The Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Still, this handsome publication examines a family of artifacts of which only one, the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como, may be familiar to scholars.”
—L. Satkowski, Choice

“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.”
—Luciano Parisi, Landscape Research

“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.”
—Luciano Parisi, Landscape Research

“[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.”
—Claudia Lazzaro, Cornell University

“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.”
—L. Satkowski, Choice

“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.”
—Claudia Lazzaro, Cornell University

“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.”
—Tracy L. Ehrlich, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

“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.”
—Denis Cosgrove, UCLA

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271022161
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2003
  • Series: Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies, #1
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

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).

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Table of Contents


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





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