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Lombard Villas of the Eighteenth Century and the Villa Arconati at Castellazzo

Text by Dianne Harris

Villa culture developed in the Italian province of Lombardy—as it had elsewhere on the peninsula—over the course of many centuries. Although documentation of a vital villa culture exists for various periods and sites, this essay focuses on Lombard villas of the eighteenth century, the period that coincides with the Austrian Habsburg occupation of the province, and with the production of an important set of villa views created by the Milanese printmaker Marc’Antonio Dal Re. Entitled Ville di delizie o siano palaggi camparecci nello stato di Milano, and published in 1726 and 1743, Dal Re’s prints comprise the best known visual representations of eighteenth-century Lombard villas. Although his prints cannot be used as mimetically accurate depictions of the sites as they once existed, they nonetheless serve as important registers of villa culture and noble life for the period. The images of the Villa Arconati in Castellazzo di Bollate that accompany this essay are from one of Dal Re’s volumes. His plan of the Villa Arconati presents a reasonable facsimile of the garden’s eighteenth-century arrangement.1

The Lombard landscape was renowned for its agricultural fertility, and most eighteenth-century Lombard villas sat at the center of lucrative and well-organized farms that produced grains, timber, mulberry leaves for silk production, and a range of additional items such as dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Connected to Milan by a series of canals known as navigli, villa locations varied, their sites frequently determined by feudal rights and family requirements. They are therefore situated throughout the alluvial Milanese plain between Milan and Pavia, along the rivers (Adda, Ticino, Po, and Oglio), along the shores of Lakes Como and Maggiore, in the Brianza hills, in the mountains near cities such as Varese, Bergamo, and Brescia, and in the areas that are part of the agricultural system of Cremaso, Cremona, and Mantua. The Lombard landscape in the age of enlightened absolutism (as the eighteenth-century or settecento period is often called in Lombardy) was thus an aggregate composed of the small landholdings of peasants and sharecroppers, the larger residential compounds of villas, and a rich patchwork composition of diverse agricultural fields, all interlaced with a complex system of irrigation canals and waterways.2

Villa owners, especially those such as the Arconati, came from Lombardy’s nobility and aristocracy. This was not a villa culture dominated by the papacy, papal families, or the Catholic church as one would find surrounding Rome in the same or earlier periods. Instead, an entrenched group of elites controlled the province, primarily wealthy merchants and land holders whose wealth and authority was further consolidated through their control of local governmental offices, even when the province was occupied by foreign rulers such as the Habsburgs. Because the Habsburg’s social and economic reforms threatened the status of these nobles, villas became important sites for the politics of display, and served as sites for the reinforcement of position within the elite hierarchy.3 Display of elaborate estates and vast land holdings, along with various signs of wealth and status such as fashion, architecture, and garden design, served to justify and reinforce position in the social hierarchy. Dal Re’s prints admirably served this purpose, advertising the elegant villa and its surroundings—if not their reality, then the owner’s desired fantasy—to an extended audience of locals and travelers alike.

In Lombardy, villeggiatura had a distinctive definition, its practice derived from a regionally specific set of economic, political, and social factors. The climate of the Lombard plain, with its hot, humid summers and damp, foggy winters, did not encourage long periods of retreat during these seasons. Instead of delightful retreat alone, villa life and villeggiatura were closely associated with economic structure and agricultural production. Through their presence, the owners of Lombard estates maintained control of their extensive agricultural interests. Their attendance was most important during the harvest, which is why Lombard villa owners chose autumn for villeggiatura. During this time, supervision and administration of the estate superseded the civic duties that waited in their Milanese offices and the social requirements of their city palaces.4

The characteristic aspects of eighteenth-century Lombard villas were thus well-suited to the demands of production and display. The U-shaped plan—a central residential block with dependent service wings disposed at right angles to it—and the style of ornament that has been called both barochetto fiorito lombardo and barochetto teresiano came to typify this region’s villas because it accommodated intensive farm work combined with (but separated from) luxurious family living quarters and presented a relatively impressive building exterior without undo expenditure. Castellazzo di Bollate reveals just such a plan and ornamentation, designed primarily by members of the Arconati family.5

A central axis governed the prototypical U-plan villa. The axis began in the entry or worker’s court, extended through the portico and ground-floor salon, and continued into the garden, where it either terminated in a specific feature such as a nymphaeum or proceeded beyond the garden gates to a grand, tree-lined vista of the countryside. Space was rationally and symmetrically disposed along this axis according to a hierarchy of functions. The forecourt served as a ceremonial space for the arrival of family and guests, as a staging area for the loading and unloading of produce and goods, and as a work space that could be used by stable hands, farm workers, and servants. The owner’s living space in the central core of the building afforded a view of the activities and industries of the villa compound, making it possible to direct servants, the stable, carriages, and food production and processing, and to maintain a supervisory and protective role over the property. An arcaded portico (typically with either three or five arches) located on the ground floor of the central block served as a transitional zone between the court and interior space. Beyond the ground-floor arcade, a large central sitting room and other minor rooms typically accommodated the private life of the villa owner and his family. Social life took place in the grand salone on the second floor or piano nobile. Some villas featured back-to-back salons; the front salon (the most important public room of the villa) afforded views over the entry and worker’s court; the back salon gave onto views of the garden and was typically somewhat less formal and used for the entertainment of a more intimate circle of friends.

From these compounds, with the villa’s dependent wings that reached out towards the surrounding fields, Lombard villa owners exercised control over vast tracts of land and environmental resources. Through the manipulation of tenants, laws, and property rights, they controlled access to water and waterways, fish, game, and farm lands. In short, they exercised a degree of environmental absolutism over their holdings that challenged the authority posed by the enlightened absolutism exercised by the colonizing Habsburgs over their territories.

The villa gardens were living microcosms of the same impulse toward display found in the larger villa complex, and they likewise illustrated their owner’s desire to control and manipulate external nature.6 The gardens, with their elaborate displays of clipped hornbeam hedges, waterworks that relied on the latest achievements in hydraulic engineering, and formal gardens that emulated styles considered fashionable in France, served as monuments to aristocratic and noble self-fashioning. Highly restricted spaces that were reserved for the use of the owners and their invited guests, the gardens served to protect villa owners from the increasingly visible unpleasantries surrounding them and allowed a degree of display that could strengthen their place in the social hierarchy. Although little remains of most of the eighteenth-century gardens, a few important sites remain relatively well preserved, and Castellazzo di Bollate is among the best of these examples. Although it was larger and more elaborate than many Lombard villa gardens—most did not exceed ten acres in size and Castellazzo’s garden comprised eighteen acres—the villa is a useful example because it includes all the typical features of the Lombard villa garden of the settecento (though much of this garden was designed earlier).

Just as French fashion dominated in clothing, theater, and music, so too French gardens (primarily those of the seventeenth century) served as the primary model for eighteenth-century Lombard gardens. Following the prescriptions of Dézallier D’Argenville, Dal Re depicted geometrically arranged gardens disposed along a central axis that typically ran the length of the garden. He depicted parterres de broderie nearest the villa, followed by bosquets of elaborately clipped hornbeam hedges (known in Lombardy as carpinate) arranged on either side of the axis. Extensive pergolas and trellises also appear in Dal Re’s illustrations providing shady niches and covered walkways. Fountains with sculpture are generally located in prominent points in the garden, and Dal Re used them as an opportunity to depict his villa owner’s extensive knowledge of hydraulic technology, while the sculpture’s iconography reinforced family identity. Although little documentation exists that reveals the types of plants used in these gardens, works by Paolo Cottini, Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, and Claudia Lazzaro verify that flowers and aromatics were far more significant in the seventeenth-century Italian garden than previously assumed.7 However, hornbeam, poplar, cypress, chestnut, elm, and citrus all appear in Dal Re’s garden descriptions. He also wrote that the parterres at Castellazzo di Bollate were filled with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. If the gardens did indeed contain the parterres, topiary, and areas of lawn Dal Re depicted, it would be reasonable to assume that varieties of box and lawn grasses existed as well. In several cases, Dal Re depicted labyrynths in his garden prints, such as those in the gardens at Merate, Cinisello, Castellazzo, Comazzo, and Oreno. Other architectural elements, such as grottoes and pavilions, were included much less frequently, though he did depict an aviary and a small menagerie in his views of the garden at Castellazzo di Bollate. Because of the importance of the theater in Milanese social life of the eighteenth century, theaters also figured prominently in Lombard villa gardens. At Castellazzo di Bollate, the garden includes scenographically arranged hedges (seen in Dal Re’s view entitled “Parte del Berso in Castellazzo”) that served as a garden theater.

Unlike the papal villas of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Latium, where the villa owner controlled or was closely associated with the political, economic, and social life of the surrounding territory, Lombard villas were oases of private control and display. As one moved from the contested terrain of the landscape surrounding the villa through the grand court and into the villa itself (and back out into the garden) the progression was one of increasing class segregation and social control, though that control varied in its form and function. Dal Re’s views and descriptions may not show us exactly what these gardens looked like, then, but they reveal a mindset, a way of looking at and thinking about the world. The gardens served as the scenographic background against which the conspicuous consumption of the estate owner and his private guests could be displayed. As such, they served as another mechanism for the workings of the finely differentiated hierarchy of status within the Lombard elite.


1 The information in this essay derives from my book, The Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eigtheenth-Century Lombardy (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003). See also Marc’Antonio Dal Re, Ville di delizie o siano palaggi camparecci nello Stato di Milano (Milan: 1726–27), and his two volumes by the same title published in 1743. On Castellazzo di Bollate, see Leonardi, Domenico Felice, and Marc’Antonio Dal Re, Le delizie della Villa di Castellazzo descritte in verso (Milan: G. R. Malatesta, 1743); Ferrario, Patrizia, ‘La Regia Villa’: Il Castellazzo degli Arconati fra seicento e settecento (Bollate: Rotary Club Bollate Nirone, 1996). Castellazzo also appears in the 1726–27 edition of the Ville di delizie.

2 On the agricultural history of Lombardy, see Andrea Caizzi, “A Well-Balanced Land,” in Lombardia by Andrea Caizzi, transl. Rudolf G. Carpanini, Daphne Hughes and Patricia Kennan (Milan: Electa, 1976); Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean World and the Mediterranean in the Age of Phillip II, Vol. 1, transl. Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper & Row, 1949, 1966, 1972), 72–75; Luisa Chiappa Mauri, Paesaggi rurali di Lombardi, secoli XII–XV (Rome: Laterza, 1990), Chapter 2. See also Emilio Sereni, History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape transl. R. Burr Litchfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

3 On the political history of Lombardy in the eigheenth century, see Leopoldo Marchetti, Milano nel settecento (Milan: Pio Istituto dei Rachitici, 1961), 7–31; Olwen Hufton, Europe: Privilege and Protest, 1730–1789 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), Chapter 6; J. M. Roberts, “Lombardy” in The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, ed. A. M. Goodwin (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1953), 60–61; H. M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1990).

4 Raffaele Bagnoli, Ville, castelli, cascinali in Lombardia (Milan: Libreria Meravigli, 1979), p. 72.

5 For more information on the architecture of Lombard villas in this period, see Pier Fausto Bagatti Valsecchi, “Le ville storiche nell’ambiente lombardo” in L’età della riforme. Vol. 3 of Lombardia: Il territorio, l’ambiente, il paesaggio ed. Carlo Pirovano (Milan: Electa, 1983); Francesco Süss, Le ville del territorio milanese: Apetti storici e architettonici Vol, 1, (Milan: Silvana, 1988), Carlo Perogalli and Paolo Favole, Ville dei navigli lombardi (Milan: Edizioni SISAR, 1967. Reprint, Milan: Rusconi, 1982).

6 Scholarship on Lombard gardens in extremely limited, but see Paolo Cottini, Giardini di Lombardia: Dalle origini all’età barocca (Varese: Edizioni Lativa, 1994); Margherita Azzi Visentini, L’arte dei giardini: Dal XIV al XIX secolo, Vol. 2 (Milan: Edizioni il Polifilo, 1999); Virgilio Vercelloni, Il giardino a Milano per pocchi e per tutti, 1288-1945, (Milan: Edizioni Archivolto, 1986). See also Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d’Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Garden Art, transl. John James from the French of 1709 (London: Geo. James, 1712).

7 In addition to Cottini’s text, cited above, see Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flora, overo cultura di Fiori, translated by Lodovico Aureli from the Latin of 1633 (Rome: Facciotti, 1638); Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, “A Cardinal’s Bulb Garden: A Giardino Segreto at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome,” in Fountains, Statues, and Flowers: Studies in Italian Gardens of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1994), particularly pp. 226–27, where MacDougall discusses Ferrari’s treatise on flowers and the importance of flower collecting throughout Europe. See also Claudia Lazzaro, The Italian Renaissance Garden: From the Conventions of Planting, Design, and Ornament to the Grand Gardens of Sixteenth-Century Central Italy, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 324.

Click on the thumbnails below for a full view of the images. All images are from Dal Re's 1743 book on the Villa Arconati unless otherwise noted.

Villa Arconati, General plan of the palace and gardens

Villa Arconati, View of the palace and gardens showing their agricultural context

View of the navigable canal adjacent to another Lombard villa, the Villa Archinti in Robecco (1726)

Villa Arconati, View of the palace from the garden side

Example of a U-shaped plan at another Lombard villa, the Villa Archinti at Robecco (1726)

Villa Arconati, View of the courtyard showing the U-shaped plan

Villa Arconati, Theater of Diana at the terminus of the main axis

Villa Arconati, View of the casino in the garden

Villa Arconati, View of the small casino

Villa Arconati, Perspective of the eight statues

Villa Arconati, Espalier in the limonaia

Villa Arconati, Theater of Andromeda

Villa Arconati, Theater of Pompey

Villa Arconati, Bowling green

Villa Arconati, Theater of the surprise piazza
Villa Arconati, The menagerie

Villa Arconati, The berceau that served as a garden theater

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