How Smelly Was the Palladian Villa?

Some things are older, some more modern, than one imagines. The hallowed English practice of polishing up old oak furniture, so that it is dark and gleaming, is relatively modern—something of an invention of the antiques trade. On the other hand topiary, the art of cutting box or yew hedges into animal shapes, is very old: Pliny the Younger mentions it in a famous letter discussing his Tuscan villa. When Wilhelmina Jashemski wanted to illustrate her book on Roman horticultural methods, she was able to make unforced comparisons between what she and her team had painstakingly uncovered around Pompeii and contemporary (1970s) practice in the same area. For instance, vines were trained on chestnut poles, to which they were tied with poplar or willow withes (that is, ties made of a length of young shoot), both in antiquity and at the time of writing.

In the Pompeian and Byzantine comparisons, the practices in question may be historically continuous because the same problems are faced over the years, and the same solutions seem best: terraces are required to create gardens on steep terrain, water must be channeled and stored, chestnut poles last longer in the ground than poplar, willow has always provided good withes, and so on. In the case of Plinian topiary, no doubt we are dealing with a revival, but a revival that is itself centuries old.

Humanists of the fifteenth century who read Pliny and the surviving classical agricultural texts wanted to secure a life like that for themselves. They wanted a garden with box animals and obelisks. They wanted a place in the country where they could relax from the pressures of the city, or where they could escape the plague (as in the admirably conceived opening of the Decameron), or where they could cultivate a life of learned ease in the manner of the ancients. City aristocrats wanted a break from the formalities of city life, some place where they could, without disgrace to their status, get up from a chair and put a log on the fire for themselves, and not have to call a servant (to cite an example given in a sixteenth-century text).

The villa craze, which began in the fourteenth century in Italy, was clearly a revival of a classical institution (no Roman villas had survived, although there were some whose ruins were visible). And yet, eerily enough, it has been found through archaeological investigation that villa types supposedly invented in the Renaissance do indeed have classical precedents. James Ackerman, in his 1985 Mellon Lectures, showed how the U-shaped loggia of Palladio’s Villa Badoer (post-1556) is anticipated in the layout of a Gallo-Roman villa of the second to fourth centuries AD. Since a revival of such forms is …

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