The first “villas” built in the Veneto date back to the period of Roman colonization, starting from the second century BC. The Romans transformed the landscape through extensive reclamation works and the surveying and plotting of agricultural land, something still evident today in the grid system of the road and waterway networks. The landed gentry built residences outside the cities, in which to stay in certain periods of the year so as to attend to their agrarian interests, or to rest from the bustle of city life while enjoying the country air.
The barbaric invasions led to social and political upheavals and devastated cities and country areas alike. Farming folk – especially those dwelling close to the lagoon shores – began to flee their land and seek haven on the islands of the lagoon. The need for defence from the invaders eventually led to the closure of open farming, and the populace took refuge in castles that became economically self-sufficient microcosms.
From the 4th century onward, Benedictine abbeys were established which received bequests of vast landholdings. Gradually the work of reclaiming the marshlands and uncultivated lands – to prepare them for agricultural use – recommenced. The settlements known as Corti (walled villas or farms) date back to the Late Roman period that featured a type of villa with a distinct separation between the owner’s quarter (pars dominica) and the part allocated for agricultural pursuits, or for accommodating the peasants and storerooms (pars massaricia). Meanwhile the political and social structure of the feudal system stabilised.
Against a background of sweeping changes, between the 9th and the 11th century Venice grew to become a great sea power, its fleet steadily growing. In exchange for consistent aid, Venice obtained important concessions from Byzantium which allowed it to use eastern ports.
In the following 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 16th century, 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).
The League of Cambrai was formed in 1508 to counter the threatening power of Venice whose dominion extended as far as the Adda River and Friuli, and which was southwards harrying the Papal lands of Romagna. The outcome of the long drawn-out war was uncertain, but the Serenissima eventually came out of it in 1517 with its dominions mainly intact. There followed years of organisation and construction. The Venetian Senate drew up radical plans for the city’s fortification and for a complete re-organisation of the administ
ration. Hydraulic systems were strictly regulated, completely altering the territory and reclaiming vast expanses for agricultural lands. This was also an urban planning and cultural operation – the mature fruit of the Humanism that had found such fertile terrain in Padua.
Many patricians contributed to this work, and first and foremost amon
g them was the Venetian Alvise Cornaro, a Paduan by adoption, who was convinced that the Serenissima should look to “goodly agriculture” for its future. Men of letters and artists met in his villas, music was played, plays were performed – he was Ruzzante’s patron – architecture was discussed and, likewise, agrarian and reclamation systems. And thus began the tradition of the Villa Veneta. The villa – or great country house – became the central driving force of the economy and culture.
It was in this period of economic upturn and of the reaffirmation of the classical ideal of the domus-villa – in the classical tradition of the farm estates described by Catone, Varrone and Virgilio – that Palladio was to meet the man of letters Gian Giorgio Trissino, a most highly cultured member of the Vicenza aristocracy, and dilettante architect, who was restructuring his villa at Cricoli.
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.
In the course of 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 memb
ers of the Zelotti or Fasolo families.
Between the 16thcentury and the beginning of the 17thcentury, 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.
Extenuating conflicts had emptied the State coffers. The nobles, whose families had already been decimated by the plague of 1630, were further reduced in number. The Republic f
ound itself obliged to sell S
tate holdings to private citizens; and the nobility, after four centuries of being a strictly exclusive caste, opened its doors to a hundred wealthy persons of the middle class. The result was a fresh demand – stemming especially from the new nobility – for great country houses and, gradually, a change in their mode of use. From being agricultural estates they started becoming places for relaxation, summer holiday residences, from which to go hunting; and places for entertainment and to show off the owners’ new-found wealth and social standing. The villas became more and more luxurious – grander, larger, and endowed with parks, gardens, statues and balustrades.
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 important personages 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.