The apparently divergent views that usually stand between the ideals of town and country, utopia and arcadianism, are reconciled in Palladio’s villa buildings.  Just as Palladio’s civic works in Vicenza and Venice clearly express a desire to recreate each city, and therefore the populace within, as heroic and virtuous in emulation of the ancients, Palladio’s country villas are a continuation of that same theme.  Palladio’s aim, as he writes, is that in the country villa the patron continued to pursue a life of elegance, virtue and wisdom:


…he will not reap much less utility and consolation from the country house; where the remaining part of the time will be passed in seeing and adorning his own possessions, and by industry, and the art of agriculture, improving his estate; where also by the exercise which in a villa is commonly taken… the body will the more easily preserve its strength and health; and, finally, where the mind, fatigued by the agitations of the city, will be greatly restored and comforted, and be able quietly to attend to the studies of letters, and contemplation.[i]


Unlike the villas around Rome and Tuscany Palladio’s villas were not strictly pleasure villas, nor were they built purely for function.  The Villa Barbaro at Maser (1557-58) is an excellent example of this combination of function, pleasure, culture and knowledge as well as being an excellent example of the sorts of influences Palladio’s patrons had over his works.  The distinguished patrons of the Villa Barbaro, the brothers Daniele and Marc’ Antonio Barbaro were both architectural experts: Daniele, Patriarch-Elect of Aquileia was the author of the translation of Vitruvius for which Palladio provided the illustrations in 1556; and Marc’Antonio ultimately one of Venice’s leading statesmen, who’s voice was prominent in the
discussion of every public building project from 1574 until his death in 1595[ii].

Figure 13, Palladio: Villa Barbaro, Maser 1557-58[iii]

The Barbaro villa is not just a palace in the country, but a complex in which dwelling and farm functions are integrated into the building itself.  The upper floor of the villa is for habitation and equal to the level of the rear terrace that is adorned with a richly sculpted nymphaeum and a pond (fig.15) that flow from a natural spring that influenced the original placing of the villa site.  The lower floor is an adaptation of the arched barchesse traditional in the Veneto and is intended for the storage of farm implements and feed.  The flanking towers contain a stable, a winery and, above, dovecots for raising edible fowl.[iv]  The walled gardens designed for the slopes on either side of the broad central access were irrigated by water that flowed from the spring and pond at the rear through the kitchen.[v]  The nymphaeum (fig.15) is an unusual feature, more in keeping with Roman conceptions of the villa as belvedere than most Venetian villas.  Yet the waters here, brimming

with the same symbolic meaning and value as in a Roman villa and the villas of antiquity are also put to practical uses such as fish farming and irrigation.

Figure 14, Villa Barbaro, view from the Piano nobile over the Barbaro farming land[vi]


The emphasis upon the necessary interconnection between the functionality and appropriateness of the villa with its symbolic and spiritual roles is also clear in Palladio’s description of Maser in the Quattro Libri:


The building below is at Maser, a Villa near Asolo Castello del Trevigiano, of Monsignor Reverendissimo Eletto di Aquilea and of magnifico Signor Marc’ Antonio, the de’ Barbari brothers.  That part of the building which projects forward, has two levels of rooms.  The floor of the upper story is at the same level as the pavement of the courtyard at the rear, where the mountain has been cut away and there is a fountain decorated with infinite amounts of stucco and paint.  This spring makes a small lake that serves as a small fish pond.  From there the water leaves and flows into the kitchen, and then it irrigates the gardens which are to the right and the left of the part of the road, which, slowly climbing, leads up to the building.  It [the water] then makes two fish ponds with their drinking troughs above the public road, from where it parts, and waters the garden that is very large and full of excellent fruit trees and various bushes.  Façade of the house has four columns of the Ionic order, the capitals and the corner ones face in two directions… On the one side and on the other there are loggias, whose extremities have dovecotes, and under these there are places to make wine, and the stables, and the other outbuildings for the use of the villa.’[vii]


The stuccoed Roman temple-front of the villa that emphatically does not recall the odours and confusion of the farmyard is explained in the Quattro Libri.  Palladio’s reasons for turning to religious architecture for motifs for the villa are thus:


I have made in all the villa buildings and also in some of the city ones a pediment on columns for the front façade in which there are principal portals.  The reason is that these porches announce the entrance of houses and lend much to their grandeur and magnificence.  They make the forward part more eminent than the other parts…Also the ancients used them in their buildings, as one sees in the remains of temples and of other public edifices, which in turn got the motif in all probability from house architecture.[viii]


The influence of Palladio’s patrons in the design and planning of their villa give Villa Barbaro an eclectic quality that one meets nowhere else in Palladio’s work.   It is also a quality which certainly derives from the range of the Barbaro’s contacts, above all in Rome.  Influences from Barbaro’s visit to the city in 1554, together with Palladio, are fairly clearly echoed in the design.  In 1554 Raphael’s Villa Giulia was the most spectacular new building in Rome: its stuccoes, its fountains, its impressive illusionistic frescos and the repetition of the circle throughout the building plan is reflected at Maser.  Barbaro dedicated his Vitruvius to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, and praises his architect Pirro Ligorno[ix] in the text.  There is an echo in the fountain nymphaeum of the ornately antique fountains and great garden schemes which the Cardinal realised at Tivoli.  The balustrades of the first floor balconies, which Veronese repeated in his decoration, occur nowhere else in Palladio’s work yet recall Michelangelo’s St Peters in Rome.

Figure 15, Courtyard and nymphaeum, Villa Barbaro[x]

As in many of Palladio’s villas and city palaces, the Villa Barbaro has magnificent frescos throughout the main part of the villa that work with the form and design of the building to inspire the inhabitant and visitor with its elegant harnessing of the classical and the Venetian.  In the main salon of the villa illusionistic frescoed landscapes alternate with real windows that look out onto the Barbaro lands between white classical columns.  The juxtaposition of illusion and reality gave the twofold effect of giving greater vivacity to the painting while ennobling the landscape and thereby bringing beautiful reality and romantic fantasy into union.  The links between the architecture and the classical world, both in form and in meaning is constantly present in the frescos.  Many of the frescos portray heroic deeds and ancient allegories common to classical mythology and cosmology.  Alongside the symbols of Virtue, Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Temperance and Strength we find the gods of a more pastoral aspect such as Diana, Ceres and Bacchus.  They share the walls in harmony with Christian figures such as the Madonna della Tazza, who not only imbue the villa with Christian intention but land it specifically in a Venetian context that combined the antique with Christian figures significant to the Venetian Republic.[xi] 


Figure 16, Paolo Veronese: ceiling fresco from the main salon in the Villa Barbaro at Maser.[xii]


Interesting also is the fact that the frescos in the villa are not only dedicated to mythological and sacred figures but real contemporary figures.  Like the frescos of the landscapes in juxtaposition with the real landscape at Maser, these frescos deliberately blur the boundaries between the antique and the contemporary, real and mythological and spiritual.  The most famous and striking of these frescos are the life size depictions of the hunter coming from the woods with his dogs and the noblewoman, children, parrot and monkey who look over a ‘balcony’ down onto the Salon of Olympus (fig.16).  Other ceilings, such as those of the central cupola depict astrological scenes.  Daniele and Marc’Antonio’s father Ermolao Barbaro, wrote several texts on astrology and these frescos deal with his

Figure 17, Paolo Veronese: frescos in the salon, Villa Maser.[xiii]


ideas.  In these works too, the essence is harmony, the harmony that exists between life and destiny.  The central female figure of these frescos has been interpreted as Divine Wisdom and the allegory of Venice.[xiv]


The framework of the program for the villa and the extent to which it can be seen as a gesamtkunstwerk that seeks to combine practicality with the symbolic, politics with the intellect can be better understood in the context of Daniele Barbaro’s commentary on and translation of Vitruvius (1556).  The translation was the most accurate and informed of the Renaissance, and the commentary was the first to be

Figure 18, Paolo Veronese: frescos in the salon, Villa Maser[xv]

based on a thorough knowledge of the Roman remains.[xvi]  It is also a major instance of the Renaissance appropriation of antiquity and of the discourse on the nature of artistic invention.  A major strength of Barbaro’s commentary is his capacity to clearly structure confused passages in Vitruvius’s text and to put them into a simple philosophical framework that synthesizes Platonic and Aristotelian principles: Platonic in locating the source of the architect’s inspiration and knowledge in the immanent order and harmony of the natural world; and Aristotelian in the articulation of architectural practice. 


Barbaro relates the first principles of architecture to the intellect.  The intellect, Barbaro explains, has two modes (habiti) of arriving at truth, one deriving from necessity and one contingent.  Necessary truth is revealed by science, intellect (which apprehends truth through divine rays, and leads to understanding), and knowledge (sapienza).  Contingent truth includes the arts, which do not achieve necessary truth because they are dependant on human will.  Some relate to union and conversation, some to utility and universal convenience: the former are ruled by prudence, the moderator of human and civil action (such as judges); and the latter by craft (soldiers, farmers, architects).[xvii]


While Vitruvius limits the meaning of Arte to manual skill, Barbaro elevates it to a branch of learning.  Vitruvius distinguishes three types of artificer: the first has manual skill but lacks culture; the second possesses only theory and learning, and therefore follows a shadow rather than the thing itself; the third commands both, and gains authority and influence.  Barbaro develops these distinctions onto a three-leveled hierarchy, the lowest being experience, the next Arte, and the highest, knowledge.  Barbaro argues that Arte is more worthy than experience because it is nearer to knowledge, understanding and articulating causes and reasons and capable of the most valuable sign of knowledge – the capacity to teach others.  As he writes:


The dignity of architecture appears to be equivalent to knowledge and to be a heroic virtue residing at the centre of all the arts, because it alone grasps the causes, it alone embraces beautiful and elevated things, it alone… joins with the most certain sciences such as arithmetic, geometry, and many others, without which… all art is vile and without repute.[xviii]


Barbaro placed the transparent truth of mathematical knowledge at the centre of his Platonic and Aristotlean reading of Vitruvius:


 the way to know the most noble Arts is this: that those, in which the Art of numbering is necessary, Geometry and the other Mathematics, all have something great, and the rest that is without these arts (as Plato says), is vile and abject like a thing born of simple imagination, false conjecture, and is experience devoid of truth.[xix] 


For Barbaro, science is the habit of drawing conclusions according to a true and necessary acquired proof, but it is also about knowing how to conclude many things from the right principles.


Truly divine is the desire of those, who raising their minds to consider things, search for the reasons behind them, and looking as if above them and at the truth from afar, are spurred to try to look at it… It is a beautiful thing to be able to judge, and approve of the works of mortals, as a superior act of virtue toward an inferior one: nonetheless few take the trouble, few want to strive… and consequently do not reach the end of architecture.[xx]


It is from this standpoint then that Barbaro sees the works and theories of Palladio as being both functional and intellectual.  Palladio’s conscious appropriation of classical architectural forms is elevated to a spiritual and moral duty.  A duty that has a civic role in enlightening the viewer to not only the virtue and nobility of Venetian power and heritage but to the essential and structure of the divine world. 


[i] ibid., p.121

[ii]Puppi, op. cit., p. 84

[iii] Image from Ackerman, op. cit., p.50

[iv] Ackerman, op. cit., p. 48

[v] See Palladio’s description of the functions of the villa in the Quattro Libri, p. 119

[vi] Image from Ackerman, op. cit., p.51

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Palladio, op. cit., p.77.

[ix] Ligorio and Palladio were certainly in touch with another in 1554 and probably in 1545-47  Palladio copied Ligorio’s drawings of the Tempietto di Clitummo, and the Roman villa at Anguillara, and Ligorio copied Palladios section of the amphitheatre at Verona. Burns, ‘I  disegni del Palladio’ 1973, 169-191

[x] Image from Asensio, op. cit., p.52

[xi] See Cocke, ‘Veronese and Daniele Barbaro’, 1973, p. 243

[xii] Image from: Asensio, op. cit., p.53

[xiii] Image from: Ackerman, Palladio’s Villas, 1967, p.84

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] ibid.

[xvi] Kruft: A History of Architectural Theory, 1994, p. 86

[xvii] Both Plato in The Republic and Aristotle in La Politica define artisans and farmers etc as separate from the guardians of a civilized state.

[xviii] Barbaro, op. cit., p. 222

[xix] ibid, p.124

[xx] ibid., p.125