THE PALLADIAN VILLA

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The Italian word villeggiatura translates into English (poorly) as the act or condition of living in a villa. It is more idiomatically rendered by the 18th-century British expression “country life.” In antiquity, the villa suburbana was a self-supporting, compound-like residence in a bucolic setting where a Roman patrician restored himself between periods spent in the civitas conducting his public duties and business. The dialectic of country and city was a celebrated by Horace in his second Ode, where he contrasts the otium of pastoral life to the negotium of the city.

Based in his study of Vitruvius, Andrea Palladio (Venetian, 1508-80) re-invented villeggiatura all’antica for the wealthy merchants and patricians of the Venetian Republic, designing working country estates to which they could retreat from the daily rounds of ruthless politics and cutthroat business. Palladio articulates this theory in I quattro libra dell-architettura, the four-volume edition of his plans and designs published in 1570:

Le Case della Città sono veramente al Gentil’huomo di molto splendore, e commodità, havendo in esse ad habitare tutto quel tempo, che li bisognerà per la amministratione della Repubblica, e governo delle cose proprie. Ma non minore utilità, e consolatione caverà forse dalle case di Villa, dove il resto del tempo si passerà in vedere, e ornare le sue possessioni, e con industria, e arte dell’Agricoltura accrescer le facultà, dove ancho per l’esercitio, che nella Villa si suol fare a piedi, e a cavallo, il corpo più agevolmente conserverà la sua sanità, e robustezza, e dove finalmente l’animo stanco delle agitationi della Città, prenderà molto ristauro, e consolatione, e quietamente potrà attendere à gli studij delle lettere, e alla contemplatione; come per questo gli antichi Savi solevano spesse volte usare di ritirarsi in simili luoghi, ove visitati da’ vertuosi amici, e parenti loro, havendo case, giardini, fontane, e simili luoghi sollazzevoli, e sopra tutto la lor Vertù; potevano facilmente conseguir quella beata vita, che qua giù si può ottenere.

—Andrea Palladio, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, II:45

At the component level of thermal windows, pedimented porches, door frames and cornices, Palladio scrupulously replicated the the details of ancient architecture. At the level of composition, however, he freely mixed and matched components of temples, basilicas and baths. The resulting villas were classical in detail and wholly modern in their formal conception.

Often hastily-constructed from cheap materials, the eclectic assemblage of the Palladian villa had a theatrical quality to it, which was augmented by dramatic siting, often on hilltops, striking paths of approach, and grand entrances. The villa façade and entrance, in fact, served as a scenic backdrop for the staging of the elaborate arrival ceremonies of the period. Palladio’s last work, fittingly, was the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

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