Recently I was lucky to spend ten days in Veneto, and to make trips to a few of Palladio’s villas presently open for visitors. The word “villa” has a strange undertone in today’s English; on hearing it one imagines a place of idle leisure and slightly questionable taste. All this was very different in the early 16th century when Palladio had developed the typology and language of his buildings. The circumstances and background of the villas’ construction offer curious analogies with our present, early 21st century state of affairs. History always repeats itself.
Five hundred year ago, the Republic of Venice found itself in a state of never-ending war with the Islamic world (the Ottoman Turks). Venetian ports and trade outposts were subject to frequent terrorist attacks by pirates and mercenaries. The sea trade with the East plummeted, being too dangerous, and the economy went into a protracted recession. In these dire conditions, Venetian merchants and noblemen turned their attention inward, towards their own long neglected mainland. They saw agriculture as a novel way of generating income and producing much needed reserves of grain, food, and vine.
The villas were needed, first and foremost, as buildings for agricultural production. The living space of the owners was prominent but relatively small. The rest of the estate was taken by the barchesse (or utility structures), used as workers’ housing, stables, storage for grain and supplies. The genius of Palladio was to turn this complex and heterogeneous program into symmetrical classical compositions, perfectly set into the open landscape of the Veneto region. All this became possible because Palladio and his enlightened patrons saw agriculture as humanistic activity, something close to our present appreciation of ecological, self-sustaining way of living. For them, working with land included not only economics and politics, but also the art of observing, decorating, contemplating, and almost religious appreciation of the landscape. “Holy agriculture”, the expression used by Palladio, would perfectly summarize it all.
Recently, John Thackara has promoted his idea of a bioregion as a blueprint for development in many areas of the world. “It triggers people to seek practical ways to re-connect with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water and energy sources on which all life depends. It re-imagines the urban landscape itself as an ecology with the potential to support us”, writes Thackara. In this respect, the history of Venetian villas could provide some useful insights. Who knows, maybe the bioregion movement will give us the next Palladio.