Estates and Country Houses

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ESTATES AND COUNTRY HOUSES. "Estate," in the sense of landed property, entered English usage around 1790, while the term "country house" is of Elizabethan origin. This was not a farmhouse, a Roman villa rustica, but a substantial edifice, fully staffed and generally on a working estate with gardens, cropland, pastures, and woods. Country houses might serve for pure escape to bucolic surroundings or as sites to impress, house, and entertain friends and important guests.

Following the disintegration of the Roman Empire, endemic conflict demanded castles to defend domains and fiefs. Rulers were peripatetic, holding court in their own and their vassals' castles, or in the few towns of their realms. Cities almost disappeared. Nobles lived in their castles, and rich townsmen kept to the safety of their walled towns. Around 1200 relative political stability returned to Europe, towns revived, and a conscious attitude appeared that life in the country, rather than in town, was special and worthwhile. Such an attitude can be seen in the Très riches heures (14131416) of Jean de France, duc de Berry, with its depiction of his castles in the French countryside, and the pleasures of cavalcades and the hunt.

For wealthy townsmen, a country house served as an escape from crowds and cares, and for many, a conscious return to their rural roots. Some had retained family farmsteads, but their chief livelihood was commerce. For nobles, who usually possessed landed estates, it was a different matter. They became established in towns when towns came to dominate the neighboring countryside, built urban palaces, and entered urban politics. And when princely courts settled in a capital city, with the growth of the bureaucratic state, nobles also flocked to capitals to look after their interests. But their incomes mainly derived from their estates, and so they divided their year between town and country. At first they tended to make the ancestral castles they left behind more livable, but soon they began to build on their estates grand houses suited as much to pleasure as to estate management.

The interiors of country houses graduated during the era from the multipurpose great hall, around or above which were added family, guest and servant quarters, storerooms and stables, to more consciously articulated structures. Kitchens, storerooms, and servant quarters were put on the ground floor. On the principal floor stood a series of rooms both intimate and grand: halls for public business, parlors and salons for conversation and gaming, dining nooks, grand banquet halls, libraries, and ballrooms. Upper floors provided bedroom suites for family and guests, with attic rooms for personal servants. Water closets succeeded privies, and stables and barns were placed at a distance.


What we might call a country house on its estate appeared first as villas in Renaissance Italy, where popes and cardinals had long escaped malarial Rome to grand retreats in the neighboring hills. Italians knew their Roman forebears escaped crowded cities to enjoy country life in splendid villas, extolled by Cicero, Virgil, and the younger Pliny, who had a villa near Ostia to which he could flee Rome in a few hours. As cities grew in northern Italy, many who migrated to them kept the farmsteads from which they came. Those who grew wealthy built on their rural holdings retreats with pleasant gardens. Boccaccio's Decameron (13511353) describes in detail the nearby country houses and gardens to which his storytellers fled the plague in Florence. By the 1400s the Medici and other rich Florentine families, whether of common or noble descent, prided themselves on their rural villas. The Tuscan countryside was agreeable, and attractive landscapes appear as background in paintings they commissioned. Nature's charms gained mention in poetry as the pastoral came into vogue. It became not only desirable but fashionable to escape the city in summer, and to go hunting in the fall. Landed estates and country houses provided the means, and for rich commoners throughout Europe gave access to noble status.

After 1530 Italy was largely at peace, and in the north the building of villas quickened. Many rivaled urban palaces in grandeur. Some stood on hills with views over the surrounding countryside, others amid gardens on the outskirts of a town or village. Some were pure escapes, with no working estate. The Venetian elite generally invested in productive properties, where they enjoyed classical villas built by Andrea Palladio (15081580) and Vincenzo Scamozzi (15521616) that would provide the model for many later English and other European country houses, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia. On Lake Como, birthplace of Pliny, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio began what is today the Villa d'Este. The Borromeo family of Milan built their villa on Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore, on the site of their medieval castle.

In the hills surrounding papal Rome new villas in Renaissance and baroque style proliferated. Perhaps the most famous was Cardinal Ippolito d'Este's 1550 villa with its playful fountains at Tivoli. Near Viterbo, Vicino (Duke Pier Francesco) Orsini created a magical park on his family estate. The seaside also attracted building, such as the Villa Doria, originally two miles outside Genoa's walls, and the unfinished villa of Margaret, duchess of Parma, at Ortona.

The stark and bandit-ridden countryside of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily did not prove conducive to the country villa, and the nobility at first did little more than modernize their castles, while maintaining palaces in or on the outskirts of Naples and Palermo. They visited their castles to collect rents and hunt in the fall. With the coming of the house of Bourbon to the throne in the eighteenth century seaside villas began to appear around the Bay of Naples, and at Bagheria, near Palermo.


The nobility of Spain, like that of southern Italy, became urban and built imposing residences in provincial capitals. Hilltop castles were abandoned, though castles that abutted towns survived and were transformed into residential palaces, such as those of the dukes of Medina Sidonia in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and the dukes of Feria at Zafra. Only a ruin remains of the castle at Alba de Tormes of the dukes of Alba, today owners of the 1770 Liria Palace in Madrid. For autumnal hunts, Spanish nobles erected pavilions or stayed in simple farmhouses (fincas). A finca usually proved satisfactory as an escape for wealthy townsmen. After the royal court settled in Madrid in 1562, many grandees and civil servants built palaces there. The marquis of Santa Cruz, an admiral who served long in Italy, proved a rare exception in 1564 when he built a Genoese-style palace with gardens at Viso del Marqués in remote La Mancha. If few Spanish nobles favored country houses, Spain's Habsburg and Bourbon rulers did. Philip II (15271598) often summered in the intimate Valsaín Palace in the woods of Segovia. Nearby, Philip V (16831746) built the elegant palace of La Granja, with its splendid fountains. The stiffness of Spanish Habsburg court etiquette and the presence of a royal alcazar in most cities limited occasions that Spanish rulers might stay in a noble's palace or country estate. Portugal proved similar to Spain. Its kings made Sintra their country escape.

North of the Alps, French kings and nobles began to transform their châteaus and manor houses into elegant country residences as peace and stability came in the late fifteenth century. Francis I (14941547), impressed by Italy, conceived Chambord as a country residence from the start, perhaps inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who, following a life in busy Florence and Milan, retired to a house in the park of Amboise. French nobles, with country estates throughout the kingdom, built urban hôtels in Paris and provincial capitals as government expanded. With Louis XIV (16381715), the court concentrated at Versailles, which started as Louis XIII's hunting lodge amid extensive parks. Versailles expanded on a colossal scale to become the seat of government as well as a fount of pleasure. The château of superintendent of finance Nicolas Fouquet at Vaux-le-Vicomte provided Louis with the model and team of architect Louis Le Vau (16121670), decorator Charles Le Brun (16191690), and gardener AndréleNôtre (16131700). Freed from attendance at Versailles after the death of Louis XIV, the French nobility established a routine of life between Paris or some provincial capital for the "season" from late fall till late spring, and their country châteaus for summertime and the hunt in autumn.

In England, while a few peers established residences in London, most nobles and squires improved their castles and ancestral halls, and began soon to build grand new country houses. Cardinal Wolsey's Late Gothic brick Hampton Court, whose builders included Italians, set the tone for the Tudor period. Queen Mary's councillor Lord William Paget built Beaudesert Hall in Staffordshire, while Queen Elizabeth's councillor William Cecil built Burghley House in Northamptonshire, and closer to London, Theobalds, scene of fabled festivities. Tudor and Stuart monarchs on a royal progress stayed at such great country houses and expected to be properly lodged and entertained. Rich Bess of Hardwick, countess of Shrewsbury, became famed for frenzied building, above all for Hardwick House, designed by Robert Smythson (c. 15351614). Using loot from piracy, Sir Francis Drake turned Buckland Abbey into a splendid country house.

In the reign of James I, Inigo Jones (15731652) introduced the Palladian style to England, with a fine example the Queen's House at Greenwich. The Restoration saw monumental baroque extravaganzas such as the first duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth, as well as the work of Sir John Vanbrugh (16641726), Blenheim Palace for the duke of Marlborough and Castle Howard for the earl of Carlisle.

The country house also came to the Burgundian Netherlands. Regent Mary of Hungary had built at Binche a villa and park in the Italian manner that Henry II of France (15191559) in 1554 destroyed from spite. In the subsequent Spanish Netherlands the great families divided their time between Brussels and the countryside, where they both modernized old castles and built new châteaus in the baroque fashion. In the Dutch Republic, where landscapes and pictures of rural life first gained wide favor, wealthy burghers relished escaping big mercantile towns for the country, though space was limited and the terrain flat. They came by the late seventeenth century to favor Palladian style houses in parklike settings.


By the eighteenth century, country houses and villas, both great and modest, had come into full fashion, and extended into eastern Europe. Life for hosts and guests included rich meals, strolls in parks, cards at night, hunts in season, all respectful of social rank and station. Balls, musical concerts, and banquets marked great occasions. In living quarters, privacy had come to prevail. Childhood became a special and precious state for the privileged young, and the country house seemed a healthier and safer place for them when not at school. The work of the estate, as often as not, was left to professional managers and overseers. What impression the high life and pursuit of pleasure at a country house made on servants, peasants, and other commoners seldom proved of concern.

Nowhere did the country house become so important in the lives of the elite as in England. Ministers of state and members of parliament mingled not only to socialize but also to determine the affairs of the kingdom. The fourth duke of Devonshire entertained on a grand scale to sway elections. In architecture, Robert Boyle (16941753), Lord Burlington, revived the Palladian style with Burlington House, Chiswick, which stood in an "English" garden, its apparent naturalness in contrast to the geometric formal gardens of France and Italy. Whimsical structures such as Chinese pagodas, Grecian temples, and Roman ruins marked many gardens, such as those designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown (17151783). The Adam brothers, Robert (17281792) and James (17301794), varied classic models in building and interiors, while Horace Walpole (17171797) took whimsy to a Gothic mode with Strawberry Hill, setting another fashion. Renovated castles and new country houses extended into Scotland and Ireland. Life in these houses ran the gamut from Henry Fielding's world of Squire Western in Tom Jones (1749) to that of Jane Austen's novels, where country dwellers mingled with the rich and powerful, who came from the city to find recreation in the great houses on their estates. For interiors and furnishings, Queen Anne, Georgian, Chippendale, and Pompeiian styles competed with French fashions.

In France newly ennobled bourgeois and judges of the parlements built numerous country châteaus on a comfortable scale, and for pure relaxation, maisons de plaisir without working estates. The high nobility aspired to have an apartment at Versailles, an imposing hôtel in Paris, and a nearby country château, and forsook provincial life. Versailles had become so grand that the Petit Trianon was built as an escape from it. Neither in France nor elsewhere, save Poland, did the country house play a political role comparable to that in England.

Peace and the country house came late to the fragmented German lands. Voltaire, an exile to the country at Ferney, satirized the German nobility in Candide with Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh's rude Westphalian castle. But with recovery from the Thirty Years' War (16181648) and the repulse of the Turks following the 1683 siege of Vienna, building in the German lands revived, led by princes and bishops. Yet apart from Vienna, no capital was very big and nobles seldom had a long journey from castle or manor to whichever of the numerous courts was theirs. In the Habsburg realms, country houses did begin to proliferate as magnates built urban palaces in Vienna, Prague, and later, Buda and Pest, and matched them with elegant constructions on their estates in the Austrian, Bohemian, and Hungarian countryside. The Habsburgs, with their Hofburg in Vienna, built Schönbrunn, intended to rival Versailles, two miles outside Vienna's walls. Closer, Prince Eugene of Savoy built his Belvedere Palace with its extensive garden. Prince Nicholas Eszterházy's country estate at Fertöd, fifty miles from Vienna, rivals the grandest in Europe. Franz Joseph Haydn provided Eszterházy's music with an orchestra of some two dozen players. Baroque yielded to neoclassical in architecture, while rococo and Louis XV and Louis XVI styles dominated interiors.

As Prussia grew in power, its nobles built palaces in Berlin and began to regard their estates as sites for country houses, though these tended to remain simple. When Frederick the Great built Sans Souci at Potsdam, it became an alternate capital in the countryside. Court life in Munich and Dresden also separated Bavarian and Saxon nobles from their estates. For hunting Germans preferred male camaraderie in hunting lodges (Jagdschlösser) decorated with antlers. Matters in Denmark and Sweden proved similar.

As peace extended to Poland and Russia, great country houses for kings and tsars, magnates and wealthy bourgeois, quickly followed to dot the undulating plains stretching eastward. Poland had already acquired a taste for the baroque style before the eighteenth-century Saxon kings arrived from Dresden, and its magnates had established the pattern of an urban palace in Warsaw or Vilnius and a grand country estate. Just outside their new capital of St. Petersburg, the Russian tsars had their Tsarskoe Selo, and farther into the country, Peterhof. The writings of Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin make clear that, for the Russian elite, a life divided between urban palaces in winter and country houses on their estates in summer had become routine by the end of the eighteenth century.

The French Revolution threatened what appeared to be the increasingly carefree lifestyle of the nobility and the wealthy. In France, many châteaus were looted, and French armies carried revolutionary ardor into Italy and the German lands until it was tempered by Napoleon. With the restoration of 1815, the country house and estate embarked on a new era of popularity, though with somewhat more concern for public opinion.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Court and Courtiers ; Gardens and Parks ; Jones, Inigo .


Detailed guidebooks, such as the Blue Guides, published by Benn, London, and the Guides bleu, published by Hachette, Paris, are most helpful.

Ackerman, James. The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. Princeton, 1990.

Cook, Olive. The English Country House: An Art and a Way of Life. London, 1974.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven, 1978.

. Life in the French Country House. New York, 2000.

Goodman, Albert, ed. The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century. London, 1953.

Rybczynski, Witold. The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio. New York, 2002.

Peter Pierson

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Estates and Country Houses

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