I have spent the past several weeks trying to put to words to the reason that a morning visit to the Villa Farnesina in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood impacted me and my partner so deeply. I think I have arrived at some clarity:
The purpose of Villa design – misunderstood in our own time – is to remove us from the built urban world, and to connect us to nature. Sunlight, birdsong, greenery, fresh air, and simple pleasures found here are the much needed remedy for busy lives in bustling cities. The Villa Farnesina is exactly that. Every inch of its detail is designed to deemphasize the structure, confuse architectural planes, and distract us from building materials. Rather than accentuating its walls and ceilings with columns, pilasters, and elaborate moldings, here the walls are covered in brilliant fresco work which, through false perspective and whimsy (in some cases by non other than Rafael da Urbino) all but ignore the interior architecture, alluding instead to scenes that bring us well beyond the building. The ceiling of the main Loggia is frescoed to resemble an open sky, while painted draperies and false perspectives distract us from the physical confines of the building. The effect of these paintings help us to subconsciously feel that we are not in a built, enclosed environment. These effects are coupled with a natural surrounding of gardens, fountains, clean air and quiet, to produce a wholly tranquil retreat.
We so often focus on the grandeur of palatial architecture, and its modern day equivalents, where the marvels of the building are expressed by weighty and frequently oppressive motifs. We fail to appreciate the beauty that our predecessors understood: the joy of a leisurely conversation, the pleasure of reading a book, or the merriment of a mealtime celebration. To reconnect to this more natural, intimate, and personal state, the best architecture and design is that which itself disappears, allowing us to focus on the object of our rejuvenation, distracted only by the occasional rustle of fruit trees in the garden breeze.