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Châteaus and Villas

Châteaus and Villas

The terms château and villa refer to two different kinds of country residences built by European nobles and prominent citizens during the Renaissance. The château was a type of French castle dating from the Middle Ages. The early ones were fortresses, designed to withstand an armed attack, and Renaissance châteaus had traces of this military function. Villas, by contrast, served as rural retreats from the pressures of city living. They reflected a new appreciation for country life among the urban aristocracy*.


Châteaus. Even the earliest châteaus combined a practical emphasis on defense with touches of comfort and elegance. By the Renaissance the military role of these buildings had declined, and many earlier castles were redesigned as country retreats.

Several wars between 1494 and 1559 brought French culture into close contact with Italy. The French court employed Italian artists and architects, whose ideas influenced the design of châteaus. The châteaus built during the 1500s blended French Gothic* architecture with the styles of the Italian Renaissance. Francis I, who ruled France from 1515 to 1547, erected several important châteaus, including those at Blois and Chambord. Other French nobles also built impressive châteaus that combined elements of medieval* castle architecture, such as towers and moats, with Renaissance forms such as classical* columns and Italian staircases.

Even without a military function, châteaus symbolized political power. During the 1600s, Cardinal Richelieu of France led a campaign to destroy fortified castles, which he saw as a threat to the authority of the French crown. However, French nobles continued to build new châteaus throughout the 1600s.


Villas. The oldest Italian villas date from the 1400s. Early ones, such as the villas of the Medici family at Trebbio and Cafaggiolo, served as centers for collecting farm products to be transported to the city. These country estates ensured that the Medici urban palaces and their inhabitants would have a secure supply of food even during times of unrest or famine. A villa also served as a place of escape when disease broke out in the city.

The designs of early Italian villas often borrowed from older castles and forts. By the 1500s, however, villas began to reflect the Renaissance passion for classical style. Architects such as Raphael and Donato Bramante created designs based on ancient Roman models, such as the villa of the emperor Hadrian near Rome. This ancient structure influenced Raphael's Villa Madama and Bramante's addition to the Vatican Palace. Landscape and gardens also played an important role in villa design. The buildings were often laid out in a way that called attention to beautiful outside views.

Architect Andrea Palladio gained renown for his villa designs. His work joined elements of commonplace buildings with classical features. His designs varied widely according to the villa's function and its owner's social status. Palladio paid attention not only to the villa itself, but also to the design of stables, sheds, and other outer buildings. His designs remained extremely popular long past his lifetime.

(See alsoArchitecture; Fortifications; Gardens; Palaces and Townhouses. )

* aristocracy

privileged upper classes of society; nobles or the nobility

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

see color plate 10, vol. 1

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