Sunday, July 24, 2011

Villas of the Veneto: Villa Gazzotti (Vicenza)

Largely forgotten and allowed to rot and crumble, Villa Gazzotti is definitely not one of Palladio's greatest achievement.  It looks more like a barn than a villa, its modest size dwarfed by the modern buildings around it.  It is definitely assertive, and it is clearly apparent as something other than just a regular ancient abode built simply to satisfy that need.  However, although left unrestored in the middle of a field somewhere in the northeastern part of Vicenza, the villa is an important milestone in Palladio's evolving use of decorations to mold the shape and look of a building, and a great display of the use of cheap materials (sadly, only apparent due to the building's state of disrepair) that made Palladio the Reniassance version of a McMansion designer.    

Designed for a businessman and--then--nouveau riche Taddeo Gazzotti, it was intended as part of Palladio's aim to architecturally redesign the city, an aim of which Gazzotti was one of the biggest proponent.  However, as many nouveau riche went then and now, Gazzotti lost all of his money in some ill-advised business dealing and later sold the villa to Girolamo Grimani, a powerful man from Venice who would later be the father of a future doge.  Although the subsequent buyer is more powerful and could have possibly altered the design to the more florid and popular Venetian gothic style, the building retained its assertive and then innovative neoclassical look that materialized the ideals of a client possibly more concerned with hailing the arrival of something new and exciting (like himself) rather than trusted and oft copied. 

As simple as Villa Gazzotti may look, it marked a big leap on the way ornamentation and classical architecture affected the look of more modest buildings and living spaces.  (here is a better and more detailed view of the villa.) First and most important, it featured the first appearance of the secular pediment if not in Venetian architecture, at least in the modest form of a small building.  Add to that, the building was placed on a raised platform, which really made this small structure look more regal than it really was.  The effect must have been something along the lines of painting your house purple, or maybe putting a giant replica of Michelangelo's David in one's front lawn.  It says something very clear about the owner to put something that usually houses depictions of gods and heroes and placed atop temples on top of his comparatively smaller house: "I'm here, deal with it."  No wonder the Venetian nouveau riche queued up to get their own pediments on top of their villas too.

Second, the use of decorative elements in the building’s wall surfaces reached a higher significance in shaping how a building is physically seen.  Without the fake columns and lintels that Palladio used to shape windows, doors, and separate the building into segments, the building would have just looked like a cube and nothing more.  But with these elements added, the building is given three-dimensionality.  Instead of looking like one unified block, the façade is divided into seven segments, with the middle three looking like an entrance to an arcaded temple.  The windows and doors were given their own mini pediments and frames, making them look more like architectural additions rather than necessary holes in the wall.  (Compare the windows and doors to Villa Valmarana in Vigardolo and you will clearly see the “hole in the wall” look that previously existed.) 

Personally, Villa Gazzotti is most interesting in what it reveals about Palladio's construction style and why he is so popular with the Venetian middle class.  Although some may consider Palladio less of an architectural genius than Bramante or Michelangelo, this lack of a bravado personal style may partly be because of the context of his work and clients.  Unlike the power and absolute wealth that propped up the great ambitions of those other Renaissance architects, Palladio worked in a smaller scale: the "family farm house" that needed to be viewed in context of an agricultural business.  (Sure, he also made great churches in Venice, but his main medium is the villa and honestly, if one looks the churches he made one notices that they all look exactly the same.)  His clients were demanding, but not as liberal with cash nor were as tolerant with truly wild and radical ideas.  Finally, his clients had everyday lives to run.  Palladio did not have the liberty of clearing the land and starting from scratch, so he had to build around lives that were already there.  In all of these cases, Villa Gazzotti displays how Palladio worked around his obstacles:  pre-existing buildings were built into the structure; modest ornamentation is used, but effectively; and cheap materials are used to create an illusion of opulence.  These innovations not only heralded modern residential construction as we know it today, but was also a precursor to the concerns that were again central when the modernists and postmodernists got around to radicalizing architecture their own way.

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