Ideals exist only in men’s minds. They are, in dictionary-speak, the concept of something in its absolute perfection. They are ideas.
Villa Barbaro is one man’s idea of perfection. The man is Andrea Palladio. The idea is the unity of form and function to create an ideal building that is as lovely as it is useful, perfectly suited to its purpose and beautiful to the eye, whose exterior appearance and proportions express its internal symmetry and harmony.
It is located in the village of Maser, 6km from Asolo in the rolling hills of the “prosecco” region of Italy’s Veneto. In 1557, the Barbaro brothers, Daniele, Patriarch of Aquileia, and Marc’Antonio, a leading Venetian statesman, commissioned Palladio to build a villa on the site of an old family farm. Both brothers were architectural experts. Daniele, Palladio’s patron, had translated and annotated Roman architect Vitruvius’ epochal work “De Architectura.” Marc’Antonio prominently figured in the discussions of all major building projects in Venice.
The Barbaro brothers not only wished to transform an old farm into a modern country estate. They also wanted a suitable expression of their own taste and refinement, of their vast wealth and exalted status, of their profound erudition and lofty ideals. Daniele travelled with Palladio to Rome where they studied not only the great buildings of classical antiquity, but the newest and most sumptuous palaces and villas, including Rafaello’s Villa Giulia.
If Villa Capra “La Rotunda,” outside Vicenza, perhaps Palladio’s most perfect villa, is the ideal of villa as sylvan pleasure palace, stately and resplendent upon its hilltop outside Vicenza, Villa Barbaro, built into the rolling hillsides of Maser, is the ideal aristocratic country retreat as working farm, a unique fusion of industry and luxury.
When I set out for Maser from Venice, the day was bright and sunny; the sky was cloudless, the kind of blue in which Bellini might have robed a fragile but regal Madonna. Driving north and west through the suburban sprawl of Mestre and Treviso, the warm, moist sea air met the cool winds blowing down from the Alps. The sky grew heavy, veiled with a humid grey curtain of clouds behind which the sun played hide-and-seek.
Maser is a very old and tiny village whose ancient contours remain visible amid the new apartment blocks and shops. Just beyond Maser, before reaching Villa Barbaro, you see first, in the distance down the narrow road, the Tempietto, the little church that Palladio built later, downhill from the villa. Here Palladio was able — as he was not allowed in his major Venetian commissions — to build a church on a round “central” plan, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon but more closely akin to Palladio’s own reconstructions of the Temple of Romulus on Rome’s Via Appia. Unfortunately, the Tempietto is no longer open to visitors.
The front of the villa — lawns spreading before, lush green trees rising behind — is stunning, startling at first. It is Palladio’s “five-part profile”.
Look closely; it is the same line, the same arrangment of masses, the same rhythmic configuration as in countless Palladio-inspired buildings including the U.S. Capitol in Washington. D.C. The two extreme outer wings, the barchese, were the barns and storage areas of the farm; above the corn-threshing and wine-making areas on the ground floor, they are topped with graceful astrological sundials on their second floors behind which were the dovecotes where domestic fowl were raised.
The barchese are linked to the central living quarters of the villa by arched porticos; this gives the building its long line, the dramatic and ceremonial facade facing the road below. The living quarters project out from the barchese and porticos; its temple-inspired design, four tall columns supporting the sculpted pediment, centers, with both mass and weight, the horizontal line of the villa. The sundials, the frieze of the pediment and its supporting columns, the details of the symmetrically flanking porticos and rounded arches of the barchesse are white; the rest is yellow, setting-off the villa, jewel-like, on the green hillsides.
Driving to the parking lot behind the villa, you realize this was indeed a farm; a farm like no other, but a farm nonetheless, flanked by barns, stables, grape arbors, and below, both near and in the distance, orchards and fields.
You enter the villa through the ground floor portico. The keystones of the arches are carved with faces; each has a distinct personality. There are statues in each of the niches between the arches. Broad stone stairs lead up to the second floor entrance to the villa.
In the homes Frank Lloyd Wright designed, he often created low and narrow entry passages that suddenly opened onto broad luminous spaces: the “wow” factor. He felt that entering a building should have that sort of impact. He had nothing on Palladio.
From the shady interior of the portico, up the dark, cool stairway, you step into a cruciform hall topped with high and airy white vaults. As suddenly luminous and spacious — as beautiful — as it is, that’s not the wow! The wow! comes from the walls themselves, covered, both in the cruciform hall and in all the rooms we are allowed to visit, with vivid frescoes by Venetian mannerist Paolo Veronese. That there may have also been frescoes on the white vaults of the cruciform entrance hall is a matter of dispute; but there certainly are in each of the other rooms. On walls and on ceilings, you are surrounded by classical allegories alternating with sly trompe l’oeil; scenes of gods and goddesses, rich and suggestive, alternate with open doorways that appear real; from behind one peeks a little girl so vivid she seems to breathe.
Here, in Wonderland, frescoed landscapes frame windows through which real horses graze in real landscapes. Doors, windows, views — classical fantasies, romantic antique ruins, towering fig trees and grape arbors, balustrades and pilasters — all painted, appear real; amid them, gods and goddesses, saints and allegorical figures, share space with the family members peering down over a balustrade, triumphantly lifelike, flanked by servants, children, pets.
Look carefully. The interplay of fantasy and reality is as bright and quicksilver as the sun in the clouds. These spaces are filled with a literally wondrous, alternately sublime and whimsical evocation of the spontaneity and joyousness of family life.
And there is nothing approximate or arbitrary about these spaces. The proportions of width to length to height are exact mathematical ratios; both in the volumes and in the planar surfaces, the arrangement of rooms to halls, of windows to doors, everything is proportioned to produce a sensation of aptness and well-being, the perfect fusion of comfort and luxury.
At the center of the horizontal axis of rooms that extend symmetrically along the back of the villa is the Sala L’Olimpio. In the ceiling vaults and the lunettes, the Olympians are arrayed — Vulcan, Neptune and Juno, Fertility, Fortune, and Love — fire, water, air, and all the tutelary deities of family life. Yet just there, right above you, looking over a balcony, in a sumptuous blue dress, is Giustina Barbaro Giustinian, the wife of Marc’antonio Barbaro, with a nurse and her three sons. Their little dog sits on the balustrade; there, by the spiralling pillar, their parrot peers down quizzically.
In the Sala del Cane, the Room of the Little Dog, Fortune deals Envy and Ambition their just desserts in the vault above. Moral order triumphs. In the lunette, St. Catherine hands a dove to the Christ child. Religious piety prevails. But lower, beneath, at floor level, against the faux marble detailing of the wall, a small dog watches observantly. Real? No. More than real; fixed, in the way that art does, in the utter and timeless immediacy of his moment, the family pet is captured in his essence for for all time.
I walk back through the cruciform hall toward the front of the villa, to the Stanza del Tribunale D’Amore, the room of the Tribunal of Love. Amid swirls of chubby and angelic Cupids, the Bride, her Husband, and their Judge stand ankle-deep in snowy clouds. Around them, to their left and right, arbors of vines and leafy trees spiral outward through latticed openings in the ceiling. Across the room, in a marvel of illusionistic trompe l’oeil, upon a faux ledge, are the painter’s slippers and a brush, left absent-mindedly behind. The room comes to life. It breathes.
There are only a few other visitors as I step across the corridor to the Sala di Bacco, the Room of Bacchus. Between the landscapes frescoed on the walls, vines laden with grapes climb up, creeping as if behind the cornices through the ceiling toward the sky.
My back is turned toward the rear of the room. I hear quiet voices. A woman reads from the plastic card handed out to everyone as they enter.
“The Vault.” she says. “‘Bacchus instructs shepherds in the use of grape.’ It’s a lovely fresco, a bright blue sky with clouds. Angels are fluttering about, playing musical instruments and Bacchus is pouring wine for shepherds sprawling on the ground at his feet.”
As she continues, both reading from the card and describing the room in detail, I turn.
A man stands between two women. The first thing I notice is that he is not wearing the oversized scuffs each visitor is given, which fit over your shoes, to protect the polished terrazzo floors.
The next thing I notice is that he is blind.
“The chimney piece is by Alessandro Vittoria,” she continues. “It’s rather massive, but quite in scale with the room, and finished with lovely sculptural details. It looks like marble but it’s actually plaster.”
“What color is it?” the blind man asks.
“White,” she answers, “a sort of faux alabaster. And all the sculptural work behind, or around it, actually, allegorical figures of some sort, aren’t sculpted at all. They’re painted but they look real enough that you almost have to touch them to realize they’re not scuplted.”
“Even the marble panels on the walls,” the other woman whispers tentatively. “Painted. Lovely green and ochre marble. Quite remarkable. All fake.”
“Trompe l’oeil,” the blind man whispers.
“Exactly,” the woman says. “Marvellous, really.”
“‘Above the door,'” the first woman continues reading, “‘are Apollo and Venus.'”
“Beautiful,” says the other. “All plump and pink, just as they should be.”
The blind man asks a stream of questions which the women answer patiently, fully, embroidering their answers with as much detail as possible. There is friendship between them, long years of deep knowing, and abundant love.
Brother? Husband? Friend? He hears, but does not see, and one can’t know exactly what he experiences. Does he sense the harmony of the space, feel in its volumes and the beautiful interior symmetry? I hesitate to ask; I only know that, stroke by stroke, the room takes shape in his mind, the blank corners filled in by questions and answers.
I should say: an image of the room takes shape in his mind, an idea of this perfect space, this ideal room in the villa in Palladio’s mind. It is an idea to which Palladio was able to give physical reality, breathing life into the ratios and proportions. It is a miracle of painted illusions surrounding actual windows that let in the light and the landscapes of the surrounding countryside as integral parts of the design, the marriage of the inside and outside, of reality and illusion.
Ideals exist only in men’s minds. Occasionally, in the hands of exceptional artists, they are given a physical reality, so sensuous and powerful that it infuses the consciousness, beyond the immediate sensory input it provides, forming in the mind a whole greater than the sum of its parts. At Villa Barbaro, the real and the imagined, the physical and the ideal, merge momentarily in Palladio’s enchanting conception.
Outside, I walk the paths, exploring the exterior of the villa — the niches and statues, the echoing arches topped with somber and pensive and smiling faces, the vivid roses splayed across the peach stucco outbuildings, the vast lawns where horses, as sleek and elegant as Veronese’s, nibble the grass.
I can’t get the blind man out of my mind. Returning to the car I pass them again, seated on a bench overlooking the countryside spread like a Persian carpet in front of the villa.
Patiently, in detail, the women describe the scene before their eyes, the glimpse of the dome of the Tempietto between the weathered stucco outbuildings, the horses, the distant campanile near the horizon. He smells the roses and the fresh green grass; he feels the sun breaking through the clouds on his face, and hears the sounds of the place, the cadences of mass and space, the music of air and stone.
The stucco is darkened in the shade with mildew; the frescoes have been eroded by time, covered over, scraped clean, restored in the intervening centuries; the surrounding countryside has been encroached upon by modern suburban life. But the ideal still exists, pristine in its perfection, taking form in the mind of a blind man.
Villa Barbaro, in Maser, is, perhaps, as close to ideal as we get.