Villas - introduction

The modern meaning of  "villa" has its origins in the 15th century. Generally this word indicates large and elegant dwelling homes surrounded by more or less wide gardens and parks.

Villas - origin

The prototype of villa is more ancient, it dates back to the Roman period when it used to be both an agricultural centre and a place for recreation. During Middle Ages the rural character of these houses started to loose ground to fortresses, which had become necessary for defensive purpose.

It was only in the 15th century when castles themselves started to loose the characteristics of a simple and pure place for defence, becoming for example more airy shooting lodges.

Villas - evolution

The most important characteristic of the architecture of villas is the reuse of pre-existent buildings. The problem of transforming the rooms has often been resolved by a complete disguise which does not mean complete destruction (very rare for both economical and historical reasons).

Small 16th century "villas of delight" were natural heirs of shooting lodges which combined the recovery of the historical parts with new space, with large rooms and several loggia.

The 17th century villa indeed developed architectonical characteristics that had existed already before but this time with a trend for the monumental. Villas became grand and their rich decorations usually presented enterprises and virtues of a family. To lighten the ostentation of villas, charming Italian-styled gardens were created and the fashion went on for the whole 18th century. Unfortunately the style was substituted (causing heavy losses) by the predilection for the English-styled romantic gardens. The difference between the two gardens was not only stylistic: the rational Italian-styled garden, symbol of the dominion of man on nature was overtaken by park, representing "wild" nature and a kind of return to natural state, theorized by Rousseau.

Villas - diffusion

A peculiar aspect of the spreading of the villa's architectonical characteristics was the connection between villa and its surrounding agricultural area, for which dominion the building had originally been built.

A strict distinction between recreation villas and agricultural villas was overcome already in the 15th century and almost all villas combined the two functions. Even in the 17th century villas of delight which rose in "touristic" areas, both functions were in use.

Villas were mostly built along waterways rather than close to roads. The decision had certainly aesthetic reasons but in addition to the beauty of the place, easy access to transport through waters was just as important.

Then there was also the connection between town and villa. This aristocratic residence usually became the centre of the village but in some cases villa had only a little influence on the rest of the town. It rather created an area of its own which then became the axis of new development. In some other cases villa generated a small, completely new living area which comprised a religious centre and the dwellings of the farmers.

What caused the proliferation of villas between 17th and 18th century?

One of the reasons was the increasing number of "new" families, originating from the merchants of the duchy or coming from the business world.

The new rich wanted to establish the social class they had reached and therefore tried to construct luxury buildings which would show the population that the living standard matched their pride. Also the families with aristocratic roots wanted to re-establish their ascendancy and demonstrate this restructuring their countryside residences.

Sometimes they were forced to build new villas as the divisions of the inheritance had dismembered the family properties or simply because general taste had changed. An example of the latter case, precisely in the beginning of the 18th century, was the "comfortable" rococo which became the ideology and myth of "villas of delight".

This was believed to be necessary in order to get away from the urban corruption and to be part of nature, so that one could have the possibility to enjoy exclusive and selected pleasures.

Villas - shapes

Normally the shape of a villa was that of a dwelling building that sometimes distinguished from the rest of the houses and other times blended in the scenery. In both cases the architectonic style of villa was determined together with the historical period it belonged to. The shape deriving exclusively from selected architectonic style, was generally based on a preponderant element which characterized the whole villa.

Villas - structure

Although the villas set in northern Italy still conserve their towers, courts, loggias and small walled-in kitchen gardens, they are simple constructions that reflect the private life of those who live there without luxury for several months a year. The element that characterizes almost all villas is the courtyard, the centre of the whole building; loggias and major rooms are often frescoed; fašades have a simple design and are almost always whitewashed, with stony finishing around doors and windows and the edges of the building. In central Italy villas present different characteristics. They are always constructed in dominant settings surrounded by green areas, imposing steps, exedras and are of great size. Fašades are often contrasted by deep porticos and niches; and the planimetric adaptation, often strongly articulated, is difficult to classify due to the variety of the examples.

In other regions the architectonical structure of villas presents mostly common characteristics as far as architectonical elements are concerned. The buildings often have square plan and three floors: ground floor, first floor and attic. Sometimes the tower has been integrated with the central part of the building and other times it has been built separated. The decorations of loggias have the task of lightening the fašades, the entrance hall on the ground floor divides some vaulted rooms. On the first floor the roofs of the reception rooms together with other rooms are often covered by decorated wooden beams.
The villas of Veneto and especially the Palladians would deserve to be treated separately but that is another story.

Villas - ornamental pieces

Although the villas set in northern Italy still conserve their towers, courts, loggias and small walled-in kitchen gardens, they are simple constructions that reflect the private life of those who live there without luxury for several months a year. The element that characterizes almost all villas is the courtyard, the centre of the whole building; loggias and major rooms are often frescoed; fašades have a simple design and are almost always whitewashed, with stony finishing around doors and windows and the edges of the building. In central Italy villas present different characteristics. They are always constructed in dominant settings surrounded by green areas, imposing steps, exedras and are of great size. Fašades are often contrasted by deep porticos and niches; and the planimetric adaptation, often strongly articulated, is difficult to classify due to the variety of the examples.

In other regions the architectonical structure of villas presents mostly common characteristics as far as architectonical elements are concerned. The buildings often have square plan and three floors: ground floor, first floor and attic. Sometimes the tower has been integrated with the central part of the building and other times it has been built separated. The decorations of loggias have the task of lightening the fašades, the entrance hall on the ground floor divides some vaulted rooms. On the first floor the roofs of the reception rooms together with other rooms are often covered by decorated wooden beams.
The villas of Veneto and especially the Palladians would deserve to be treated separately but that is another story.

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Villas

Introduction
Origin
Evolution
Diffusion
Shapes
Structure
Ornamental pieces
Restoration