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Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books (mid 15th century)
Book V: “On the Works of Individuals”
14. I come now to private buildings. We earlier described the house as a miniature city. With the construction of a house, therefore, almost everything relevant to the establishment of a city must be taken into account: it should be extremely healthy, it should offer every facility and ever convenience to contribute to a peaceful, tranquil, and refined life. These seem to have been already covered substantially in earlier books, in terms of their intrinsic nature, quality, and type. But here we shall deal with them from a different point of view.
The private house was obviously first constructed for the family, as a convenient place of repose. It will not be comfortable enough unless everything the family requires lies under the one roof. A large number of men and things cannot be accommodated as freely in the city as they can in the country. Why is this? In urban building there are restrictions such as party wall, dripping-gutters, public ground, rights of way, and so on, to prevent one’s achieving a satisfactory result. In the countryside this does not happen; here everything is more open, whereas the city is restrictive. This, then, is one of the many reasons why private buildings in the city should be distinguished from those in the country. And with either, the poor will have different requirements from those of the wealthy. For the poor it is necessity that governs the size of the dwelling, whereas the rich are seldom satisfied or able to limit their greed. But we shall pass on whatever sound advice and moderation would commend, in each case.
I think that I will begin with the easier. In the countryside there are fewer restrictions, and the rich are readier to invest money. But let us first rehearse briefly a few general comments on the design of villas: an adverse climate and porous soil are to be avoided; building should be undertaken right in the countryside, at the foot of mountains, in a well-watered and sunny spot, in a healthy part region, and in a healthy part of that region. It is thought that a severe and unhealthy climate may be caused not only by those disadvantages outlined in book I, but also by thick woods — especially those containing trees with bitter leaves — in that the air will putrefy if reached neither by sun nor by wind; another cause may be sterile or unhealthy soil, where all you will harvest will be timber.
In my opinion the site chosen by a proprietor for his country villa ought to be the most convenient to his town house. Xenophon would have us walk to the villa, for exercise, and then return by horse. The villa, then, must be located at no great distance from the city, along an easy and unobstructed route, and in a convenient place accessible in summer and winter to visitors and for supplies of provisions, by foot, carriage, or perhaps even boat. Also, if the villa is not distant, but close by a gate of the city, it will make it easier and more convenient to flit, with wife and children, between town and villa, whenever desirable, without the need to dress up and without attracting anyone’s attention.
It would be worthwhile siting the villa where the rays of the sun will trouble your eyes neither when you set out in the morning nor when you return in the evening. Then again the villa ought not to be consigned to some deserted, forsaken, and obscure location, but should be situated where others haven been enticed to settle by the fertility and climate, and where provisions are plentiful, and life sweet and free of danger. On the other hand, anywhere too busy is to be avoided, as is anywhere next to a town, a military road, or a port that attracts many ships; the ideal location would be one that enjoys the benefits of the above, yet where your family life will not be plagued by visits from acquaintances who are passing by.
Windy places, according to the ancients, do not usually suffer from rust, whereas damp places, valleys, and locations undisturbed by the breezes are frequently troubled by injury of this kind. I do not always hold with the general rule that a villa must face the sunrise at equinox: comments about the sun and the breezes clearly vary from region to region, so that, for example, Aquilo is not always light, nor Auster everywhere unhealthy. Indeed, the physician Celsus made the wise observation that winds blowing in from the sea are denser, while those arriving from inland are always lighter. In my opinion the wind is the reason why the very mouth of the valley is to be avoided; for if the wind blows from somewhere shady, it will be too cold, or, if from flat land exposed to much sun, it will be too hot.
17. As for the master, some would maintain that he should have one villa for summer and another for winter. The following suggestions have been made: for winter the bedrooms should face the winter sunrise, and dining rooms the sunset at equinox; whereas for summer the bedrooms should face the midday sun, and dining rooms the winter sunrise; they would have the walkway exposed to the midday sun at equinox. We, however, would prefer them to vary from place to place, according to climate and regional characteristics, so as to blend hot with cold, and damp with dry.
Moreover, I would prefer to locate the house of a gentleman somewhere dignified, rather than in a particularly fertile stretch of land, where it could enjoy all the benefit and delight of breeze, sun, and view. It should have easy access from the fields, and a generous reception area for the arrival of guests; it should be in view, and have itself a view of some city, town, stretch of coast, or plain, or it should have within sight the peaks of some notable hills or mountains, delightful gardens, and attractive haunts for fishing and hunting.
Each house, as we have already mentioned, is divided into public, semi-private, and private zones. Of these, the public ones should imitate the house of a prince. There should be a large open area in front of the gates for chariot and horse races, its dimensions greater than the distance of a young man could hurl a javelin or fire an arrow. Likewise within the gates there should be not shortage of semiprivate spaces, walkways, promenades, swimming pools, areas both grassed and paved over, porticoes, and semicircular loggias, where old men may meet for discussion in the welcome winter sun, and where on holidays the family might pass the day, and where in summer grateful shade may be found.
18. The villas and town houses of the wealthy differ in that the fortunate will own a villa as a summer retreat, but use the town house as somewhere to pass the winter in greater comfort. By this means they enjoy all the advantages to be found in the country, of light, breeze, open space, and views, and also the more shady and softer delights of the city. All that is required of a city dwelling is that it offer, within a dignified and salubrious setting, whatever is necessary for a civilized existence. Yet, as far as the limited space and light will allow, it should assume all the charm and delight of a villa.
Apart from a generous entrance, it should also contain a portico, walkways, promenades, delightful gardens, and so on. But if the site is too cramped, sufficient space may be found for these members by building on level ground and increasing the number of stories. Where the nature of the site will allow, a cellar should be dug to provide storage for liquid and wood, and likewise the services; the noble floors of the house should be constructed on top. Then in turn further stores may be added, as needed, until all the requirements of the household are adequately met. The basic facilities should be at the base, the nobler rooms at a nobler level. Finally, make sure that there are discreet places to store grain, fruit, tools, and in short, all household goods.
For their own buildings, humbler folk should follow the example of the rich and emulate their magnificence, as far as their resources allow, though this imitation must be dampened, so that financial reconsiderations are not sacrificed to pleasure. Their villas, then, should provide for the ox and herd almost as much as for the wife. They want a dovecote, fishpond, and so on, not for pleasure so much as for profit. Yet the villa should be pretty enough to ensure that the mother of the family will enjoy living there and will give careful devotion to its domestic upkeep. Nor should utility and profit only be taken into account, since health also should be a primary consideration. “Whenever you have occasion for a change of air, do so in the winter,” advises Celsus; in winter it is less dangerous than in summer to endure an unhealthy climate. But we would rather visit the villa in summer; ensure, then, that it is extremely healthy.
Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Transl. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988.