The transformation of the villa

By Vanessa Bezemer Sellers

The villa holds a central place in the history of Western architecture. On the Italian peninsula in antiquity, and again during the Renaissance, the idea of a house built away from the city in a natural setting captured the imagination of wealthy patrons and architects. While the form of these structures changed over time, and their location moved to suburban or even urban houses in garden settings, the core design tenet remained an architectural expression of an idyllic setting for learned pursuits and spiritual withdrawal into a domestic retreat from the city. After the Renaissance, the villa appears beyond an Italian context as an architectural form revived and reimagined throughout western Europe and in other parts of the world influenced by European culture.

The Villa Described in Literature

The term villa designates several types of structure that share a natural setting or agrarian purpose. Included in the architecture of a villa may be working structures devoted to farming, referred to as villa rustica, as well as living quarters, or villa urbana. The villa is therefore most aptly understood as a label or identity capturing several distinct parts, sometimes interrelated or dependent on one another and in other cases divorced from a larger architectural complex. Rather than embodying a concrete form, the term villa exhibits mobility as the application of an idea to architecture. In place of a fixed image is an architectural environment that embodies an ideal of living, or villeggiatura.

The form and organization of villa architecture depend upon literary descriptions provided by the authors of ancient Rome. Particularly, the writings of Columella (4–70 A.D.) in De re rustica (I.6.1–3) and Cato (234–149 B.C.) in De agricultura (I.4.1) elaborate on the features of their villas in the Campagna, the low-lying area surrounding Rome. Common among ancient writings, the villa enjoys from the natural setting restorative powers, or otium, in opposition to the excesses of city life, or negotium. Horace (65–8 B.C.) extolled the simple virtues and pleasures of ancient villa life in his poetry (for example, Odes I.17, Epistles I.7 and 10).

However, Pliny the Younger (ca. 61–112), in his Letters (Epistle to Gallus 2.17; Epistle to Apollinaris 5.6), persuaded later patrons and architects of the beauty afforded by his Laurentine and Tuscan villas. His descriptions constructed images of the general appearance of the villas and unfolded the experience with intertwined interior and exterior architectural features. Pliny’s retreats slipped into the landscape with terraced gardens and opened outward to natural surroundings through colonnades, or loggias, which replaced solid enclosing walls. The author retired to the gardens, or horti, to appreciate the abundance of flora and fauna. The cultural life of poetry, art, and letters unfurled in a setting that was distinctly different from the urban experience of Rome. Relying on initial reconstructions by Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548–1616), later architects would turn to Pliny’s descriptions to imagine the spaces and experience of the ancient villa.


The Villa Recovered: Archaeological Studies in Renaissance Italy

The architecture and landscape elements described by Pliny the Younger appear as part of the Roman tradition of the monumental Villa Adriana. Originally built by Emperor Hadrian in the first century A.D. (120s–130s), the villa extends across an area of more than 300 acres as a villa-estate combining the functions of imperial rule (negotium) and courtly leisure (otium). Fallen into ruin, the vast archaeological site was recovered in the fifteenth century and many architects—including Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439–1501), Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), and Pirro Ligorio (ca. 1512/13–1583)—excavated and recorded firsthand the details of Hadrian’s design while consulting descriptive passages of the emperor’s life at the villa from the text Historia Augusta. Most notably, the architect-antiquarian Ligorio employed sculptural remains of the Villa Adriana in the Vatican gardens and as architectural spolia in his design of the nearby Villa d’Este (begun 1560). Built as one of the most splendid garden ensembles in Renaissance Italy, Ligorio’s design for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572) remains celebrated for its festive waterworks and terraced gardens (1991.1073.145[4.3]). Like the descriptions of ancient villas consulted by Renaissance architects, the Villa d’Este commands spectacular vistas over the Roman campagna from its position high in the hills of Tivoli above the Villa Adriana.


The Invention of the Villa: Renaissance Rome and Florence

The imagined grandeur of the ancient Roman villa-estate depended not only on written descriptions but developed from the rediscovery of painted frescoes on the walls of antique ruins. The painter-architect Raphael (1483–1520) and his workshop reinterpreted the highly ornamental stucco details from their archaeological studies for the monumental Villa Madama in Rome (begun 1517). The painted and sculpted relief grotesques portray narratives from ancient authors and follow antique examples from the Villa Adriana and the Domus Aurea. Similarly, for Pope Julius III, several architects—including Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507–1573), Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511–1592), and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574)—created ornate surfaces within the courtyard, loggia, and grotto at the retreat in suburban Rome known as the Villa Giulia (1551–53).

Inspired by ancient precedent, Barozzi da Vignola adapted an enormous pentagonal-shaped fortified structure in his design for the Villa Farnese (begun 1556), which integrated the concepts of the Roman garden and villa within an invented form featuring a circular courtyard. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as the Roman elite looked to build country retreats, other architects began to specialize in villa architecture with increasing latitude from historical examples. Skillfully blending principles of classical form with the Baroque ideas of unity, grandeur, and the spectacular, their designs unified the architecture of the surface, interior, and landscape setting into a carefully arranged decorative whole.

Beautiful ornamental facades, elaborate entrance gates (24.45.3), and gardens (1991.1073.145[3.9]), replete with fantastic water displays (1991.1073.145[2.7]) and antique statues (1990.53.1; 1990.53.2), formed the stage for the grand theatrical entertainments of the day. Noteworthy examples include the immense villa gardens on the Pincio and Gianiculum hills associated with the powerful families of Rome such as the Villa Pincian (now Villa Borghese, 1612–13) (61.532.26[15]), the Villa Medici (1540/1574–77) (61.532.26[7]), and the Villa Doria Pamphilj (1644–52) on the Gianiculum. Equally vast estates were laid out in the Alban hills outside Rome at Frascati, including the Villa Aldobrandini (1598–1603) (1991.1073.145[2.5]) and the Villa Mondragone (1573–77) (1991.1073.145[2.18]). In and around Florence during the sixteenth century, the Medici family developed a series of villas integrated with the garden setting, such as the magnificently situated Villa Medici at Fiesole (1458–61), the inventive villa-park at Pratolino (now Villa Demidoff, 1569–81), and the delightful Villa La Petraia (1575–90) (36.31.10[33]), with its central belvedere overlooking the Arno River valley.


The Image of the Villa: The Veneto

A variation of the Roman villa ideal developed on the mainland, or terra firma, of the Venetian republic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The result of noble families improving their estates, the villa designs in the Veneto responded to Renaissance ideas promoted by humanist scholars and illustrated in the pages of architectural treatises printed in Venice by Italy’s most prolific presses. The 1511 edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura, prepared by the Franciscan friar and architect Giovanni Giocondo da Verona (ca. 1433–1515), added woodblock images of ancient buildings to visually describe the notoriously difficult first-century B.C. text. With nearly equal importance given to words and images, Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) amended ancient models with contemporary Roman examples on the pages of Regole generali di architettura (1537) and Il terzo libro, de le Antiquita (1540) (24.45.3[47]), the first two published books of his multivolume treatise. Serlio described the fresco perspective views at the Villa Farnesina (1509–11) as the extension of the interior space into the landscape, and he highlighted the siting of the Villa Madama “amongst all the elements required for pleasure.” Vincenzo Scamozzi’s L’idea della architettura universale (1615) recorded the return to the ancient Roman texts and the unity of geometry and proportion within architecture (42.60.2). The most prominent of the Venetian humanist-architects to claim the heritage of ancient Rome was Andrea Palladio, who promoted the antique tradition of his practice in I quattro libri dell’architettura (1570).

Palladio mastered a formula of the ideal villa as a type. He united in a design methodology the humanist understanding of otium with a repeating set of architectural rules governed by his reinterpretation of principles of proportion from ancient Roman precedent. Typically organized with symmetrical plans and incorporating the antique temple front as a portico, notable examples of Palladio’s villa designs include the Villa Barbaro at Maser (1557–58) (41.100.126[2.51]) and the Villa Almerico, near Vicenza (1566–69) (41.100.126[2.19]). These two buildings demonstrate the architect’s ability to design a versatile range of villa forms with extended rectangular shapes and square block forms. At the Villa Barbaro, the solid walls transform into a loggia, a painted representation drawing the natural surroundings into the central hall, or sala, with allegorical depictions of the seasons and scenes from contemporary villa life executed in 1561 by Paolo Veronese (1528–1588). In Palladio’s design for the Villa Almerico, four identical porticos with temple-fronts and broad rising staircases are arrayed symmetrically on perpendicular axes about a circular sala at the center of the building. The villa is advantageously placed on a hilltop and controls the landscape by its visibility across the fields. Palladio’s invention recalls the unusual combination of forms at the Villa Adriana, as he crowns the building with a dome and invests the structure with its alternate identity, the Villa Rotonda, which recognizes the ancient Roman example of the Pantheon.


The Transformation of the Villa beyond Italy

Translated and republished throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Palladio’s treatise exerted immense influence beyond Italy. In many countries the villa ideal became synonymous with Palladio’s inventions until the late eighteenth century. Villa architecture, at times infused with local building traditions, ultimately became a product created from the interpretation of antiquity and circulated by images of a Neoclassical style. Championed by Inigo Jones (1573–1652) in early seventeenth-century England, Palladio’s ideas of the villa type remained a dominant force in Georgian country-house architecture for nearly 200 years. The first revived design from Palladio’s text was likely Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House near London (1725–29), based on the published woodcuts and travelers’ observations of the Villa Rotonda (41.100.169[1.2.15]).

On the European continent as well as on distant shores, Palladianism replaced other ideas of the Roman villa. In Holland, the typology of his villa designs influenced Pieter Post’s (1608–1669) villa-palace Huis ten Bosch, near The Hague (1645–47) (64.65.2). In the colonies of America, the Neo-Palladian vocabulary influenced Thomas Jefferson’s home and retreat outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, called Monticello (1769–84, 1796–1809), and informed the design of Drayton Hall (ca. 1738–42), built at the center of a rice plantation on the banks of the Ashley River near Charleston, South Carolina.

In European villa designs, interior decoration emerged free of the simulation of antique precedent as witnessed in the Italian tradition of painted frescoes and relief stuccowork. Two period rooms in the Metropolitan Museum illustrate the increasingly complex hybridization of Palladian style in the classical interiors of eighteenth-century England. The Kirtlington Park dining room (1742–48) combines various sources in the design, including motifs after antique models (32.53.1), exuberant contemporary decorative flourishes in the wall decoration, and the seventeenth-century Palladian pattern on the ceiling after a similar design by Inigo Jones. By comparison, the dignified Neoclassical dining room from Lansdowne House (1766–69), designed by Robert Adam (1728–1792), may have more in common with an ideal interior after Palladio (32.12). The archaeologically correct ornamentation of the hall, especially the niches with antique sculpture, resembles the published design for a Corinthian Hall from the pages of Giacomo Leoni’s English edition of Palladio’s treatise (1715) (41.100.169[1.2.28]).


Sellers, Vanessa Bezemer, and Geoffrey Taylor. “The Idea and Invention of the Villa.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
Further Reading
Ackerman, James S. The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Boucher, Bruce. Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time. New York: Abbevile Press, 1994.

Coffin, David R. The Villa in the Life of Renaissance Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

MacDonald, William L., and John A. Pinto. Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Peck, Amelia, et al. Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996. 



Vanessa Bezemer Sellers
Independent Scholar

Geoffrey Taylor
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004