Casa Foscari, or the Foscari house. Only a very rich Venetian could call this Palladian masterpiece a “house.” For the rest of us, it is indeed a villa! And also a UNESCO World Heritage site, grazie a dio.
Villa (Casa) Foscari is a patrician villa in Malcontenta near Mira, not far from Venice. It was designed by the architect Andrea Palladio for the brothers Nicolo and Luigi Foscari, members of a very powerful Venetian family that included Francesco Foscari, one of Venice’s most noted doges. The villa was built between 1558 and 1560.
The rear facade:
The villa is located beside the Brenta canal, where it stands in isolated splendor. Typical of Palladio’s villas, it is raised on a pedestal; this pedestal is more massive than most of Palladio’s villas (the base is 11 feet high, more than twice the height Palladio normally used) because it was not possible to construct a subterranean basement on the site and the architect needed to protect the interior from the moisture below.
The original villa lacked the agricultural buildings which were an integral part of some of the other Palladian villas. It was used for official receptions, such as that given for Henry III of France in 1574.
The Foscari family didn’t intend to create a villa farm, but rather a suburban residence, quickly reachable by boat from the center of Venice thanks to the position at the mouth of the Brenta Canal.
The project was entrusted to Andrea Palladio by at least 1554. Unfortunately, Nicolò Foscari died in 1560 and his brother Alvise oversaw its completion.
Painters Giambattista Zelotti and Battista Franco were commissioned to paint the interior with lavish frescoes, but Franco died in 1561, leaving the Fall of the Giants unfinished. While some details about the project are unknown, the building was most certainly completed by 1566, when it was visited by Giorgio Vasari.
I will discuss the frescoes in a separate post.
In the following centuries, the Foscari acquired more property and built outbuildings such as stables and ferries, among others. They also constructed an inn and a guesthouse as well as various rental houses. In fact, they almost created a small village, the so-called “piazza Foscari alla Malcontenta.”
By the early 1800s, the villa was abandoned. In following decades the “piazza” complex was in ruins and during the uprisings of 1848 the various outbuildings were dismantled by the Austrians.
Between 1885 and 1954 the entire countryside along the Brenta Canal was changed with the addition of train tracks of the Padua-Malcontenta-Fusina line. By the 1920s, La Malcontenta was being used as an agricultural warehouse. In 1925 it was acquired by Alberto Clinton Landsberg, who began its first major restoration. A second restoration was implemented in the 1960s, with the collaboration of the Ente Ville Venete.
British travel write Robert Byron provided an eye-witness account of the villa in The Road to Oxiana:
Trip by car to Malcontenta for tea. We took the new road built on the lagoon next to the railway. The famous villa, magnified in all its books on Palladio, was falling into disrepair when Landsberg saw it nine years ago: without doors or windows, it was used as a warehouse for various agricultural products. Landsberg made it habitable. The proportions of the great hall and reception rooms are a mathematical paean. Another would have filled the halls of so-called Italian furniture all with gilding, antiquarian bottoms. Landsberg had natural wood furniture made in the village. There is nothing “vintage” except candles, which you can’t do without in the absence of electricity.
In 1973 the villa was once again owned by a Foscari family member, Antonio “Tonci” Foscari.
The interior of the villa is richly decorated with frescoes by Battista Franco and Giambattista Zelotti. Mythological scenes from Ovid alternate with allegories of the Arts and Virtues. As at other Palladian villas, the paintings reflect villa life in, for example, Astraea showing Jove the pleasures of the Earth. The frescoes have dulled over time, signs of the increasing threat that air pollution poses to works of art.
In their plan of restoring the Villa, the actual owners tried to conserve – as much as possible – also the conception of furniture introduced in the 1920s and 1930s by Albert C. Landsberg, with the precious help of Paul Rodocanachi. We owe to them the choice of avoiding the inclusion of pretentious furnishings and any other interference of objects that could reduce the perception of Palladian architecture or interfere with it.
Having found the samples of fabrics that were used in the upholstery of the furniture – those made in the early 1950s of the twentieth century by Albert C. Landsberg – the architects Antonio Foscari and Barbara Del Vicario had them remade identically by the very same weaving shop.
Separately are documented some recent pieces of furniture that had been designed with attention to the problem of combining the antique with the modern.
This “line” from which La Malcontenta has taken its name – has been elaborated and developed over the years by Barbara Del Vicario, an architect who took inspiration from antique motifs and transformed them into her particular conceptions of design and furnishings.
Barbara del Vicario, Curriculum Vitae
M. Caracciolo, The most beautiful house in the world, House & Garden, 10/2001, p. 244
For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Byron, the British travel writer, visited the villa in 1933 and afterwards wrote that Albert Clinton Landsberg had, nine years earlier, found the villa “at the point of ruin, doorless and windowless, a granary of indeterminate farm-produce,” and had made it a habitable dwelling.
In 1973, Antonio Foscari (a descendant of the Foscari lineage) and his wife, Barbara del Vicario, recovered the villa, and have undertaken a painstaking process of restoring the villa to its original grandeur. In 2012 Foscari wrote of the villa’s renaissance.
Since 1996 the building has been conserved as part of the World Heritage Site “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto”. Today, the villa is open to the public for visits on a limited basis.
The villa stands upon a tall basement the separates the piano mobile from the humid base and confers a magnificence to the building. The podium is reminiscent of an antique temple. Many motives derived from traditional lagoon building techniques and also the antique model. As in Venice, the main facade faces the water, but the ionic porch and the grand staircase are modeled after the little temple at the source of the Clitumno, so often used by Palladio.
The majestic twin access stairways imposed a sort of ceremonial route for visiting guests: they arrived in front of the building, ascending towards the owner, who was waiting for them in the center of the porch. The traditional Palladian solution of stiffening the sides of the pronaos projecting through sections of wall is sacrificed precisely to allow the grafting of the stairs. Trees and vegetation were also purposely omitted, so the Malcontenta imposed itself on its visitors with all the majesty of the classic elevation towards the Brenta.
The villa is a particularly effective demonstration of Palladian mastery in obtaining monumental effects using poor materials, essentially bricks and plaster. As it is clearly visible due to the degradation of the surfaces, the whole villa is made of bricks, columns included (except those elements that are easier to obtain by sculpting the stone: bases and capitals), with a marmorino plaster that pretends to be an ashlar stone face gentle, on the model of what sometimes appears on the cell of ancient temples.
The rear façade is considered one of the highest results among the Palladian realizations, with a drilling system that makes the internal layout legible; think of the wall of the large central vaulted room, made almost transparent by the thermal window superimposed on a three-light window. In the latter, the reference to Raphael’s villa Madama is very clear, thus documenting a debt of knowledge that Palladio will never admit directly.
The harmonious internal decoration of Malcontenta was achieved by Giovanni Battista Zelotti and, to a smaller extent, Battista Franco. The major decorative theme is of mythological characters, according to custom built in the cycles of villas in the hinterland in the sixteenth century.
One particular element is the references to the famous mannerist frescoes of the Castle of Fontainebleau (south-east of Paris). This was probably suggested by the Villa’s iconographic program manager, Vittore Grimani. He was a learned friend of the Foscari and for years residing at the court of France.
In a land of people familiar with all kinds of superstitions, of course the Casa Foscari has legends attached to it.
One legend has it that the villa owes the nickname of Malcontenta to a wife of the Foscari house; she was supposedly relegated among its walls in solitude to serve its sentence for its licentious conduct. The mystery hovers over the history of the lady: it is said that she lived in this place her last thirty years, while it was never seen to come out or look out of the windows. The park of the villa was uncultivated and full of weeds and the fact of how the woman managed to survive remains shrouded in mystery. No one ever brought her food and no one ever lived with her in the villa; hypotheses and anecdotes circulate about these strange circumstances.
But there are also two historical versions:
for the first: it seems [without source] that the place was so nicknamed as early as 1431, to remember the discontent expressed by the inhabitants of Padua and Piove di Sacco regarding the construction of the Brenta Canal; for the second : thirty years before the act of ownership of the Foscari the area was already called Malcontenta, probably from “Brenta poorly contained”, because the river overflowed often.
A legend has it that the villa owes the nickname of Malcontenta to a lady of the Foscari house, relegated among its walls in solitude to serve its sentence for its licentious conduct. The mystery hovers over the history of the lady: it is said that she lived in this place her last thirty years, while it was never seen to come out or look out of the windows.
The park of the villa was uncultivated and full of weeds and the fact of how the woman managed to survive remains shrouded in mystery. No one ever brought her food and no one ever lived with her in the villa; hypotheses and anecdotes circulate about these strange circumstances.
But there are also two historical versions:
for the first: it seems [without source] that the place was so nicknamed as early as 1431, to remember the discontent expressed by the inhabitants of Padua and Piove di Sacco regarding the construction of the Brenta Canal;
for the second : thirty years before the act of ownership of the Foscari the area was already called Malcontenta, probably from “Brenta poorly contained”, because the river overflowed often.
Antonio Foscari, FRESCOS within Palladio’s Architecture. Malcontenta 1557-1575, Lars Müller Publisher Zurigo, 2013
The fabbrica designed by Palladio for Nicolò and Alvise Foscari, upon returning from his last trip in Rome (1554), is an expression of extraordinary completeness of his theoretical convictions.
It is laid out on three levels, in a way that each level distinguishes itself among the functional activities (on the ground floor), the “noble” activities (on the first floor), and the deposit of agricultural goods (on the top floor).
It is symmetrical, in a way that each of the two clients could have his own independent apartment.
Each apartment, to either side of the axis of symmetry – is composed of three rooms. Of these, two rooms (the major and the minor) have dimensions that are regulated by the same proportional criteria; the third room has a square floor plan.
The two apartments are laid on either side of a central space of official importance whose function is shared by both clients, according to the practice already adopted in other villas (and that have been used for quite a long time in Venetian homes).
Inside the fabbrica, the central space is a cross space. This architectural solution attributes to the whole construction the character of the building to a central plan.
This body of fabbrica – a type of parallelepipedal is characterized by an exceptional architectural element marking vigorously its external image towards the Brenta River: a portico, specifically a hexastyle ionic portico, that reproduces the typology of a temple of ancient Rome.
It is for the first time that a citation of this kind makes its appearance, instead of a loggia, in the rich Palladian production of case di villa. This exemplary form, with columns also along the side of the portico, will not be repeated again, because no other Palladian fabbrica has external staircases that lead up to the portico from either side.
The ornaments, which are normally in stone, are made here in cotto. They run horizontally along the principle facade, extending as bands on the either side of the fabbrica all the way to the rear facade, contributing to form an unexpected composition.
The window that appears on the rear facade is itself an evocation of ancient Roman constructive typology (that of thermal baths), in the same way as on the principle facade are the appearances of the portico and of the system external staircases leading up to it.
This fabbrica is made – in evident controversy with the Venetian tradition – with a structural system of Roman conception. The floors – both of the piano nobile as well as the intermediate level above the piano nobile – are in fact structured by brick vaults that unload their weight and forces on the walls which thicken as they near the ground.
To be continued