By Gary Paul
Nary a day passes without an Instagram post featuring a grand 17th, 18th, or 19th century villa somewhere in the world that tips its cap toward the work of Andrea Palladio.
More than tips its cap, each new villa revealed is a version of one of the revered country homes of the Italian Veneto region.These country homes, built in the mid-16th century, utilize the architectural devices brought forth by Palladio. The Villa Caldogno and the Villa Foscari, known as La Malcontenta (Figures 1-2),
as well as at the Villas Saraceno and Pisani, (Figures 3-4), Poiana, Godi, and Villas at Maser and Rovigo, all serve as models for the generations of great homes built by architects held in high esteem and their noble customers. Dukes and duchesses, real princesses and merchant princes, various lesser nobleman, and governments seeking a certain pedigree and recognizable architecture. References to Palladio’s classical styling represents strength, power, and influence. The iconography of classical architecture suggests enduring permanence.
Before Palladio’s birth, in the late 15th century after years of wars, agriculture finally gained as an important aspect of the Italian economy. Thus began a movement to escape the crowded fortified city, move onto the bucolic landscape where pleasant thoughts could be contemplated, and romantic notions discovered: far away from the vices of urban life. All over the Italian peninsula, houses were being built by nobility who owned vast tracts of land, and many of these villas were more than charming. Walls for protection and watch towers dominating the landscape became less prevalent or necessary. This was true in the Veneto where the flat plains that spread west from the marshes of the Venetian lagoon were fed by the fresh river waters flowing from the not so distant Italian Alps. This was a perfect place for this new relationship with landscape to be nurtured. Not far from the hubbub of Venice, a Doge or Military General could establish himself and his family for the summer in a “farmhouse” that could also impress his peers.
Palladio, a given name taken from Pallus Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was a young stonemason introduced to the historical ruins of ancient Rome through Giangiorgio Trissino, a Roman Antiquities Scholar and Vicenza nobleman. With Trissino, Palladio toured Rome and returned to the Veneto with commissions from a number of the local leading families. Palladio was born at the right place at the right time, as his clients desired to live on the land. His designs forged a new architectural building type.
When a retired Vatican priest like Paolo Almerico would consider a retirement palace such as one that Palladio would build, the Villa Rotunda (Figure 5): a veritable party pavilion is just a farm house with temple fronts on all four sides in order to dignify its four faces to the world. Palladio was just the man to invent that face.
One of Palladio’s unique contributions was to unify the varied buildings of a farm settlement into a single extended structure. Family living quarters in the center, raised off the warm and wet ground to the piano nobile – the main floor above grade, with an attic floor above for crop storage as seen in the Villa Emo in Fanzolo, Veneto (Figure 6).
Emo is the archetypal Palladian Villa, anchored with a central pavilion that is tall and grand, and symmetrical flanking wings to support the extended farm requirements. The wings, or barchessas, had spaces for farm equipment, animals, workers, and the like, with towers on each end. The family would occupy the central space and the farm life would unfold around them. Sited in the landscape to command views as well as to be viewed, often an allee of trees would stretch on a perpendicular axis to the horizons of the property, as seen in this view from the loggia of the Villa Emo (Figure 7).
A pedimented temple front would adorn the simple structure, often embellished with the family crest or farming iconography. Emo’s colonnade with such a top above the recessed loggia would present a face of power and importance to the world when greeting visitors, as well as providing the utilitarian function of shelter from the hot summer sun.
Architectural details and achievements of these simple, profound, and heroically beautiful buildings laid the groundwork for important structures long after Palladio’s death in 1580. Today his structures still inform our American obsession with great houses. Palladio wrote about his architecture and created a pattern book for building. Called the Quatro Libri, (Four Books), it was introduced to England through English publication in the 17th century (Figure 8).
Palladio’s influence soon stretched far beyond the Veneto.
Stowe, (Figure 9) is perhaps the grandest of Palladian style country houses built in the 17th century. Country houses which emulated early models from the Veneto – albeit larger, grander, with real materials - displayed the wealth of the British Empire’s nobility and rising upper classes. In the fledging young United States in the later 18th century, land owners of education and pedigree, including the Founding Fathers, utilized the Palladian model when contemplating their own country homes. Thomas Jefferson built his Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia (Figure 10).
His fellow presidents George Washington (at Mount Vernon) and James Madison also built their gentleman farms in the Virginia countryside. Charles Carroll of Maryland, second signer of the Declaration of Independence, built Homewood in 1803 (Figure 11), his country home north of Baltimore. Plantations and working farms, country houses, and important public buildings including libraries, state capitals and other public buildings throughout the emerging American nation were built paying homage to the architectural principles of Andrea Palladio of Vicenza.