In antiquity, the word 'villa' denoted a house in the country, either devoted to farming or to more luxurious exurban leisure. Wealthy and powerful Romans built villas as an escape from the rigors of city life. Of course, the farms, gardens and vineyards surrounding the villa were quite functional, with resident farmers and slaves doing the labor. But the function of the villa went way beyond agricultural productivity.
In several surviving texts from antiquity, writers describe villa life as an important counterbalance to city life. Horace, the 1st c. BC poet, was given a farm by his patron Maecenas. In his Odes and Epistles, Horace often refers to his preference for the virtuous simplicity of country life: "I live and reign, as soon as I have left behind what you townsmen with shouts of applause extol to the skies…I loathe sweet wafers; 'tis bread I want, and now prefer to honeyed cakes."(1) In Horace's view, villa life meant submitting happily to Nature's dominion and rejecting "honeyed" urban luxuries in favor of rustic simplicity.
But for many well-to-do Romans, villa life was all about luxury. Pliny the Younger wrote in the 1st c. CE about the importance of retreating to the villa to commune with nature — but for him this meant enjoying a view of abundance from a marble hilltop colonnade. In the words of one scholar,
The villa…was part of the tradition of Roman noblesse — the presumption was that it helped its patrician owner serve society better by providing a fresh perspective on life through periodic communion with the natural world of the countryside. Like many traditions, this one was rooted in nostalgia for earlier and simpler times.(2)
If the Romans were nostalgic for a pre-urban past, the Renaissance Italians were nostalgic for the Roman era. During the Renaissance, texts by the ancients were broadly read and disseminated, including Horace, Pliny, and Columella, who wrote a book of agricultural advice for a patrician audience. In the 15th century, Italians began uncovering ancient ruins and then modeling their own buildings after Roman prototypes. The Italian nobility also modeled themselves after the Great Men of antiquity. The Renaissance villa became a second (or sixth) home for Italian elite like the Medici. There, they could pursue the pastimes of the ideal nobleman (adapted from the Romans): scholarly study and learned conversation, but also a hint of virtuous manual labor, a counterpart to the amoral intrigues of court life.
This is not to say that these men actually did any real work. The scholar Anton Francesco Doni wrote, "Both the gentleman and the writer are able to take delight in making fine grafts, in planting good fruits, or in making some sort of small ornamental garden, with no more effort, however, than should start a sweat, otherwise he will be a complete peasant."(3)
But proximity to the work of the land was enough. Though it was said that Cosimo de' Medici liked to prune his own vineyards, his son, Piero, installed roundels depicting agricultural labors in the coffered ceiling in his study, a more removed way than his father had of associating himself with the virtues of agrarian life. He was maybe even drawing a parallel between the fortune he was growing in his Florentine bank and the crops being produced on his villa's farmland.
The villa also offered the elites a (theoretically) safe haven from the Plague, which recurred frequently during the Renaissance. Boccaccio's famous 14th-century book, The Decameron, depicts a group of young friends hanging out at an abandoned villa during an outbreak of Plague in Florence. So the rustic villa represented physical as well as emotional and moral health.
In our hectic modern lives, gardening and artisanal craft represents a slower pace, a recollection of a simpler time, a favoring of the real and the productive. We want to see ourselves as nurturers and builders, not destroyers. The Roman villa was maybe the first way that modern urban people sought to balance their constant 'progress' with a mindful look back, but it certainly wasn't the last.
(Quotes: 1 Horace, Epistle 1.10; 2 Henry Lansford, The Pliny Project; 3 Anton Francesco Doni, via bellamybunch.)
(Images: 1 Ancient mosaic from Tunisia depicting a Roman Pleasure Villa, at the Musée du Bardo in Tunisia, via Villa Villae; 2 Detail of a mural from the Villa Boscoreal (1st century BC), via Wikipedia; 3 Detail of a mural from the Villa Boscoreal (1st century BC) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 4 Luca della Robbia's terracotta roundel of the Labors of May (c. 1450-56), for Piero de' Medici's study, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; 5 Andrea Palladio's woodcut illustration of the Villa Almerico (aka Villa Rotonda), 1570, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 6 The Fontana di Diana at the Villa d'Este (1550-72), via Wikipedia; 7 John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron (1916) at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, London, via Wikipedia.)