No image evokes England - and the English - like the Palladian country house in its verdant parkland setting. Some say that those ordered Classical facades in landscaped settings reflect the English character: the house formal and aloof, like the code of manners, the garden revealing the romantic (and frustrated) souls burning within.
All of which makes it appropriate that one of Palladio's 15 surviving villas is now in English hands. The Villa Saraceno, 10 miles outside Vicenza in north-east Italy, is one of his first commissions. It has been restored by the Landmark Trust and is available for rent to self-catering parties of up to 16 by the week. A better way to appreciate the work of the architect could hardly be imagined.
Palladio villas were working farms, rooted in the Virgilian landscape. In some, cows, pigs, chickens and goats lived directly beneath the principal rooms.
Renaissance technologies had made the draining of the swampy fen of the region possible, and saw the introduction of new crops from abroad, such as maize, making farming an attractive investment to Venetian merchants and nobles. As a rural culture began to develop, the farm also acquired appeal as a bolthole from the suffocating summer heat of the city.
In the Saraceno, the villa concept is seen at its most early, raw and earthy. The hallmark of Palladio's style, the temple portico applied to a private house, has not yet appeared (it did so two to three years later), though its beginning is discernible in the three arched loggias.
Other characteristics of the Palladian style can also be seen emerging from the harsh practicalities of the rustic life. To create a dry ground floor in areas of swampy marshland (even after draining), most villas were set upon a platform. Those symmetrical flanking wings (only one of which was constructed at the Saraceno, on the east) were actually barns, in which were stored farm implements and firewood. Behind the grand central pediment was the granary.
Palladio could skilfully harmonise 10 or more working farm buildings, accumulated over several centuries, around a courtyard. There was no garden. The walled brolo round the house would have contained fruit trees, and the view through those perfectly proportioned windows would have been on to fields of maize, vines, fruit trees and mulberry trees (for silkworms). Tall, swaying maize still stands, though pylons and cables have grown in place of the other crops.
The almost crude simplicity of the construction is striking. Beams and timbers in even the grandest rooms are exposed. Walls are finished in plain, ivory-white lime-plaster. The timber frame gives the terracotta floor-tiles on the first floor a curious springiness. However, this simplicity, and the spare Landmark furnishings, allow those celebrated proportions to stand out. Uncluttered by the luxury baggage of 18th-century England - thick plasterwork mouldings, heavy Persian rugs, curtains, tapestries, oil paintings, ornaments of china and porcelain - sounds and voices carry between rooms easily.
Where Palladio's interior stairways were always small and concealed in the massive walls, the English filled grand entrance halls with splendid staircases. Where Palladio had to make do with the economical building materials of the Veneto, bricks and plaster covered with stucco (which rapidly discolours and flakes), the British, more confident in their rural building tradition, built in the finest ashlar.
What the British forgot about in their borrowings was climate. The joy - indeed much of the point - of the Palladian villa was the cool, airy interiors and shady loggias. The Palladian plagiarists had to live through long winters with draughty porticos and colonnades that funnelled the wind.
In Britain, where the sun sits far lower in the sky, where it is overcast for three-quarters of the year, small windows and blank walls meant interiors were dark and depressing. Mouldings and pilasters, designed to catch the sunlight and cast sharp shadows, faded into blandness. Where, too, were the extra fireplaces and chimneys supposed to go?
The vertical, sliding sash window was co-opted (probably from Holland) to help regulate temperature. As soon as 19th-century glass-making technology permitted, the glazing bars which held the panes of crown glass were torn out to make way for single sheets of plate glass. Ground- floor arcades were glazed. Fireplaces and chimneys became architectural features.
In one respect the damp weather gave the British an advantage. We could replace the walled farmyards of the Veneto, with their coarse grass and their coating of dust, with the seamless fresh velvet sward of the sheep- cropped park.
On return from the Villa Saraceno, check out the English version: say, Chiswick House in London or Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. That ingenious Paduan architect had some inspired ideas. But we improved on them.
A book on the restoration of the Villa Saraceno by R Haslam, F Doglioni and I Cavaggioni will be published later this year.
The Landmark Trust, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW.
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