by Judith Anne Testa
Designed to solve a housing crisis among the rich and famous of 16th-century Veneto, Andrea Palladio's villas are a northern Italian must-see.
Some of the most beautiful -- as well as most livable -- buildings in Italy are the villas designed in the mid-to late 1500s by Andrea Palladio for members of the Venetian aristocracy. Located on the mainland to the west of Venice, in the present-day province of Vicenza, they're scattered in towns or in rural or semi-rural locations, but all are within driving distance of one another, and many are open to the public. Depending on how many you'd like to see, and what kind of transportation is available, this could be a day trip by train from Venice, or an automobile excursion lasting several days. But no matter which you choose, visiting one or more of these remarkable residences is an unforgettable experience.
Palladio's villas provided a timely solution to a financial and social dilemma of the 1500s: a growing need by wealthy, property-owning Venetian nobles to have a rural land base, distinct from their palazzos on the canals of Venice, from which to manage and monitor their agricultural holdings. These people, accustomed to urban luxuries, didn't want to lose the comforts of home during the summer months they passed on their country estates, but neither did they wish to spend a fortune on such construction. Palladio therefore faced a quadruple challenge in the creation of his villas: they had to be the centerpieces of working farms; they had to be built without extraordinary expense; and they had to be both comfortable and beautiful.
Grand architectural schemes and down-home comforts rarely co-exist, something proved by a visit to almost any aristocratic residence in Europe, whether in a city or out in the country. My usual response to a tour of a vast, dim Roman palazzo, a chilly French chateau, or a damp English country house is: "How could people LIVE in this place?" Those imposing old piles aren't exactly cozy. On the other hand, every Palladio villa invites those who enter to relax, make themselves at home, and enjoy the pleasures of country life. How the architect created such intimate effects in such large-scale buildings has fascinated generations of architectural historians.
Andrea Palladio (1508-80) was among the most influential architects of the Western world. Born in Padua, and originally named Andrea dalla Gondola, he began his career as a humble but ambitious stone cutter. The budding architect received the name Palladio (derived from the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena) from his earliest patron, the poet and scholar Giangiorgio Trissino. With Trissino's support, Palladio spent several years in Rome, studying and measuring ancient Roman ruins, as well as poring over the treatises of Vitruvius, the only ancient Roman architect whose writings have survived.
Palladio's earliest successes came with his designs for public buildings in the city of Vicenza, but his reputation quickly grew, and he began receiving private commissions as well. He designed around 20 villas for various Venetian families, each one different, and yet each bearing Palladio's distinctive stamp. Toward the end of his long life he also designed several of the most important churches in Venice, including San Giorgio Maggiore, a beautiful basilica on an island in the lagoon of Venice that seems to float there like an image from a dream. Palladio's famous treatise, "The Four Books of Architecture," carried his reputation throughout Europe and even to America. His ideas deeply impressed Thomas Jefferson, whose library included copies of Palladio's treatise, which Jefferson referred to as his bible. The "Palladian" style influenced Jefferson's designs for his home at Monticello, and became a major current of Colonial American and Federal Period architecture.
What made Palladio's style so popular? There were other distinguished architects active in Italy in the 1500s, but none except Palladio gave his name to a style that became international. We might begin with first impressions. Palladio's villas are not only beautiful; they're so strikingly original in appearance -- without ever becoming bizarre -- that they immediately attracted attention. He combined elements from ancient Roman architecture in ways that no one else had ever thought of doing, designing gleaming white, strictly symmetrical facades that look like the fronts of ancient Roman temples that project from a flat surface.
What makes the interiors of his residences so satisfying is a carefully thought-out system of proportions derived from both his study of ancient Roman architecture and his considerations of human anatomy. He noted that the human body is symmetrical, and designed along a central axis, where the most vital organs, the heart and the head, are found. Palladio's villas reflect this same arrangement, with the most important rooms on the central axis and the less important ones radiating outward.
Palladio discussed all this in theoretical terms in his treatises, but it's easier to experience than to explain. The interior spaces of Palladio's villas, no matter how large, are never intimidating. Rooms are never excessively high in relation to their other dimensions. They have numerous, large windows, so they're flooded with light. The floor plans are always symmetrical, with rooms opening off a central grand salon.
But enough of generalities. Let's begin with one of the most inviting of Palladio's Veneto villas: the Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese, a tiny hamlet just a short distance northwest of Venice. Built in the mid-1550s for the Venetian aristocrat Giorgio Cornaro, it remained in his family for more than 250 years. Here, Palladio introduced a motif that survived in Western architecture for centuries: a two-story, projecting faŤade consisting of two rows of columns, one above the other, topped with a triangular pediment. When you look up at it, you can't help feeling uplifted, as if the villa, instead of sitting on its plot of land, were rising from it. Unique among the surviving Palladio buildings, Villa Cornaro has most of its original tile and terrazzo floors, and exterior intonaco, the stucco-like material that covers a (relatively) inexpensive brick substructure. This contains graffiti from the 1600s, recording family births, deaths and honors.
In the late 1580s the son of the original patron commissioned six over life-size statues of notable family ancestors. Filling niches around the perimeter of the grand salon that forms the villa's central space, they include a Doge (ruler) of Venice, Marco Cornaro, and Caterina Cornaro, who ruled briefly in the late 1400s as Queen of Cyprus. In the 18th century the villa's plain white walls -- covered with tapestries and framed panel paintings during the occupancy of the original owners -- were decorated with frescoes. More than one hundred different biblical scenes adorn the walls, painted in the soft colors and light, airy manner popular in the 1700s.
Today, Villa Cornaro is owned by an American couple, Sally and Carl Gable, and it's their spring and autumn residence, which they open to visitors every Saturday afternoon. It's wonderful to see this building -- considered one of the 10 most influential in Western architecture -- actually being lived in. The Gables' comfortable modern furniture and numerous family mementos don't clash with Palladio's design, but seem to complement it. These rooms, large though some of them are, were meant to be lived in -- they're not for show or to impress and intimidate visitors, as is true of so much of the domestic architecture designed for Europe's status-obsessed aristocrats.
Villa Cornaro is in the middle of a modern town, which means that one of the characteristic features of a Palladio villa, the two long, identical side wings known as barchesse, are no longer part of the structure. Used to store produce, wine and farm equipment back in the days when the villa was surrounded by open countryside and farmland, the remains of the Cornaro barchesse are now detached from the villa and used as shops and small apartments.
To see a Palladio villa with its barchesse intact, the visitor should continue north from Piombino Dese to Fanzolo, about 12 miles away, the location of another Palladian gem: Villa Emo. Slightly later in date (1558-65) than Villa Cornaro, this residence had the good fortune of remaining in the family of the original owner, Lunardo Emo, until 2004, when it was sold to the Credito Trevignano Cooperative Bank. It's the only Palladio villa that has never been changed in any way from the architect's original plans.
Set into a spacious landscape, Villa Emo displays the typical Palladio central unit in the form of an ancient Roman temple front, and spreads its barchesse wings into elegant gardens that stretch away on all sides. Each barchessa ends in a large, slightly elevated dovecote, giving the structure a five-part profile familiar in later architecture inspired by Palladio, including the United States Capitol, where the Houses of Congress replaced the dovecotes! The interior contains decoration contemporary with Palladio, rather than paintings added several centuries later, as is the case with Villa Cornaro. The painter, little known today, was Giovanni Battista Zelotti, who around 1565 filled the villa's rooms with lush frescoes of mostly mythological subjects. Villa Emo gained recent publicity when it appeared as the home of Ripley, the main character of the film "Ripley's Game," a sequel to "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
One more villa on the same northern route, less than 10 miles from Fanzolo, is among the finest of all of Palladio's private commissions: Villa Barbaro at Maser. Begun around 1549, it was completed by 1558, the commission of a pair of brothers from an old, aristocratic Venetian family: Daniele Barbaro, a high-ranking cleric, and Marcantonio Barbaro, a statesman and ambassador of the Venetian Republic. Like the previous two villas, this one also remained for centuries in the possession of the family of the original builders, but by the 1840s it had fallen into ruin. A wealthy Italian industrialist then purchased and restored the property, which was sold again in 1934 to Count Giuseppe Volpi, whose granddaughter still lives there. The granddaughter and her family occupy only a small part of the vast villa; the rest is open to the public.
Villa Barbaro has a claim to fame beyond Palladio's architecture -- its interior walls are covered with magnificent and colorful frescoes by one of the greatest northern Italian painters of the Renaissance: Paolo Veronese. The subjects, apparently drawn up by the scholarly Daniele Barbaro, have to do with the harmony of the celestial sphere populated by pagan gods, the abundance of the villa as a successful farm, and the happiness of married life -- the latter a reference by the celibate Daniele to his brother, Marcantonio, who lived at the villa with his wife and four sons.
In the hands of a lesser artist these subjects could be dull and pedantic, but Veronese transferred them to the walls and ceilings with incomparable verve and wit. In the grand salon Jupiter, the king of the gods, is suitably majestic. In the Salon of Bacchus, the god of wine and merry-making, we find Venus and Adonis painted over a door, staring at each other with unabashed lust and radiating an erotic tension that almost explodes from the wall surface. Other rooms show scenes of family life -- a mother, nursemaids and small, romping children, along with pet dogs, a parrot and a monkey. Like Palladio's architecture, Veronese's paintings are at once grand and intimate, the perfect complement to the building they adorn. Palladio's architecture invites enjoyment. He had a rare gift--he knew how to shape space to create happiness.