A villa was originally an upper-class country house, though since its origins in Roman times the idea and function of a villa has evolved considerably. After the fall of the Republic, a villa became a small farming compound, which was increasingly fortified in Late Antiquity, sometimes donated for reconstructing as a monastery then gradually re-evolving through the Middle Ages into luxurious, upper-class country homes. In modern parlance it can refer to a specific type of detached suburban dwelling.
- Main article: Roman villa
A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the upper classes. According to Pliny the Elder, there were several kinds of villas: the villa urbana, which was a country seat that could easily be reached from Rome (or another city) for a night or two, and the villa rustica, the farm-house estate, permanently occupied by the servants who had charge generally of the estate, which would centre on the villa itself, perhaps only seasonally occupied. There was the domus, a city house for the middle class, and insulae, lower class apartment buildings. Petronius Satyricon describes a wide range of Roman dwellings. There were a concentration of Imperial villas near the Gulf of Naples, especially on the Isle of Capri, at Monte Circeo on the coast and at Antium (Anzio). Wealthy Romans escaped the summer heat in the hills round Rome, especially around Tibur (Tivoli) and Frascati (cf Hadrian's Villa). Cicero is said to have possessed no fewer than seven villas, the oldest of which was near Arpinum, which he inherited. Pliny the Younger had three or four, of which the example near Laurentium is the best known from his descriptions.
Roman writers refer with satisfaction to the self-sufficiency of their villas, where they drank their own wine and pressed their own oil. This was an affectation of urban aristocrats playing at being old-fashioned virtuous Roman farmers, but the economic independence of later rural villas was a symptom of the increasing economic fragmentation of the Roman Empire.
In Roman BritanniaEdit
Numerous Roman villas have been meticulously examined in England. Like their Italian counterparts, they were complete working agrarian societies of fields and vineyards, perhaps even tileworks or quarries, ranged round a high-status power center with its baths and gardens. The grand villa at Woodchester preserved its mosaic floors when the Anglo-Saxon parish church was built (not by chance) upon its site. Burials in the churchyard as late as the 18th century had to be punched through the intact mosaic floors. The even more palatial villa rustica at Fishbourne near Winchester was built uncharacteristically as a large open rectangle with porticos enclosing gardens that was entered through a portico. Towards the end of the 3rd century, Roman towns in Britain ceased to expand: like patricians near the centre of the empire, Roman Britons withdrew from the cities to their villas, which entered on a palatial building phase, a "golden age" of villa life. Villae rusticae are essential in the Empire's economy.
Two kinds of villa plan in Roman Britain may be characteristic of Roman villas in general. The more usual plan extended wings of rooms all opening onto a linking portico, which might be extended at right angles, even to enclose a courtyard. The other kind featured an aisled central hall like a basilica, suggesting the villa owner's magisterial role. The villa buildings were often independent structures linked by their enclosed courtyards. Timber-framed construction, carefully fitted with mortises and tenons and dowelled together, set on stone footings, were the rule, replaced by stone buildings for the important ceremonial rooms. Traces of window glass have been found as well as ironwork window grilles.
In Late AntiquityEdit
When complete and self-sufficient working villas were donated to the Christian church, they served as the basis for monasteries that survived the disruptions of the Gothic War and the Lombards. An outstanding example of such a villa-turned-monastery was Monte Cassino. From the sixth to the eighth century, Gallo-Roman villas in the Merovingian royal fisc were repeatedly donated as sites for monasteries under royal patronage in Gaul, where Saint-Maur-des-Fossés and Fleury Abbey provide examples, and Germany, where a famous example is Echternach, and Kintzheim was Villa Regis, the "villa of the king".
As the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fourth and fifth centuries, the villas were more and more isolated and came to be protected by walls. Though in England the villas were abandoned, looted, and burned by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the fifth century, other areas had large working villas donated by aristocrats and territorial magnates to individual monks that often became the nucleus of famous monasteries. In this way, the villa system of late Antiquity was preserved into the early Medieval period. Saint Benedict established his influential monastery of Monte Cassino in the ruins of a villa at Subiaco that had belonged to Nero. Around 590, Saint Eligius was born in a highly-placed Gallo-Roman family at the 'villa' of Chaptelat near Limoges, in Aquitaine (now France). The abbey at Stavelot was founded ca 650 on the domain of a former villa near Liège and the abbey of Vézelay had a similar founding. As late as 698, Willibrord established an abbey at a Roman villa of Echternach, in Luxembourg near Trier, which was presented to him by Irmina, daughter of Dagobert II, king of the Franks.
In post-Roman times a villa referred to a self-sufficient, usually fortified Italian or Gallo-Roman farmstead. It was economically as self-sufficient as a village and its inhabitants, who might be legally tied to it as serfs were villeins. The Merovingian Franks inherited the concept, followed by the Carolingian French but the later French term was basti or bastide.
Villa/Vila (or its cognates) is part of many Spanish and Portuguese placenames, like Vila Real and Villadiego: a villa/vila is a town with a charter (fuero or foral) of lesser importance than a ciudad/cidade ("city"). When it is associated with a personal name, villa was probably used in the original sense of a country estate rather than a chartered town. Later evolution has made the Hispanic distinction between villas and ciudades a purely honorific one. Madrid is the Villa y Corte, the villa considered to be separate from the formerly mobile royal court, but the much smaller Ciudad Real was declared ciudad by the Spanish crown.
In 14th and 15th century Italy, a 'villa' once more connoted a country house, like the first Medici villas, the Villa del Trebbio and that at Cafaggiolo, both strong fortified houses built in the 14th century in the Mugello region near Florence. These first examples of Renaissance villa predate the age of Lorenzo de' Medici, who added the Villa di Poggio a Caiano by Giuliano da Sangallo (begun in 1470) and the Villa Medici in Fiesole (since 1450), probably the first villa created under the instructions of Leon Battista Alberti, who theorized in his De re aedificatoria the features of the new idea of villa. The gardens are from that period considered as a fundamental link between the residential building and the country outside. From Tuscany the idea of villa was spread again through Italy and Europe.
Rome had more than its share of villas with easy reach of the small sixteenth-century city: the progenitor, the first villa suburbana built since Antiquity, was the Belvedere or palazzetto, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo and built on the slope above the Vatican Palace. The Villa Madama, the design of which, attributed to Raphael and carried out by Giulio Romano in 1520, was one of the most influential private houses ever built; elements derived from Villa Madama appeared in villas through the 19th century. Villa Albani was built near the Porta Salaria. Other are the Villa Borghese; the Villa Doria Pamphili (1650); the Villa Giulia of Pope Julius III (1550), designed by Vignola.
However, many among the most beautiful Roman villas, like Villa Ludovisi and Villa Montalto, were destroyed during the late nineteenth century in the wake of the real estate bubble that took place in Rome after the seat of government of a united Italy was established at Rome.
Besides these designed for seasonal pleasure, usually located within easy distance of a city, other Italian villas were remade from a rocca or castello, as the family seat of power, such as Villa Caprarola for the Farnese.
- Main article: Palladian Villas
In the later 16th century the villas designed by Andrea Palladio around Vicenza and along the Brenta Canal in Venetian territories, remained influential for over four hundred years. Palladio often unified all the farm buildings into the architecture of his extended villas (as at Villa Emo).
In the early 18th century the English took up the term. Thanks to the revival of interest in Palladio and Inigo Jones, soon neo-palladian villas dotted the valley of the River Thames. In many ways Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is a villa. The Marble Hill House in England was conceived originally as "villas" in the 18th-century sense.
In the nineteenth century, villa was extended to describe any large suburban house that was free-standing in a landscaped plot of ground. By the time 'semi-detached villas' were being erected at the turn of the twentieth century, the term collapsed under its extension and overuse. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the creation of large "Villenkolonien" in the German speaking countries, wealthy residential areas that were completely made up of large mansion houses and often built to an artfully created masterplan. The Villenkolonie of Lichterfelde West in Berlin was conceived after an extended trip by the architect through the South of England.
With the changes of social values in post-colonial Britain after World War I the suburban "villa" became a "bungalow" and by extension the term is used for suburban bungalows in both Australia and New Zealand, especially those dating from the period of rapid suburban development between 1920 and 1950. The villa concept lives on in the German speaking countries, southern Europe, Latin America and particularly on the American west coast, where villas are associated with upper-class social position and lifestyle.
Modern architecture also produced some important examples of buildings called "villas":
- Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
- Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, by Vertner Tandy
- Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, by Le Corbusier
- Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe
- Varsity Villas, in Bloomington, Indiana, under mayoral leadership of Neal Patel.
In Sydney, Australia, "villas" is a term used to describe a type of townhouse complex which contains, possibly smaller attached or detached houses of up to 3-4 bedrooms that were built from the early 1980s.
Today many vacation rental properties are referred to as villas. This is especially true in Pakistan and in the French influenced islands of the Caribbean such as Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, as well as the United States Virgin Islands and the BVI, and many other islands in the region.
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