Palladio‘s architecture is not a case of isolated genius. It falls into the wider cultural context of the Villa Veneta (Venetian Villa). It is a complex phenomenon that involved not only architecture, but also society, economy and traditions of the territories belonging to the Republic of Venice.
The History of Venice
Those who visit Venice are astonished in front of so much beauty and splendor. They often wonder how it was possible to achieve all this in such a small city, relegated to a corner of a squelchy lagoon.
To understand the greatness of Venice a close look at its history is obviously necessary. For more than half a millennium Venice has been the capital of one of the most powerful European states. It was also the center of a wealthy commercial empire.
Venice, after overcaming other Italian maritime republics (Repubbliche Marinare) with which it was competing, succeeded in establishing a monopoly on the trade with the East. It basically became the main access gate to Europe of the Silk Road, the trade route that ran across central Asia. Through it Venice brought spices, silk, gold and precious stones from India and China into the West. Fleets of galleys were going back and forth between Venice and the Greek, Lebanese, Egyptian ports. Merchants like the famous Marco Polo continued further east to Persia and the ancient Cathay, carrying all kinds of goods.
They poured part of the immense fortunes they accumulated into the creation of a lavish lifestyle. Famous architects designed fabulous buildings. The greatest artist such as Titian and Paolo Veronese, made the finest paintings and sculptures. The most skilled artisans made precious furniture and decorations, fabrics and jewels for the ladies and lords who lived in Venice. The Saint Mark Republic, with its powerful fleet and army, controlled an empire among the most influential in Western Europe.
From maritime to territorial power
However, Venice monopoly could not last forever. By the end of the 15th century the international situation began to change dramatically.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus arrived in the American continent, opening trade routes to new lands rich in resources.
The circumnavigation of Africa allowed to bypass the Mediterranean route to India and China. Nations that faced the Atlantic benefited from their position and created new empires in competition with Venice.
On the opposite side the Ottoman Empire. With its expansion it entered into competition with Venice on the eastern routes. The two powers came to a direct clash in 1571. Venice reported a great victory in the naval battle of Lepanto. But the Turkish presence in the Mediterranean Sea did not cease to erode space to the once unchallenged Venetian power.
The wealthy families who had built their fortunes on commercial fleets and trade, understood that the world had changed. They began to diversify investments in the mainland, buying large estates and focusing on agricultural production: wheat, rice, wine, livestock.
From a maritime and commercial power, Venice progressively developed into an agricultural and manufacturing economy. To better control the new territories, landowners built structures to manage the productions. They also made residential buildings where they could live in accordance with their social status when they visited their estates.
The Roman Villa
The concept of a villa dated back to Roman times.
Patrician families had two types of dwelling: the domus, that is the town residence, and the rustic villa, an equally sumptuous house, often endowed with every comfort, mosaic decorations and frescoes like the one they had in the city. A whole series of yards and structures flanked the villa. They were used to manage the agricultural activities that took place in the lands at the center of which the building was located. These included wine cellars, deposits for cereals, spaces for the production of oil, cheese, sheds for animals and buildings where the numerous servants lived. Villas were in fact autonomous and self-sufficient communities. The word “village” actually derives from the word “villa“.
The Venetians resumed the same approach.
Those who had the opportunity to visit Venice were certainly impressed, not only by the magnificence of its churches and buildings, but also by the narrowness of its streets and canals. Once you leave the large open space of Piazza San Marco you find yourself in a maze of narrow alleys. Houses are built one attached to the other, rising up above your heads.
Because of its very particular shape, the space in Venice has always been a problem. The islands on which it was possible to build were few. Reclaiming land from the water was hard and expensive, so that they used the precious space available as much as possible. This made the city cramped.
Venice was and remains a city in which living involves difficulties and inconveniences.
Even today, the stagnant water of the narrowest canals emanate the typical unpleasant smell of Venice. It is difficult even to imagine the stench of the city when there was no sewerage system and people threw all their waste directly into the canals. In Summer things got even worse. Staying in Venice with the heat and the high humidity, without air conditioning, must have been miserable.
For those who could afford it, the villa became a place to spend the Summer months. The open countryside was healtier, caressed by gentle breezes scented of hay and woods. Servants moved with the whole family whose members engaged in pleasant idleness: reading, playing or listening to music, walking and playing games.
“Villeggiare”, a bit old fashioned Italian word meaning going on holiday, refer to this, literally “doing villa”.
Carlo Goldoni, the famous Venetian playwright, dedicated three of his famous comedies to this theme. This also demonstrates the importance of the villa within the society of the Venetian Republic.
The little space availale in Venice also limited the possibility to show off wealth by means of a large building. No matter how rich a noble Venetian family could be. Few areas of the city were suitable to create impressive façades. Because of the narrow streets and canals, it was difficult to give them the right scenographic impact from an adequate distance and with the right perspective. The Grand Canal was one of the few places were this was possible. Rich families competed to build fabulous residences there, for example the Ca ‘d’Oro, in which pure gold covered parts of the façade.
In the open spaces of the mainland there was no limit to the size of buildings and to their scenographic impact. Many villas, in fact, were scenographically placed at the end of long boulevards that stretched across the fields, or on the top of hills that dominated the countryside, or at the entrance of valleys used as a backdrop.
The villa became a symbol of prestige for the owner. He displayed it with sharecroppers, clients, or other noblemen in a sort of status competition. The villa was so fashionable and so important as a representation of social status, that it became essential if one wanted to be accepted as a member of the Venetian high society.
Rich families of other cities like Padua, Vicenza, Verona, soon wanted to follow the Venetian fashion. They started to build their own villas.
Today the countryside surrounding these cities is still provided with numerous prestigious villas. There are almost 4000 Venetian villas throughout Veneto region.
Many architects built Venetian villas over three centuries. Andrea Palladio was certainly the most important and the most influential of all. He was able to combine the beauty and the splendor of the residential building, with the functionality of the agricultural structures annexed to the central body (barchesse).
Through a careful study of the territory, he created scenographic effects of great impact, harmonizing his buildings with the nature of the landscape. Through technical devices and a wise use of materials, he also knew how to contain the costs of construction. Clients who were very scrupulous with money and investments highly appreciated.
The villas of Palladio are certainly the main attraction in the general panorama of Venetian villas. However, the large number of villas, their diversity by age, style, location, history, makes it possible to carry out a wide variety of itineraries to discover one of the most extraordinary architectural phenomena in the world.
Our guided tours are a jump back in time of 500 years. They allows you to immerse in the culture, in the splendor and in the lifestyle of the noble Venetian families of the past.