Projects for the Countryside

Projects I, II, III (fols. 1v-3r)

The terms 'length' and 'width' refer respectively to the long wall and the shorter one, although Serlio does not always respect this rule and sometimes uses the word 'length' to refer to the side in which the principal entrance to a room is found (noting that Serlio pays particular attention to the functional routes within the house).

The measurements which Serlio proposes for the single rooms are the 'real' dimensions - in other words to calculate the total dimensions of a house, it is necessary to calculate the thickness of the walls. This is important with respect to the architectural theories of the period since it is clear and demonstrable that Serlio proposes dimensions (even for the simplest agricultural huts) related to precise proportional relationships. This is completely different from the projects in Palladio's treatise (analysed so well by Wittkower on the basis of 'proporzione armonica' (proportional harmony)), where the thickness of the walls is by convention disregarded (or the dimensions of the rooms include half the thickness of the walls, something which in effect is the same thing). Hence the dimensions of the building can be calculated from the exact sum of the dimensions of the rooms. In Serlio, the small differences (greater or lesser) with respect to the 'perfect' numerico-proportional ratios can be explained by the presence of the (albeit small) 'variables' of the wall thicknesses.

Take for example Project III. The central sala (the food+fire zone in Serlio's patriarchal characterisation) is 27 x 27 feet. On both sides it is flanked by pairs of camere, each individual camera being 20 x 13 (the side facing the sala being 13). Now it is clear that the difference of one foot between the sum of the sides of the two camere (i.e. 26 feet) and the corresponding 27 of the sala is caused by the thickness of the wall separating the two camere, without Serlio indicating it. Let us now consider the building in its entirety: behind the camere-sala-camera row stretches (across the whole of the back) the stable. And it is 20 feet wide. If we look for a proportional relationship, we note that each of the small camere is 20 x 13, that is to a ratio of 3:2 [By adding the wall thicknesses, producing 21:14 (eds.)]. If we then look for the total dimensions of the farmhouse, on the long sides (camera 20 + sala 27 + camera 20) we get a total of 67 feet not including the thicknesses of the walls. And on the short sides (camera 13 + camera 13 + stalla 20) we get a total of 46. The perfect correspondence of 3:2 would rather be 69:46. The small difference is perfectly compatible with the 'variable' of the wall thicknesses.

Project II gives the same proportional coherence but with different ratios. The central saletta 18 x 13 is flanked on one side by a camera 10 x 13 and a cantina 8 x 13 and on the other by a stable 19 x 13. Immediately we notice that here too the short sides of the camera and cantina (10 + 8 + separating wall) correspond in measurement to the long side of the stable - Serlio's standard wall thickness for these low, expansive buildings is clearly 1 foot. If we bear this in mind and observe that the central saletta is the basic unit (and the same measurements are repeated in the stable and the camera-cantina group), then the 'real' proportional relationship including the wall thicknesses is 20 x 15, in other words 4:3. If we now consider the whole building, giving a value of one foot to every wall, then the long side is 60 feet (8 + 10 + 18 + 19 + the thickness of five walls including the two perimeter walls) and the short side is 15 feet (13 + the two perimeter walls), in other words a proportional relationship of 4:1.

These considerations show clearly the progressive abstraction, and at the same time standardisation, which Serlio follows in his projects. The same occurs in the progressive addition of rooms to the basic unit and in the function of those rooms. The development is from small farm (fulfilling the needs of food, warmth and protection and lodging for the beasts) to the large household of the wealthy peasant. Little by little Serlio adds (always with related measurements) the signs of greater wealth, the front portico, the oven, the cantina, the oil press, the laundry, the portico/hay barns on the sides of the front yard, the large camere for the 'household', the differentiated stables for the large and small farm animals at the side of the back yard, right up to the rooms for lodging occupying armies to discourage them from looting.

This is the point where the constant contradiction of the whole book comes most strikingly to the fore, that is, the continual contrast between the method of abstraction from a scholarly base - a method which goes so far as to schematise a farm in proportional geometric modules and which applies Vitruvian symmetry to a pigsty and a chicken run - and the precise and detailed reference to reality. Whilst the finest villas of Palladio show us on the creative level how the barchesse (in all their agricultural humility) could become colonnaded classics yet without losing their function and efficiency, nevertheless Serlio's third and largest project for a farm (Project III), with all its unreal symmetry and eurythmy, is the only document we possess of a real Cinquecento farm, completely autonomous and self-sufficient not only for its harvest but also for the transformation of its crops, from threshing to wine and oil.

It is inconceivable that Serlio's abstraction also led to the 'invention' of the 'ideal' farm. His invention was limited to an architectural regularisation of a large northern Italian farm (whether from the Emilia Romagna, Lombardia or the Veneto) with its abundance of grain and water.

Evidence for this is the frequent reference to precise economic realities and agricultural practices. To take but one example, consider the description of the farmyard behind the farmhouse and outbuildings with the different types of stable, the pigsty, the chicken run and the specific ponds and muddy ditches for the large and small animals. Notice also first that the passage between the different economic strata is marked above all by the distancing of the outbuildings from the farmhouse dwelling for the head of the family/head of the establishment, and second that there is an increasing level of economic specialisation in the different farm rooms. Furthermore, it should not surprise us that this distancing (which gives space between the farmhouse and the lateral outbuildings for the inclusion of two large communicating gateways going from the front yard - grain section - to the back yard - animal section) both articulates and at the same time underlines the total eurythmy of the project, particularly if we consider that this is exactly the same procedure adopted by Palladio except that for the farmhouse itself he substituted a fully-blown villa. It is clear that Serlio and Palladio start from the same agricultural reality, that of northern Italy and its architectural forms. For both the precedent was clearly Sansovino's Pontecasale.

If we go beyond the obstinate correspondence of the plans and consider the elevations with porticoes (running along the entire fronts of the farmhouse and the outbuildings) supported by wooden trunks or brick pillars, everything topped by large sloping roofs, we have before us a type of building which, such as it is, is still today that of the large farm buildings of northern Italy. Also the same today is the distinction between the farmhouse dwelling and the outbuildings for storage and stables, defining the perimeter of the front yard. Even on a linguistic level we have proof indicating Serlio's specific area of reference: the cassina (a word of Piedmontese/Lombardic origin); the bruolo (Lombardic for broletto and used specifically in an agricultural context and at a time contemporaneous with Serlio by Palladio (Battaglia) and by Doni in Attavanta (Tommaseo-Bellini)); still more characteristic is the word torcolare for torchio, a word confined to Veneto dialects (Battisti-Alessio; Prati). Similarly closely linked to reality (and very interesting)

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is the consideration of the agricultural tasks of the farm, with the nostalgic recollection (be it slightly tinged with mediocre Classicising literature) of the large peasant family united around the patriarchal 'rustic prince' and the statement that agricultural production was being slowly eaten away by richer citizens, through usury, trickery and theft. This was how the Venetian villas made their money.

Such clear proof of constant reference to, and adherence to, reality, is not weakened by occasional concessions to erudite tradition, such as the odd advice to open a window in the stable facing both the room with the hearth in it and the East so that the cattle will not be frightened by the dark. This is a pure paraphrase of Vitruvius VI.vi.1.

As regards the designs, Project III is interesting. Here in a single design Serlio unites the elevations of the small porticoes at the back of the smaller yards (of the laundry, the oven and the oil press) with sections of the next-door rooms. The use of these two types of representation here together is not justified since the porticoes align exactly with the fašades of the neighbouring rooms. Serlio uses this same method in many successive projects, presenting elevations and sections of adjacent parts of a building showing different depths. This is the first methodical use of a system for which we know few examples in architectural designs before 1550. It shows once again how deeply Serlio had absorbed the new methods of architectural drawing elaborated in Rome in the second decade of the 16th century in the circle of Raffaello, Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo 'the Younger'.

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