Cover image for The Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy By Dianne Harris

The Nature of Authority

Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy

Dianne Harris


$132.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02216-1

280 pages
8.5" × 11"
16 color/115 b&w illustrations/4 maps

Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies

The Nature of Authority

Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy

Dianne Harris

“[Harris's work] is a rich and nuanced study filled with a wealth of information, guided by strong and convincing arguments, and framed in a sophisticated language.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

Winner of the 2006 Elisabeth Blair MacDougall Award by the Society for Architectural Historians

Italian villas are generally regarded as beautiful havens where a privileged elite, fleeing the harsh realities of the city, found peace and harmony amid buildings and gardens framed upon classical ideals of proportion, balance, and the natural. In her interdisciplinary book, Dianne Harris presents a radically different view of villa life as it developed during the eighteenth century on the vast estates dominating the fertile Lombard plain. Governed from Vienna by a Habsburg regime bent upon increased tax revenues, the great landowning families lived lives fraught with tensions and contradictions. Although they retained many privileges and indulged in shows of wealth and social distinction, they faced mounting demands for reform and progress from an absolutist state.

The Nature of Authority employs what Harris calls "panoramic history" to trace the mingling of enlightened reform and a culture of display in the design and functioning of villas and villa life in eighteenth-century Lombardy. Cadastral maps are juxtaposed with Marc'Antonio Dal Re's famous prints of the "delights" of villa life; both are woven into an exceptionally wide-ranging investigation of the villas, their gardens, and crop-bearing fields and their representation in visual and written sources from agricultural treatises to books of etiquette. Combining this diverse material with a sharp focus upon the organization of space and class privilege, Harris shows how the villas served as centers of complex cultural and sociopolitical transactions, fashioning a landscape that was at once a beguiling vista and a tool in the enforcement of a strict hierarchy of use and value.

Harris's innovative book reveals the complicity of landscape in the formation of culture and the structures of everyday life. It also elucidates the significance of Lombardy as a testing ground for Habsburg policies of enlightened reform in the social and natural orders.

“[Harris's work] is a rich and nuanced study filled with a wealth of information, guided by strong and convincing arguments, and framed in a sophisticated language.”
“Harris's intriguing study examines 18th-century Lombard villas and the contemporary printed views of them by Marc'Antonio Dal Re in a broad context of material culture, politics, social structures, and a variety of activities and issues that involved the larger countryside. The author argues forcefully and convincingly that the villas cannot be examined only as pleasure estates and only through the lens of the upper classes that built them, and she demonstrates the ways in which they incorporate and reflect all the concerns and classes entailed in owning and working the land. To this study, the author brings to bear an impressive and exceptional breadth of source material. These range from archival documents to contemporary treatises on everything from garden design to etiquette and dress, and much else. The result is a rich and nuanced study filled with a wealth of information, guided by strong and convincing arguments, and framed in a sophisticated language.”
“This study of eighteenth-century Lombard villas belonging to the Clerici and Barbiani families and their representation in Marc'Antonio Dal Re’s prints deepens significantly our understanding of designed, recreational landscapes as both spatial expression and aesthetic obscuring of social and environmental relations in a ‘colonized’ region of the Habsburg empire. A dialectic of enlightenment and absolutism is the defining feature of Lombard society under the Austrian ancien régime. Harris’s dissection of this dialectic is masterly; it reveals the villas . . . as integral elements of a social order in a landscape.”
“Still, this handsome publication examines a family of artifacts of which only one, the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como, may be familiar to scholars.”
“Unlike the workers’ life in the villas to which it is devoted, this book is a delight. It is clear, well-paced, original, stimulating and rich in carefully analyzed illustrations.”
“Harris is especially convincing in the analysis of the landscapes and gardens, their uses, and the gestural codes in the posing and arrangement of figures in Dal Re’s views.”
“Among the most stimulating recent publications in English is the beautifully produced volume by Dianne Harris, The Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy. Although the primary purpose of the book, to demonstrate that landscape is a ‘powerful ideological framework for the construction of cultural values’ (185), is not wholly new, Harris develops this argument in a way that is both persuasive and illuminating. Appealing to a broad audience of scholars—historians, art historians, and historians of landscape among them—the author conducts her work outside the standard geographic, chronological, and methodological boundaries of villa and landscape history. . . . Harris’s book represents interdisciplinary work at its finest—with its judicious use of political, economic, and, especially, social history—and is notable for the application of critical theory to villa and landscape architecture. . . . Harris’s discussion of the material environment, both the architecture of the villas and their landscape forms, is nicely balanced as she brings to bear not only critical theory but also stylistic analysis, defining, for example, the formal features of the Baroque garden in Lombardy and its relationship to the French absolutist garden. Harris is a rare example of a scholar able to employ theory to its best end (and without jargon) while keeping her work firmly grounded in the empirical.”

Dianne Harris is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the co-editor of Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France (2001).


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Landscape and Enlightened Absolutism

1. Landscape and Representation: The Printed View and Marc’Antonio Dal Re’s Ville di delizie

2. Mapping the Landscape of Reform

3. Displaying the Social Landscape

4. Villas of Delight? The Architecture of Production and Display

5. Environmental Absolutism: The Villas Clerici

6. Gardens in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy

7. Gardens and Social Distinction






Landscape and Enlightened Absolutism

This book examines the cultural landscape of eighteenth-century Lombardy, focusing on visual and material culture to illuminate a particular place and time. It offers a spatial history, one that emphasizes the physical framework of space—architecture, gardens, agricultural fields, and infrastructure—as the setting for and an agent in the development of eighteenth-century Lombard culture. With Milan as its cultural and political hub (and with fertile agricultural lands surrounding the capital city), Lombardy became the coveted colony of the Habsburg court, which referred to it as "the Indies of the Court of Vienna." Later historians would call it "the cockpit for the defense of Italy" because of its strategic geographic position as a northern stronghold on the Italian peninsula (Fig. 1).

<comp: insert Fig. 1 approximately here>

Although frequently overlooked by scholars who have privileged Rome, Tuscany, and the Veneto in their studies, Lombard history is particularly rich for landscape historians, because the province served as a testing ground for the economic, social, and political reforms that ultimately became associated with the enlightened absolutist governmental system of the Habsburgs. Tested and applied in Lombardy, their new approaches to tax reform, legal administration, and manipulation of social structures later became the guiding systems in all Habsburg territories. Many of the reforms then spread beyond Habsburg lands and became the model for reforms throughout Europe.

Because of the complex social and political negotiations associated with this province, Lombardy provides a compelling case for studying the particular to understand something much more general. Indeed, its small size and the intense scrutiny it received under the Habsburgs for the duration of the eighteenth century make Lombardy an ideal case study, one that illuminates the complexities of social interaction, landscape transformation, reform politics, and the built environment. Villas were at the center of cultural transactions, and they provide a focus for the examination of larger cultural themes. Therefore, the particular case study here centers on a set of villas and the families who owned them. In this book, I argue that landscape and its representations—both textual and visual—became explicit tools in a highly stylized system of social distinction. The sources I analyze reveal a great deal about the demands and anxieties of social positioning within an aristocracy characterized by the same fine-grained distinctions as those found in other European elite societies of the time. As in other court, noble, and aristocratic cultures, the politics of display played an enormous role in the maintenance of distinctions in the social hierarchy. These issues, however, were especially poignant for Lombard nobles of this period because of the destabilizing impact of the Habsburg reforms.

During the eighteenth century, noble life increasingly took place in the countryside, and the villa became the site for experiments in modern land management and resource control. Arthur Young, whose travel writings provide important documentation of the Lombard landscape, saw the province as exemplary in its agricultural practices; these, he said, were "carried to such perfection as to prove that [agriculture] is equal to the sole support of a modern and most flourishing society." Under the agrarian economy (which accelerated in Lombardy during this period), villa building and reconstruction occupied the time and resources of noble families intent on forming agricultural dynasties. A villa culture had long existed in Lombardy, as it had in other parts of the peninsula. But, as I will demonstrate, an intensification in villa construction and remodeling projects characterized the eighteenth century, as did new ways of representing the estates themselves. The interior machinations and complex cultural life of these villa compounds indicate a society driven by a secular world of agricultural industry, one that stands apart from earlier villa cultures of the Italian peninsula.

Recent scholarship has focused on the construction of space as the apparatus that produces social relations. This intellectual trajectory, coupled with the increased interest in critical theory as a starting point for understanding environmental transformation, gives my study—with its emphasis on the material environment as a historical agent in the age of the Enlightenment—even greater relevance. Built form, I contend, is the consequence of culture—which, in turn, it also shapes. Buildings, gardens, and the products of visual culture are, of course, produced in an artistic climate and thus reveal aesthetic trends. But they also reflect and result from the events, both monumental and minute, of their time. Landscapes and the artifacts related to them shape history; they are active agents in the formation of culture.

The social history of early modern European elites is relatively well documented. What this study demonstrates, however, is the complicity of landscape—gardens, groves, cultivated and uncultivated fields, the ordinary and the elite built environment, including the architecture of villas and the life supported within them—in the structure of that social history. I intend to shed new light on the role the built environment played in the structure and display of elite life and to provide a new way of documenting aspects of that history that might not be available through other forms of evidence. By examining landscape and its representations—and here I include the architecture of the villa in my definition of "landscape"—a more detailed view of aristocratic country life comes into focus. In the context of the Habsburg reforms, specific regional variants emerge as well, revealing subtleties related to the aspects of culture privileged by the Lombard elite.

The landscape created by the Habsburg reforms in eighteenth-century Lombardy certainly existed as a specific physical entity; moreover, it represented a new way of controlling, displaying, seeing, and describing the world. It was not only a physical landscape whose spatial qualities were determined by emergent habits of perception and behavior, but it also inscribed a new social and cultural configuration in the villa compound and its surroundings. I therefore examine the landscape in this study as a visual and aesthetic phenomenon, but not exclusively or even primarily so. Instead, I am interested in interpretive strategies that reveal both the complex richness of the landscape and its role as a fundamental aspect of everyday existence for specific groups of people.

This study reconstructs a picture of the built environment using artifacts of visual and material culture—buildings, gardens, prints, and maps—synthetically, analyzing landscape and architecture, cities and countryside as part of a single continuum. It forms a historic panorama through the analysis of a wide range of evidence, including the villas themselves, printed images of the villas and surrounding landscape, family and estate records, cadastral maps and registers, legal documents, agricultural practices, real estate documents, water rights, lease agreements, travelers’ accounts, and detailed studies of the social, economic, and political history of Lombardy under the Habsburgs. It is a book based on a selected number (and on particular types) of primary materials, and I have made no attempt to be archivally exhaustive. As an architectural and landscape historian, I have a particular affinity for visual and material artifacts, and so these constitute the majority of the evidence assembled here.

Among the most significant remaining artifacts related to these complexes is a set of prints—Marc’Antonio Dal Re’s Ville di delizie o siano palaggi camparecci nello Stato di Milano, published in 1726–27 and 1743. This study begins with Dal Re’s printed images of the villas and develops outward to an increasingly specific examination of various aspects of selected villa compounds. The book’s structure reflects my efforts to understand as much as possible about everything depicted in the prints, and the inquiry follows the path of my eye through the images: I move from the artifact of the print itself to the exterior agrarian landscape, to the villa, and into its gardens.

Despite their compelling sense of accuracy, Dal Re’s prints are highly idealized and are often aggrandizing—a fact that I support in detail in Chapter 1. Many of the prints contain features that never existed, and in this sense, they present a kind of fiction. Of course, all representations are constructed, and are, to some degree, fictionalized. In the context of this book, I use the term "fiction" to mean that the prints seldom portray the villas as they actually existed but instead indicate what the patrons desired, which is its own kind of important truth. Dal Re sometimes invented, sometimes made subtle alterations to the reality of a site, and sometimes simply selected aspects for display over others. But in all cases, these deviations from what we might consider mimetically authentic portrayals are themselves deeply significant. In the chapters that follow, I will demonstrate that the prints are more (and often less) than accurate depictions of lost sites, which they were never intended to be. More than simply telling us what a particular site may have looked like at a specific point in time, prints such as Dal Re’s are part of a complex discursive field related to social positioning and cultural authority. They demonstrate the significance of landscape in the workings of everyday life and in the shaping of culture.

The sweetly innocuous title of the printed series—Villas of Delight—likewise belies the complex reality of life on these eighteenth-century estates. Throughout this book, I will contrast Dal Re’s use of the term "delizie" with the life and activities that actually took place in the villas. A tradition of applying the word delizie to describe villas and villa life was fixed by the eighteenth century, and Dal Re was undoubtedly aware of it, adopting the word as it had been used in villa literature since at least the sixteenth century. He probably did not use it ironically or to persuade in any ideological sense. Dal Re certainly saw no conflict in his use of the term to describe villas that served as retreats and as carefully managed agricultural estates, because such a custom had already been firmly established. Nonetheless, he neither described nor explicitly displayed the productive aspects of the villa compound, choosing instead to promote only the villa’s delightful aspects. It is this choice that I address when I question Dal Re’s title for the series.

In the past, and even the very recent past, historians have generally accepted Dal Re’s prints as authentic depictions of the actual built state of the villas in their time, and they accepted the term "delight" without question as well. A significant point of this study, then, is to examine carefully these narratives and to try to uncover the dimensional reality of Lombard villa life. Compared with various forms of evidence, the prints clearly disclose Dal Re’s fabrications. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the physical facts of the Lombard plain. Hot and humid in the summer, the flatlands and their rice paddies were malarial, hosting swarms of insects. We can only imagine how uncomfortable they were in the middle of summer for aristocrats in eighteenth-century garb. Winters brought the cold, damp fogs that today plague the Linate and Malpensa air-traffic controllers. Only the villas in the pre-Alpine lake areas, where little cultivation occurred, had the climate and surroundings to be considered truly delightful. To understand these villas, I had to sift through the fiction presented by the prints and through decades of villa scholarship that often perpetuated Dal Re’s version of Lombard country life.

Approached critically, the prints pose the same challenges as a literary text: they present a visual narrative that seldom records the actual form of villa compounds. Because the prints distorted spatial realities, they are most authentic in their representation of what mattered to this group of elite landowners. To borrow a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, the prints reveal the symbolic and cultural capital of the eighteenth-century Lombard nobility. They show us that what mattered to the villa owners was a complex brand of power that was not solely rooted in materialism, though this was certainly of great importance. Authority also depended on the symbolic capital of prestige and family honor and on the cultural capital derived from competence—academic knowledge of and participation in a variety of fields that allowed cultural distinction. Dal Re’s prints contained the visual cues that permitted his patrons to establish their distinguished positions and his viewers to discern the subtle distinctions and markers that contributed to the delicate balance of the hierarchy upon which noble life was founded. Even more, the prints may also have allowed the nobility to display their wealth and power at a time of cultural destabilization caused by the Habsburg colonization. That their appearance coincided with the acceleration of the social and economic reforms associated with the enlightened-absolutist policies of the Habsburgs is, to my mind, of real significance, and I assume these to be linked phenomena. If this is correct, then the prints both registered and affected cultural change. In addition to displaying the villas’ architectural delights, the prints reveal far more about issues ranging from the reorganization of the system of taxation to aristocratic social crises regarding the new egalitarianism associated with colonial reform. Dal Re’s views, however distorted and fictionalized, hint at meaningful connections between villa and landscape, city and countryside, built form and class relationships, environmental control and economic power. In short, his panoramic views require a panoramic approach to historical inquiry.

In broadening the scope of inquiry, however, we need not neglect the true delights presented by the sensuous and aesthetic pleasures of villa complexes and gardens. These were chronicled by a very few travelers and by a greater number of local writers, and in this book, their descriptions appear alongside evidence that points to some less pleasant realities. Moreover, the prints of the Ville di delizie are indeed delightful to look at, and I have spent many long and enjoyable hours examining every detail of Dal Re’s views. They were, no doubt, equally delightful and perhaps even titillating for contemporary viewers, for whom a lifestyle from which they were excluded was richly and minutely displayed. But we must recognize that by their very nature, villas were entirely dependent on the surrounding landscape and the city beyond. We cannot ignore the fact that villas cost a great deal of money to build and maintain—a simple point, but one with complex ramifications. To understand the villa, we have to understand where the money came from, how it was gained, and how villa life was economically sustained. I therefore sought documents that would elucidate these aspects of villa life in addition to more traditional forms of evidence.

In this light, the villa becomes a complex manifestation of a range of strategies to maintain a specific social and economic status quo during a time of cultural destabilization resulting from intracontinental colonization. Villa life depended on and was determined by the vagaries of economics, political factors, and cultural structures; by their very nature, villas were entirely dependent on the surrounding landscape and the city beyond. I have presented this subject from both sides of the villa wall, scrutinizing the lives of those who resided in the grand estates, those who supported their existence, and those excluded by this particular system of spatial control and production. But the central subjects around which this analysis pivots—buildings and the landscape—are the fundamental settings for the workings of culture. Thus the built environment, including constructed nature, remains at the heart of this historical reconstruction.

As noted previously, the book’s structure follows the path of the viewer’s eye through one of Dal Re’s panoramas. Chapter 1 focuses on the prints themselves, presenting evidence related to their production and revealing the numerous fictions they contain. Chapter 2 examines the Habsburg cadastral mapping project, an effort that dramatically influenced the formation of the eighteenth-century landscape. Profoundly controversial throughout the eighteenth century, the massive cadastral project aimed at uniform and comprehensive economic and social reforms, and it resulted in a reconstruction of the conceptual basis of the landscape and external nature itself. The cadastral maps were a remarkable record and agent of historical change and another means for the visual rendition of space. They bring the agricultural Lombard landscape into much sharper focus, just as the history of their production illuminates life in the eighteenth-century Duchy of Milan. As David Harvey has written, "Power struggles over mapping . . . are fundamental moments in the production of discourses." The maps, the history of their production, and the records of opposition to the mapping effort make the cadaster an ideal case study, revealing the specific practices behind a variety of spatial theories. Maps, prints, and visual images, then, are active agents of historical change in this study—as significant to the narrative as the physical apparatus of the villa itself.

Chapter 3 examines the particularized social knowledge displayed in the genre scenes that appear in the estate views. Focusing especially on the depiction of human figures in Dal Re’s prints, this chapter clarifies the position of these subjects within the constellation of signifiers that distinguished elite members of Lombard society. In this chapter I argue that the figures are more than mere accessories to the central subject of the view: instead, they serve as carefully chosen and configured components in the cult of appearances that characterized noble life. Drawing on a range of sources—including books on etiquette, civility, gesture, and comportment—along with iconographic analysis, I demonstrate the key role played by such scenes and figures in the complex staging of aristocratic self-fashioning.

Chapters 4 and 5 analyze the architecture of eighteenth-century villa compounds, demonstrating that villa architecture was ideally suited to the masterful control of surrounding environmental resources. The accumulation of property assumed great importance for Lombard villa owners. Such holdings conferred status, of course, but proprietary rights also assured control of resources and economic gain. The environmental control exerted by villa owners was integrally linked to the advertisement of landownership, which was crucial to the maintenance of the owners’ place in the social hierarchy. Laws that regulated access to landscape resources also served to reinforce social status (though historians have rarely studied this linkage). An examination of the three villas belonging to the powerful and prominent Clerici family forms the focus of these chapters. I chose to focus on the Clerici for two reasons. First, Dal Re dedicated one volume of the 1743 edition of the Delizie to the Clerici, and he represented three of their villas in that volume, indicating that they were both significant patrons for the series and providers of ample visual source material. Second, the Clerici were both politically and socially prominent in Milan, and their well-preserved archives are easily accessible in the Archivio di Stato di Milano. Their villas reveal that the need for a functional, carefully controlled building that could serve as an administrative center primarily determined the villa form, which was then expressed in a regionally specific architectural splendor. Relaxation and escape entered the equation only as tertiary concerns.

Chapters 6 and 7 enter the exclusive realm of the garden. Here, I argue that gardens served as a material microcosm of the same impulse toward display, production, and social regulation found in the larger villa complex. The gardens of the Barbiani di Belgioioso family provide a focus: the Barbiani di Belgioioso were also important patrons of Dal Re, and he depicted three of their villas. And, like that of the Clerici, much of the Barbiani di Belgioioso archive is accessible for study. Lombard nobles used their gardens like their villas—as a means for displaying their wealth to outsiders in order to legitimize their right to title, status, and power. The garden was an extension of the villa architecture, and it exhibited the same environmental control found in the villa complex. Here, the regulation of nature was not only mastered but also masterfully displayed. Gardens constituted an essential component of noble and aristocratic self-fashioning. By manipulating external nature in the controlled setting of the garden, these elites naturalized the appearance of the prevailing social order. The gardens became an important refuge and a symbol for a group whose elite status would remain protected, even in the face of varying political circumstances and encroaching modernity.

The literature on Lombard villas and gardens is not large; for the most part, it comprises the work of local historians whose efforts have aided my own and whose titles appear in the notes. Likewise, Lombardy itself seldom appears as a subject for historical study. It remains in the scholarly margins, a peripheral territory frequently overlooked in favor of Rome, Florence, or Venice. But important foundational precedents exist for this project, among them the eloquent and learned studies by James Ackerman, David Coffin, Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, Mirka Beneé, Denis Cosgrove, and Claudia Lazzaro. Though their approaches and interests differ from mine, each of these scholars has contributed much to the field of villa studies—and without their works, this one would not have been possible. Although political and economic histories of Lombardy exist in some abundance, architectural and art historians have tended to focus on Lombard works dating from the Renaissance and before, generally leaving later periods to the examination of local historians. The primary differentiating factors in this study, then, are both the range of sources consulted and the types of questions asked. By examining maps and views, tax records and agrarian practices, legal documents and family histories, architectural drawings, site configurations, treatises, and social regulations, a definition of landscape emerges that broadens the scope—and hopefully the depth—of knowledge to be gleaned from villa histories. Through this panoramic investigation, I hope to add to the growing scholarship on villa cultures, illuminating the significance of developments in the provinces of the northern peninsula. Eighteenth-century Lombardy was far from peripheral. It sat at a crossroads of Continental cultural exchange, a crucial territory in the economic and political success of an entire dynastic empire.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.