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Trip Report Two Busy Weeks in the Veneto 2: with Palladio at the Villa Saraceno

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If you read the first in this series of reports, you will know that we were in the Veneto because generous friends invited us to join a group sharing the Villa Saraceno, a house designed and built by Andrea Palladio in the late 1540's and restored and now owned by the UK based Landmark Trust. It is available for rent and offers accomodation and very comfortable facilities for up to about 18 people. Our hosts rented the house for a week and invited five other couples and two singles, all interested in the arts and architecture, to join them.

The Villa Saraceno, located about 30 km southeast of Vicenza, was one of a group of country properties designed for wealthy Venetians as the core of mainland estates. These estates were, like plantations in the American South, sources of wealth for their owners, but they were also refuges from the summer heat and humidity of Venice and increasingly, the focus of musings on the moral virtues of country life, like the Plantation South or the English landed gentry, with considerable irony in the latter and no doubt the former cases as wel since all these great estates depended on masses of cheap labor.

Palladio was a local stonemason who attracted the attention of a patron who sent him to Rome to study both contemporary architecture and the growing number of Roman excavations. Because Palladio was a tradesman, he did not just draw pretty pictures of what he saw but succeeded in understanding both the classical aesthetic and the methodology of classical construction. He systematized a lot of this in his practice and recorded it in his Four Books of Architecture. He is the most influential domestic architect in history, and his influence can be seen from Inigo Jones to Lord Burlington to Thomas Jefferson to Robert Venturi.

The Villa Seraceno was one of the houses included in the Four Books, so we know what it was supposed to be like: a raised central residential block with long wings on either side to contain the agricultural activities of the estate. Only one of the wings was ever built, and that incompletely, but the central block (see it on Wikipedia) is pretty much the way it was designed, including some of the original frescos, and is an enormously comfortable place to stay.

There are only five real rooms on the main floor: a large living room and an equally large dining room, two smaller bedrooms, and the sala, a very large central hall roughly as high as it is wide, all behind three arches and a porch. The sala has a tall door at each end, north and south, and there is great joy in opening and closing them at the beginning and end of the day. The light in this part of Italy is wonderful, rose and golden morning and evening, hot white in the middle of the day, and the house is perfectly sited to take advantage of it and of the prevailing breezes, and its thick walls keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, provided that you manage the windows and shutters properly.

Living in the house for a week allows one to experience the way a genius thought about and executed the kinds of spaces that would facilitate and encourage human interaction and pleasure. We cooked and ate breakfast and dinner together every day before and after dispersing into the countryside to pursue individual interests, and plates and food appeared and were eaten and carried away and cleaned and put away without a lot of effort, all amid discussion of the house and the countryside and the society in which they originated and continue today.

Everywhere one looked were things to delight the eye and questions to occupy the mind: it is a very plain building, yet there is molding to break plains surface just where one's eye needs something. But why were the bands of molding successively deeper the higher up the building? And while all the rooms are geometrically related, why this geometry here and that geometry there? And everywhere was the sense of contemporary comfort coexisting with great age: much of the exterior plaster is original -- very nearly five hundred years old. Sustainable? Yes.

My wife's judgement of the house, shared by others, is that it had absolutely everything it needed, aesthetically and practically, and nothing it didn't.

We used this house as a base to visit other Palladio buildings. My wife and I saw the Villa Foscari, called La Malcontenta; the Villa Rotunda; the Villas Badoer, Emo, and Barbaro, all of which had completed wings extending from the central mass; and the Villa Poiana, another small, early villa near us. Some of these are in private hands, others in the hands of public institutions. Some have much more elaborate murals than ours, the Villa Barbaro in Maser being particularly noted for murals by Veronese. Four others saw more than we did, but they had to tour about ten hours a day to do it because the villas as a group are open limited and often strange hours. You can look at all of these on Wikipedia

Throughout all these visits, the Villa Saraceno provided the touchstone through which we viewed Palladio's work. Others were larger or more elaborate, none seemed better. We were very fortunate.

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