozzi was the star on the horizon who continued or completed Palladio’s work. Yet, the period also marked the conclusion of what had been perhaps the most prolific artistic age, the Renaissance. Extenuating conflicts had emptied the State coffers. The nobles, whose families had already been decimated by the plague of 1630, were further reduced in number.

The Republic found itself obliged to sell State holdings to private citizens; and the nobility, after four centuries of being a strictly exclusive caste, opened its doors to a hundred wealthy persons of the middle class. The result was a fresh demand stemming especially from the new nobility for great country houses and, gradually, a change in their mode of use.

From being agricultural estates they started becoming places for relaxation, summer holiday residences, from which to go hunting; and places for entertainment and to show off the owners’ new-found wealth and social standing. The villas became more and more luxurious grander, larger, and endowed with parks, gardens, statues and balustrades.

Although lessons were still being drawn from Palladio, there was a tendency to conceal the lack of fresh ideas with over-abundant decoration. What counted was to surprise as at the theatre. Villa Contarini at Piazzola on the Brenta is a case in point.

From the Modern Period to the present day

When, at the beginning of the 18th century, Venice definitively lost out as a sea power in the Orient, its decline became unstoppable and, meanwhile, the Venetian nobility squandered its wealth, even vying with the Palace of Versailles (with Villa Farsetti at S. Maria di Sala and Villa Pisani at Stra).

The middle-class too was caught up in the “fad for country houses” as the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni a discerning observer of the society of his time – wittily describes in his plays, nostalgic for the wiser, older generation that had so well administered their agrarian enterprises, and whose countryside trips had been “to make wine” while “now they merely serve to entertain”.

In a whirl of parties, theatres, coffee-houses, “grand tours” by important personages and intellectuals (Goethe springs to mind), the sphere of the Republic of Venice fades away. And with the Treaty of Campoformio in 1797, it ceases altogether to exist. Yet, the tradition continues, and the villas with it.

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