In the 13th and 14th centuries the mainland experienced the Age of the Communes or city-states and then, with the concentration of great 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 the free middle class as a newly emerging social class. A climate of relatively good political and economic stability encouraged this wealthy middle class to build just outside the city walls. Their small houses featured a garden, a pergola, a “vineyard” and perhaps a fountain. Here, they could relax in the summer, enjoying the countryside in the company of erudite friends and men of letters, thereby reviving the cultural heritage 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 16thcentury, any buildings that were close to the walls were eliminated. We can, however, obtain some idea from the Casa del Petrarca (Petrarch’s house) at Arquà, considered by many 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 even castles, into manor houses. This first stage – in which agriculture stood for quite a safe investment in “foreign” land, compared to the rather more risky merchant shipping trade – was gradually followed by Venice’s territorial expansion onto the Veneta mainland, starting with Treviso, Conegliano, Castelfranco and eventually – by the beginning of the 15th century – with the conquest of Vicenza, Padua and Verona.
There are essentially two types of country house in the course of the 15th century and in the first decades of the 16th century. First there is the villa-castello or castle villa that retained such features of a fortress as the battlements, towers, turrets and walls (as at Villa Paltinieri at Pojana Maggiore, Villa Giustinian at Roncade, or Castello Da Porto Colleoni at Thiene); these followed a pattern that became consolidated over time, particularly in the Veneto highlands. Then, there was the villa based on the structure of the typical Venetian warehouse-type house, retaining its same kind of interiors – the arcading on the ground floor, and often too the Gothic mullioned windows with two or three lights on the piano nobile, the first and grand reception floor (of which Villa Dal Verme at Agugliaro near Vicenza is a fine example).
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 of his patrons and “fitting into the prescribed landscape”. Perhaps this was the main reason for the success of the Palladian model in the centuries that followed, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries.
During the 16th century, the practice of frescoing the interiors with biblical or mythological motifs became more widespread; but often too there were rural scenes that reproduced – within the villa – country settings similar to those of the villa itself. The patrons themselves began to be portrayed playing their roles – putting on concerts, in their ballrooms or at 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 century and the beginning of the 17th century, Scamozzi was the star on the horizon who continued or sometimes completed Palladio’s work. Yet, the period also marked the conclusion of what was perhaps the most prolific artistic age, the Renaissance.
As the trade routes shifted gradually towards the west, to the Atlantic, in the 17th century the Venetians lost control of the oriental markets, when the last of their great island possessions Candia (today’s Crete) fell in 1669.
Although lessons were still being drawn from Palladio, there was a tendency to conceal the lack of fresh ideas with over-abundant decorations and additions. What counted was to surprise – as at the theatre. Villa Contarini at Piazzola, on the Brenta, is a case in point.
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 incredible wealth, almost vying with the Palace of Versailles (we need only mention Villa Farsetti at S. Maria di Sala and Villa Pisani at Stra). Even the middle-class was caught up in the “fad for country houses”, as the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, a discerning observer of the society of his time, described in his plays with a sometimes benevolent glance, but more often a critical one – nostalgic as he was 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 go there to entertain”.
In a whirl of parties, theatres, coffee-houses, “grand tours” by personnages and intellectuals (Goethe springs to mind), the sphere of the Republic of Venice fades away; and with the Treaty of Campoformio in 1798, it ceases altogether to exist. Yet, the tradition continues, and that of the villas too.