The Palladian Villas of the Veneto, Italy – Country houses by architect Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio was born in the Veneto region of north-eastern Italy as the 16th century dawned. Just a few hours away was Venice, the most important port and trading centre in the Mediterranean. The merchants of Venice were rich and powerful and very keen to display their wealth. As a hard-working and original architect, Palladio could not have been born at a better time. The aristocrats of Venice were queuing up to appoint him as their personal architect. By his death in 1580, he left behind a legacy of public buildings, country houses and even a couple of churches, all constructed in his unique style. Many of the buildings he designed can still be seen and admired today, almost 500 years after they were built.

PALLADIAN ARCHITECTURE – Palladio’s impact on architecture in the 16th century and subsequently, was so profound that the term now used to refer to this type of design is ‘Palladian’. So what exactly is Palladian architecture? Simply put, Andrea Palladio developed a style of architectural design which was a unique fusion of Roman classical architecture blended with the elegant and yet practical style of the day. His earliest supporter Giangiorgio Trissino of Vicenza introduced him to the work of Roman architect Vitruvius. Vitruvian principles of classical architecture and symmetry influenced Palladio greatly. He worked on three different types of buildings; private palaces in urban areas, large country houses known as villas and then lastly, in his later days several churches in Venice. His country house or villa designs were based on his own reinterpretation of Roman classical architecture. His work was so popular that he received commissions from numerous, wealthy Venetian families. He was destined to become one of the most influential architects of the 16th century.

THREE KEY ELEMENTS OF PALLADIAN STYLE

A typical Palladian villa had a central temple-like facade or portico lined with columns and looking very similar to a Greek or Roman temple. The portico had a roof and was often decorated with statues. The main entrance of the villa was elevated and reached either by a staircase or a ramp. This elevated, grand front door gave an impressive and imposing entry point to the house for guests. It also gave exceptional views over the surrounding countryside from the principle rooms of the villa. Perfect examples of this are Villa Barbaro at Maser and Villa Emo at Fanzolo. Both villas stand majestically looking over the rich farmland of the Veneto.

Symmetrical wings extended from either side of the central portico –  these wings, known as ‘barchessa’ provided the essential store rooms, stables, granaries and animal feed rooms necessary for a working farm. Many of the Palladian villas were the focal point of a large country estate, where the owners came to enjoy the countryside, appreciate clean air and outdoor pursuits. The Palladian villas evoked the Roman idea of ‘otium’, the notion of good, wholesome activities in a pristine rural setting. Hunting was a very popular pastime at the Palladian villas. So too were parties, feasts and musical events. At Villa Barbaro for example, one of the public rooms is painted in exquisite frescoes depicting the lush green vines loaded with succulent purple grapes, that grew luxuriantly in the vineyards next to the villa. 

Inside the house the floor plan was geometric –  a large central hall, with rooms opening off the central area was the usual arrangement. The main reception rooms were on the first floor, the piano nobile. The symmetrical wings of the house enabled different members of the family to have their own separate, private apartments. At Villa Barbaro for example, the two brothers Daniele and Marcantonio each had separate living areas in opposite wings of the house.  Individual rooms were frequently square, an aesthetic deemed ‘ideal’ by Vitruvius.

PATRONS – Palladio was hard-working and prolific, by the time of his death there were more than 20 grand, country houses in the Veneto region for which he was responsible. He was most definitely in the right place at the right time. However he couldn’t have achieved the success and fame that he did without the support of many extremely wealthy patrons. Firstly there was Giangiorgio Trissino, who discovered Palladio as a young stonemason and sent him to Rome to ‘discover’ classical architecture. Next came the Foscari Brothers, Nicolo and Luigi at Malcontenta, who wanted a grand villa on the banks of the River Brenta to impress important guests and business colleagues. Then came Leonardo Emo, who wanted a magnificent country house for his new bride, in the heart of the Venetian countryside. Thirdly there were the hugely influential Barbaro Brothers who commissioned the spectacular Villa Barbaro at Maser. Daniele Barbaro was the Patriarch of Aquileia, a very important religious position. He was also the Venetian Republic’s Ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England. His brother Marcantonio was the Ambassador to the court of King Charles IX of France.  There is no doubt that Andrea Palladio was in the right place at the right time. Funnily enough centuries later in Chicago, USA the same thing happened to Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a brilliant and original architect at a time when Chicago was experiencing ‘boom times’, FLW had a horde of wealthy business folks falling over themselves to give him commissions to build their spectacular and unique family homes. 

PALLADIAN VILLAS – THREE EXAMPLES – Several of Palladio’s commissions were almost certainly in various phases of construction at the same time. Exact dates of construction are often disputed. However, it is likely that Villa Foscari was being built in 1554 and that Villa Emo was being built from 1558 onwards. Whilst Villa Barbaro at Maser was certainly underway by 1560. I like to imagine Maestro Palladio riding in a horse and carriage from one of his projects to another. Perhaps Villa Emo at Fanzolo for example to Villa Barbaro at Maser, a distance of about 13 kilometres. That’s about two hours on horseback, less at a canter or a gallop. So let’s have a look at these three villas in a bit more detail to get a better idea of Palladio’s incredible talent.

VILLA FOSCARI (MALCONTENTA) FUSINA – within moments of leaving the Venetian Lagoon and starting the navigation of the River Brenta an elegant villa appears on the western bank of the stream peering guilelessly from behind it’s willow fringe. Villa Foscari was commissioned by the Foscari brothers, Nicolo and Luigi, an eminent Venetian family, in 1554. It is alleged that one of the brother’s wives was locked up here, in isolation, as a punishment for her infidelity. The story goes that Elisabetta Dolfin was a party-loving lady whose social ways embarrassed and annoyed her husband. His response to this was to exclude her from Venice’s parties and events. The sad and forlorn lady was kept here in a gilded cage, alone and miserable. Locals regularly reported seeing a figure at the window gazing sadly towards Venice in the distance, even years after Elisabetta’s death. Over time the name ‘Malcontenta’ which means ‘unhappy’ became the unofficial name of the villa, possibly as a result of it’s tragic occupant.

However for lovers of Palladio the Villa Foscari is one of his finest works. Symmetrical and elegant it is a purist’s dream.  There are many references to classical architecture in the building. The square pediment, which acts as the villa’s foundation plinth creates an imposing and elevated platform for the villa. It also protects against flooding. The imposing stairs lead up to the main entrance, which is a typical portico entrance, supported by enormous columns. On the garden side of the villa there are a series of semi-circular lunette windows that are reminiscent of the style of Roman bath houses.

VILLA EMO, FANZOLO – Palladio was commissioned by Leonardo Emo to create an elegant and large country house on the occasion of his marriage to Cornelia Grimani. Building of the matrimonial home took place between 1558-1561. Villa Emo was the result, a masterpiece of classical architecture, both beautiful and practical. A central temple-style portico entrance, raised above the ground, gave commanding views of the countryside to the owners of the house, as they surveyed their land. The property was both a luxurious family home and a working farm. A unique aspect of the Villa Emo is that it remained in the hands of the Emo family until 2004. That’s almost 450 years in the ownership of one family.

The exterior of the house is very simple, with its warm golden stone and terracotta tiled roof. Wings stretch from the main villa to west and east, providing pleasant arcades, that offer protection from the sun and the rain. At the end of each wing is a square tower that would have been used as a dovecote. Internally the house is a treasure trove of wonderful, vibrant frescoes, many painted by the master artist Zelotti. A visit is strongly recommended.

VILLA BARBARO, MASER – My third choice of Palladian villa is the elegant and welcoming Villa Barbaro at Maser. Daniele and his brother Marcantonio commissioned Palladio to build a country house for them to entertain their eminent and important friends and business colleagues. Daniele was the Venetian Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I of England whilst his brother was Ambassador to the court of Charles IX of France. The villa was built with no expense spared. Internally the house is filled with brilliant and inspirational frescoes by the artist Veronese, probably the most influential and important Venetian artist of the 16th century. 

The interior paintings are filled with humour and whimsy, children peering through slightly open doors, cleaning materials left on a ledge by a maid, the family pets. The atmosphere is one of joy and happiness. Several of the frescoes show white and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dogs, the favoured breed of the family. Totally charmingly the same dogs, type and colouring still inhabit the house today, ancestors of the original canine inhabitants.  

Villa Barbaro, Maser - Lady of the house - fresco by Veronese, with Cavalier King Charles dog on the balustrade. Veronese (1560s)
Villa Barbaro, Maser – Lady of the house – fresco by Veronese, with Cavalier King Charles dog on the balustrade. Veronese (1560s)

PALLADIO’S LEGACY – As well as leaving a physical legacy of country villas, civic buildings and churches in the Veneto, Palladio also published four volumes of architectural notes, plans and drawings relating to his numerous building projects. These notes were published as ‘I Quattro Libri’ in 1570. This was very significant because it gave a written and printed form to his life work. Published in Venice ‘I Quattro Libri’ became a reference book and blueprint for future architects. This Palladian legacy was introduced to the english-speaking world by Lord Burlington in the 1700s. Burlington was an aristocrat and Grand Tourist travelling through France and Italy in search of art, history, culture and adventure. He was so impressed with the architectural designs of Palladio that he used the same style back in London at his London properties. Chiswick House, West London and Burlington House, Piccadilly. When Palladio’s ‘I Quattro Libri‘ was translated into English for the first time in 1715, it became the most fashionable architectural ‘guide book’ of style for generations to come. Lord Burlington was a very influential figure in the art world. As an amateur architect he was soon receiving commissions for country houses all over the British Isles. 

IMPACT – Palladio’s impact was not just restricted to Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic the Palladian style of architecture was popular too.  Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States (1801-1809) was a statesman, diplomat and architect. He re-designed his country estate Monticello in the Palladian style. Due to its architectural and historic significance, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The nickel coin features a depiction of Monticello on the reverse side. So it’s true to say that Palladian ideals of architecture have become so engrained in our society and our idea of ‘classical’ historic houses that we even have representations of these iconic buildings on our money – something that we all use daily! 

The frontispiece of 'The Four Books' by Italian Architect, Andrea Palladio - Venice, 1570 - Publisher in Venice: Domenico del Franceschi 'Regina Vertus'
The frontispiece of ‘The Four Books’ by Italian Architect, Andrea Palladio – Venice, 1570 – Publisher in Venice: Domenico del Franceschi ‘Regina Vertus’

Many of the villas designed by Palladio are still standing in the Veneto region of Italy today, almost five hundred years later. In fact the Palladian Villas of the Veneto are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means that they are registered as a very important part of the history and heritage of the Veneto region of Northern Italy. UNESCO status protects these priceless properties as our collective historical heritage. It is our duty and the responsibility of our children to protect and preserve these magnificent buildings for future generations to appreciate and admire. 

 

Notes:

  • Palladio’s first patron was Giangiorgio Trissino – he was reconstructing the Villa Cricoli, near Vicenza, when he first took an interest in Palladio’s work. Trissino was heavily influenced by the studies of Roman architect Vitruvius.
  • The publication of ‘I Quattro Libri’ by Palladio, printed in Venice in 1570 was of vital importance in recording and documenting Palladio’s life work. Translated into English in 1715 ‘The Four Books’ became the seminal architectural treatise of the 18th century in the UK and in the USA.
  • I’ve written other articles on Palladian villas as follows:
  • Villa Barbaro, Maser – Villa Barbaro – Maser Veneto and De Gusto Lunch
  • Villa Emo: Villa Emo – a perfect Palladian Villa, Italy
  • Venice to Padova by the Brenta Canal includes Villa Malcontenta (Foscari) at Fusina
  • Villa Angarano is a magnificent country house, close to Bassano, today it is well-known for its organic wines. The house was mentioned in Palladio’s ‘Quattro Libri’ here’s the full story. The five sisters of Villa Angarano – Bassano, Italy
  • The beauty of the Palladian villas has even attracted the attention of Hollywood film-makers. Ripley’s Game (2002) starring John Malkovitch was filmed at Villa Emo – adapted from the 1974 novel by Patricia Highsmith – the film is one of a series of books about conman Tom Ripley. It is a very dark psychological thriller.

 

Villa Emo, Fanzolo, wood cut c.1570 - tinted
Villa Emo, Fanzolo, wood cut c.1570 – tinted
  • Updated: 31-01-2019
  • Updated: 01-02-2019

 

2 thoughts on “The Palladian Villas of the Veneto, Italy – Country houses by architect Andrea Palladio

  1. I agree with Mary Lou, at least about the quality of the article, as unfortunately I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a Palladian Tour with you. You articles are always entertaining and educational – and this was both, with a vengeance – so a big thank you for that!

    Like

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