Towards an ecology of the Palladian villa



Graham Livesey



… our house would emerge as permeated from every direction by streams of energy… . Its image of immobility would then be replaced by an image of a complex of mobilities… .1

Henri Lefebvre

The villas by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) in the sixteenth century for the terra firma, or mainland, region of the Veneto were designed primarily for the nobility of Vicenza and Venice. They were typically the centerpieces of working farms, and supplemented the incomes of the owners; they also provided a place for culture, recreation, leisure, and entertainment. The Palladian villa remains a distinct and comprehensively studied sub-type within the historical typology of the villa, and yet much of the scholarship surrounding the Palladian villa concentrates on the formal qualities of the buildings; relatively little has been written about how the Palladian villa was occupied. Here the functional organization of the villa and the use of furniture will be briefly studied in order to address the notion that all buildings and environments constitute ecologies.

An ecology is defined as the vital interaction between organisms and the environments they occupy, and is a concept that was devised in the mid-nineteenth century.2 Ecologies are measured in terms of how they function as habitats, which necessitates examining flows of populations, energy, water, waste, nutrients, and the like. Ecologies can be productive or not, and they are subject to a wide range of events. Ecologies constructed by humans also include technologies, economies, and socio-political systems, as humans modify and adapt to environments through the creation of clothing, objects, shelter, settlements and organizations. The overall behavior of an environment evaluates the productivity of that environment in terms of the energy employed, the distribution of nutrients and waste, the health of populations and also the economic, social and political dynamics of the system. Over time well-functioning ecologies support a complex range of species and tend towards dynamic balance, despite being continuously subject to changing arrays of forces.

The landscape ecologist Richard T.T. Forman has developed a method for examining the behavior of ecologies based on the “patch,” “corridor,” and “matrix.”3 This method examines the structure and performance of landscapes against various flows and population systems. Patches are defined territories or spaces that have a discernible composition, shape, size, edge characteristics, and adjacencies.4 A patch or territory, for example a room in a building or a small park in a city, has a latent functionality that is activated by populations that inhabit it and by the characteristics of the patch. In the case of architecture this has to do with how internal spaces are arranged, and how these relate to a larger context. Landscape ecologists employ the notion of “patch dynamics” to describe how a group of spaces might behave over time according to changing arrangements.

The behavior of a group of patches is influenced by the boundaries that both separate and unite adjoining territories or spaces. Boundaries, such as walls, and how they are composed, is also an essential factor in looking at the performance of an architectural ecology.5 Buildings are arrangements of spaces that are either functionally predetermined or open. The productivity of a building’s arrangement depends on the dynamics that occur within the internal spaces, and between the building and its context. Much of this depends on the size, shape, and location of a space, and the porosity of the boundaries that define that space. For example, walls in buildings function like membranes in that they filter a wide range of flows from heat, light, sound, and water, to animals, humans, and vegetation. Doors and windows are used in architecture as devices for crossing boundaries, and for regulating flows. The arrangement of spaces in a building and the interconnections between the spaces establish an ecological and functional potential. This is completed by how humans interact with the spaces, and how they modulate the environment through the use of furnishings and possessions.


Agostino Gallo, writing in 1566, describes in detail the pleasure of villa life including the benefits of fresh air and good food, the freedom and ease of living in the country, the enjoyment of watching peasants working, and the various activities the inhabitants enjoyed (hunting, conversing, reading, playing games, dining, and listening to music). His protagonist portrays a typical day in the villa:

In particular this passage describes the social and recreational activities of noblemen enjoying the benefits of life in a late Renaissance villa. The women who also occupied the villa would have had a much more restricted existence, following very different patterns of living.7 This wide range of activities would have been supported by a host of servants whose labor was essential to operating the house and the farm.8

In his famous treatise The Four Books on Architecture (I quattro libri dell’architettura), originally published in 1570, Palladio, in his precise manner, elaborates on a villa in which the owner can pass his time “improving his property and increasing his wealth through his skill in farming,” and enjoy the benefits of life in a rural setting.9 The siting of the villa as part of a working farm was a crucial decision, and despite the lack of site drawings in Palladio’s oeuvre, contemporary studies demonstrate how carefully he located the villas.10 In siting the villa and outbuildings, and arranging internal spaces, Palladio was very conscious of factors such as access, wind, orientation to the sun, views, and less commodious factors such as dampness.11 A range of outbuildings, including the barchessa, either attached to the villa, or not, would have accommodated servants, animals, implements, and storage. In the flat landscape of the Veneto the villas were typically located facing a river or canal; this landscape had been engineered for some time in order to provide drainage, irrigation, and transportation systems.12 Ultimately, the siting of the building and the arrangement of the internal spaces contribute to the ecological effectiveness of a design.

The internal organization of the villa that Palladio developed responded precisely to the needs of his clients, judging from the popularity of his designs. Palladio’s villas followed a repeating pattern that organized rooms according to public (entrate, sale), semi-private (stanze, camere, camerini), and servant’s areas. The servants’ working spaces were typically arranged on the lower level with kitchens, cellars, and the like, while the main rooms were formally grouped on the piano nobile, which was elevated above ground level, around the main sala; the upper mezzanine levels were typically used as granaries and servant’s quarters.13 The piano nobile was sandwiched between the working, or less noble, areas of the house, internal stairs were discretely hidden within the fabric of the villa to accommodate the functioning of the villa, and external stairs typically provided dramatic access to the loggia from the estate.

The loggia was a vital element in the house working in tandem with the sala (Figures 16.1 and 16.2), or main hall, as it provided a transitional space between interior and exterior and was used for leisure, dining, and viewing the surrounding countryside.14 The sala (and entrances), as the most public space in the house, would have been used mainly for entertaining, conducting business, and for parties, banquets, performances, and weddings, and was typically a large formal room. The other, more private, rooms (stanze, camere) were equally distributed on either side of the public spaces and were multi-functional.15 The Palladian villa plan is characterized by its careful and symmetrical arrangement of spaces within a controlled form, akin to that of the human body. To some extent the organization of the villas reflected the arrangement of the palaces Palladio’s clients occupied in Vicenza and Venice, the Venetian palace being formally organized on the piano nobile level around the portego.16 Palladio writes of convenience, that it “will be provided when each member is given its appropriate position, well situated, no less than ­dignity requires nor more than utility demands; each member will be correctly positioned when the loggias, halls, rooms, cellars, and granaries are located in their appropriate places.”17 The rigorous “systematization”18 of the villa plan was a new aspect of Palladio’s designs, as was the controlled balancing of the facades and placement of openings (Figure 16.3).

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Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Towards an ecology of the Palladian villa
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