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.1 A recent study of Byzantine gardens, the first book of its kind, offers telling photographic comparisons between archaeological sites in, for instance, Sinai, and the walled and terraced monastery gardens on Mount Athos, which are still very much in operation.2

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 out of the question, Ackerman argued that they must somehow have survived the intervening centuries, through links which have since vanished. He suggested that culture preserves such types of building “subliminally, conveying it perhaps through vernacular versions.”3 Another explanation might be that, once the Italian architects had learned to think like Romans, and given that they were faced with similar problems of climate, technology, and so forth, their solutions naturally turned out, in some cases, the same as Roman solutions.

Vernacular architecture is that kind of building executed without professional plan but according to local formulas and traditions, using local materials and skills. Much of it would have been built without even any ambition for permanence. We get glimpses of the old vernacular architecture of the Ve-neto in the landscape drawings of Titian and his circle. At first sight the buildings look rather un-Italian, for they often have thatched roofs and timber (or wattle-and-daub) walls. They form untidy agglomerations. They cling to the edges of rivers, beside rickety bridges, or they attach themselves to medieval castles. It is hard to tell a house from a stable or a barn—and indeed there may well have been no firm distinction.

At the time when the villas of the Veneto were being built (starting in the mid-fifteenth century, and with a golden period a century later), much of the peasantry would have lived in this kind of structure: with mud walls and thatched roofs. And they went on doing so until at least the end of the nineteenth century, when the agricultural revolution began to hit Italy. Here is an Englishwoman’s description from 1893:

The most miserable mud hut can be entered at any hour of the day. Its big bed, stuffed with the husks of maize, will be spotlessly clean and smoothly made, although hens may be running under it, and the turkeys sitting in baskets by its side. There will not be a cinder on the hearth, save in the exact middle, where a neat pile of sticks crackle under the pot of polenta; and however poor the inhabitants, there will surely be a good show of burnished copper pails or platters along the wall. Yet at this point any description of pleasing objects has to cease. The house is usually composed of two to three rooms on the basement—upper storeys are abhorred by the native—its walls painted white, and usually composed of mud and reeds, the roof made of thatch, and not a flower or a creeper to brighten the eternal vista of corn or maize.4

The author of this description is Margaret Symonds, the daughter of John Addington Symonds, better known perhaps under her married name Madge Vaughan as a correspondent (and the first schoolgirl crush) of Virginia Woolf. She is describing a visit to the Veneto in the company of her father (and her father’s gondolier boyfriend Angelo) during which she stayed at the Villa Pisani in Vescovana. Hers is not a brilliant book (it is archly written) but it brings alive certain aspects of villa life which it would be hard to guess at from the modern literature on Palladio.


The term “villa,” in the context of the Veneto, means, generally speaking, a collection of buildings rather than a single structure. At its center is the owner’s house, the casa dominicale or casa di villa. Adjacent to this, or joined on by a series of loggias, are the stables and barns, and the living quarters of the farm workers, the bailiff or factor, and the accountant. The building complex encloses courtyard and farmyard, and connects to gardens and orchards and fields. The whole ensemble is the villa, and it is intended by Palladio that the owner should be able to visit most places under cover, to supervise the unloading and storage of produce, and to perform all other tasks required of him during his periodic visits, most notably at harvest time.

The kind of villa we are talking about is a farm, but the question that seems to perplex Palladian scholars is, how farmlike was this farm? Was it truly smelly? Or was it rather more like a “dairy” at Versailles, a courtly nod in the direction of agricultural life? James Ackerman, in his standard monograph, tells us that the Villa Maser “really functions as a farm,” and that arcades that lead off from either side of the main block are, were, or would have been (his word) smelly.5 But in his account of the similar arcades at the Villa Emo, in his Mellon Lectures, he says:

It is hard to know how literally to take the architect’s claim that these buildings combine the living and working functions. It seems unlikely that the patrician owners would have welcomed the odors, noise and mess involved in housing farm animals within their loggias, as is done in the Venetian barchesse [barns] on which these loggias were modeled, but it would have been wasteful not to have employed them for storing tools, vehicles, stakes, birding nets and other necessaries of farming.

In other words, even if Palladio says that there are stables in the immediate vicinity of the house (which he does), we may think twice before taking him at his word.

Ackerman’s point was explained in his first lecture: the villa was a paradigm for him not only of architecture but of ideology: “It is a myth or fantasy through which over the course of millennia persons whose position of privilege is rooted in urban commerce or industry have been able to expropriate rural land, often requiring, for the realization of the myth, the care of a laboring class or of slaves.” Given the power of this particular ideology (I deduce from Ackerman), it might well have suited Palladio and his clients to imply, for instance, proximity to the workings of farm life, involvement with daily agricultural tasks, and so forth, when in fact there wasn’t so much.

The non-smelly hypothesis is argued with great vigor and emphasis by Doug-las Lewis in a work recently reviewed in these pages.6 Discussing the barns at the Villa Pisani in Bagnolo (there are several Pisani villas, the family being among the largest landowners in the Veneto), Lewis tells us that when the main house was actually occupied by the owners, the outbuildings would never have functioned in a utilitarian way for the uses of the farm, “notwithstanding Palladio’s theoretical argumentation to that effect.” Even when Palladio “propagandistically” marks buildings for agricultural purposes, we should understand that there would have been nothing going on in these buildings that would create noises or smells, or cause invasions of privacy. Palladio’s designs, in Lewis’s view, depict the “ceremonial centers” of the estates.


Witold Rybczynski, in The Perfect House, his new book on Palladio, echoes Lewis. The porticoes at Bagnolo, he tells us,

enclosed a formal, ceremonial space. Despite Palladio’s claim that the courtyard was for “farm use,” it was hardly a barnyard with piles of manure, rooting pigs, and clucking chickens.

There is another farmyard, elsewhere, for agricultural use, although Rybczynski adds that “the stables and storage rooms around the formal cortile were for the convenience of the immediate household.” (So, there must have been some manure somewhere around.)

Palladio’s great houses, in common with other such buildings in the Veneto, had basements in which, typically, there were kitchens, laundries, and rooms for wine-making and other household functions. Above these was the piano nobile, containing reception rooms and bedrooms for the owner’s family. At the top of the house was an attic which is regularly denoted as a granary. Nobody seems to doubt either that the basement functioned as a busy center of household activity or that the attic functioned as a granary, being a secure place to store the family wealth. But Rybczynski, struck by the size of one of these granaries, makes a calculation. A large Vicentine estate might be expected to produce four or five hundred bushels of grain a year. But, filled to a height of four or five feet, the attic of this particular villa could accommodate six thousand bushels. Ergo, the attic was not only a granary. (I shall ex-plain later why I think this calculation misconceived.)

In similar fashion, looking at what is usually referred to as a threshing floor in front of the Villa Emo, Rybczynski recalls that Palladio advised that threshing floors should not be placed too near the owner’s house because of the dust, but that they should be near enough to be seen (the point presumably being that when the grain has been threshed it becomes easy to pilfer: it’s hard to sneak off with a wheat sheaf, but easy to fill your pockets with grain). “If the Emo terrace is a threshing floor,” says Rybczynski, “it definitely seems too close.” So perhaps it is just a grand entranceway.

Rybczynski’s book is courteously written, and aimed at the nonspecialist for whom all the necessary background information is given. We learn something of how Palladio drew, how he measured buildings, how he educated himself and rose from stonemason to architect. We learn about some of his other buildings. And we learn, in pleasant detail, how Rybczynski drives around the Veneto, misses a turn, finds a villa, how he is let in and allowed to wander alone, how he breaks in, what he eats, how he has difficulty with Italian, and so forth. This is the genre of the book. Nevertheless it is based on thoughtful observation by an architect and teacher educated by a reading of the scholarship.

But this scholarship has a Magritte-like tendency to post notices on maps and plans of the work of Palladio and his contemporaries saying: This is not a farmyard, this is not a stable, this is not a threshing floor, this is not a granary (or not only a granary), these are not functioning buildings, these are rhetorical statements, this is not a barn, this is a ceremonial space. In the process, the meaning and (I believe) function of the architecture is obscured. Certainly what Palladio writes gets roundly contradicted.

The problem seems to stem from a mismatch between periods: what is too noisy, too smelly, too dusty, too dirty for the modern scholar may be well within the bounds of the tolerable for historical Renaissance men and women. After all, the main staircase in the palace at Urbino is large enough to bring horses up, and there were stables at the top of the stairs. The plan of Michele Sanmichele’s Villa Soranza clearly shows stabling in the adjacent loggia, enough for eighteen horses. And besides, these people were surely crazy about their horses. The stables of the Villa Da Porto Colleoni appear to feature Verona marble tethering posts, each pillar surmounted by a white marble putto.7

To return to the eyewitness account by Margaret Symonds of an estate in the Veneto at the end of the nineteenth century: Count Almorò III, the last of his branch of the Pisanis, having sunk a fortune in the huge eighteenth-century Villa Pisani at Strà, sold up, retrenched, and retired to the villa at Vescovana in 1850. Two years later he married Evelina van Millingen, the daughter of Dr. Julius van Millingen, who had attended Byron in his last illness at Missolonghi (more exactly, had helped bleed him to death) and had subsequently been doctor to five successive sultans in Constantinople. Evelina, whose French mother was said to have grown up in the harem at Topkapi, had lived in Turkey and Rome. Now as Countess Pisani she began to devote herself to her husband’s estate.

What she found on arrival at Vescovana was that the family lived entirely in the basement of the house:

…Passing pairs of pigs would wander in on a warm morning to wallow on the silk divan where the young bride sat at work. Their owners, following to fetch these vagrant hogs, marvelled greatly at the new padrona’s screams of horror. All the large rooms on the first floor were uninhabited, and used for drying beans or storing lumber. Strings were stretched from end to end of the big drawing-room, and here the washing was hung to dry.

In front of the dining-room windows, there were two huge threshing floors, where “all the wheat of the entire property was spread, threshed, and stacked in season.”

You have to imagine a vast house, longer (we are told) than the Piazza San Marco in Venice, whose noble inhabitants (no doubt infected by the “native’s” abhorrence of living on upper storeys, as mentioned by Margaret Symonds in the passage quoted earlier) camped entirely below stairs, while the piano nobile had been turned over to agricultural use—suites of sixteenth-century frescoed rooms devoted to drying beans and laundry lines. And this would always be the tendency in such establishments. The demands of agriculture are inexorable. You leave a door open and in comes a pig. You turn your back for a moment and the threshing floor has mysteriously crept up through the garden and is now (where country prudence wants it) under the dining-room window.

Four decades later, when Margaret Symonds visited, the house was so grandly run that the laundry was sent to be washed in Mestre and ironed in Milan. The servants came and went noiselessly across heavy carpets, bringing dishes of jellied swan or some eastern gourd. Yet the dimly lit dining room was alive with screaming cats. The windows were kept shut tight, even on stifling nights, “against the fever,” but as soon as a cat rattled the panes the footman would let it in. The cats jumped on the sideboard for chicken bones and discarded asparagus stalks, and each of them was known to the countess by name.

The place was notable for its loud nightingales (Henry James refers to them) and its owls, and for “those indescribable noises which ramp about the upper stories of a doge’s farm,” which made the newly arrived Englishwoman bury her head in the embroidered sheets. “Did you hear the rats?” said a guest the next morning. “It is rather a bore having the granaries just over the bedrooms.”

Not just over the bedrooms: the granaries were huge, and presumably stretched the whole length of the house:

The countless windows are opened by the domestic, letting in a warm light through curtains of wistaria and of ivy. As you probably know nothing of the merits of beans and maize, and care still less, you retain of these granaries but a very dim impression, only, maybe, a recollection of hundreds of square feet of grain spread on their floors….

It is this last detail which solves the problem Rybczynski set himself:Why should a Veneto granary be so large? The answer is that the grain was spread out on the floor to be kept cool. That is why Palladio (and Vitruviusbefore him) recommends a north-facing window for a granary, and insists that it should have air. Grain must be kept cool and dry, or it will molder. When it molders, it heats up. A moldy grain loses both its viability as seed and its usefulness in the malting process (should that be relevant). It becomes inedible, indeed poisonous through ergot. To keep the grain cool it is best to spread it relatively thinly on the floor. And surely the reason why the windows in Palladian attic granaries sometimes reach down to the floor is precisely to en-sure the floor-level draft the grain needs. But of course if grain is spread out on the floor it will attract rats. That is no doubt why the “natives” wouldn’t have liked sleeping on an upper floor.

The great difference between the dwellers in vernacular mud and thatch and the proud owners of a villa was that the former had only a limited ability to store grain, whereas the latter could store it against famine, could sell it back to the peasants who had harvested it, and could even speculate on the price of grain, play the market, benefit from a shortage. Thinking of how these villas worked, one cannot avoid the consideration that famine was recurrent in the sixteenth cen-tury, and that the peasants were reduced to abandoning the land and going to Venice and Vicenza for relief. In a memorable passage, one diarist records:

You cannot walk down the street or stop in a square or church without multitudes surrounding you to beg for charity: you see hunger written on their faces, their eyes like gemless rings, the wretchedness of their bodies with the skins shaped only by bones.

Howard Burns, who quotes this in an old catalog, reminds us also, in a quotation, that the countryside periodically was witness to mass hysteria:

In 18 or 20 villages of this territory, under pretext of Religion and of miracles which it had been put about that the Madonna had performed, the people had risen up to such a point that an infinite number of people had come together in the churches of these places, where they remained day and night, because they said that the Madonna had performed miracles. And in these churches they ate, danced, and kissed each other, the women the men, and the men the women, and they said that the Madonna had ordered them so to do, and they committed other improper acts under this pretext, add- ing also, as we understand, some heretical things. And to such an extent had these people risen up, that the peasants had totally abandoned the countryside, and the artisans their workshops as they did not want to work any more, saying that as for their livelihood, the Madonna will provide.

In response, the churches were kept locked by the authorities except during services.8

You get a distant sense of that history of famine in the pages Margaret Symonds devotes to the harvest and in particular to gleaning. The menfolk would reap the wheat and stack it, and at a given signal the women would be let into the fields to glean, which Symonds describes as “pure, unmitigated passion. It is in the heart of these people—their very souls seem bound up in it. Family cares, if they exist, are forgotten.”

The harvest season was also the courting season, and a woman proved her worth by the amount she had gleaned. She would hang her gains out over her window, or on the thatched roof. Symonds’s description of the bedlam of gleaning—“eighty acres of stubble, absolutely alive with flapping hats, white shirts, and bare brown arms”—reminds us of the large numbers of people, and the antiquity of the society involved. It is just about to change, for already there are threshing machines on the estate, but for the moment you can still see scenes which remind the onlookers of the Book of Ruth.

You can stay at the Villa Pisani in Vescovana. You can rent, as Rybczynski does, Palladio’s Villa Saraceno. Reflecting on his researches, Rybczynski concludes:

Palladio villas are sometimes described as exalted farmhouses, an appellation that captures neither their commanding authority nor their imposing presence. Yet the description has merit, for the unabashedly simple materials and uncomplicated details serve to amplify Palladio’s achievement. “There is something divine about his talent,” Goethe wrote, “something comparable to the power of a great poet who, out of the world of truth and falsehood, creates a third whose borrowed existence enchants us.”

It is nicely put, but there is something enchanting, too, in the thought that these villas, as Ackerman originally argued, were indeed working farms—with dogs and cats and rats, with horses and oxen over which their owners doted, with all the noises of a traditional farm (noises which, after all, are not so hard to bear)—farms in a tradition that gives us a glimpse of life as it was lived in antiquity.

This Issue

October 24, 2002