A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the upper class. According to Pliny, there were two kinds of villas, the villa urbana, which was a country seat that could easily be reached from Rome (or another city) for a night or two, and the villa rustica, the farm-house estate, permanently occupied by the servants who had charge generally of the estate, which would center on the villa itself, perhaps only seasonally occupied. There were a concentration of Imperial villas near the Bay of Naples, especially on the Isle of Capri, at Monte Circeo on the coast and at Antium (Anzio). Wealthy Romans escaped the summer heat in the hills round Rome, especially around Frascati (cf Hadrian's Villa ). Cicero is said to have possessed no less than seven villas, the oldest of which was near Arpinum, which he inherited. Pliny the Younger had three or four, of which the example near Laurentium is the best known from his descriptions.
Roman writers refer with satisfaction to the self-sufficiency of their villas, where they drank their own wine and pressed their own oil, a symptom of the increasing economic fragmentation of the Roman empire. When complete working villas were donated to the Christian church, they served as the basis for monasteries that survived the disruptions of the Gothic War and the Lombards. An outstanding example of such a villa-turned-monastery was Monte Cassino.
Numerous Roman villas have been meticulously examined in England. Like their Italian counterparts, they were complete working agrarian societies of fields and vinyards, perhaps even tileworks or quarries, ranged round a high-status power center with its baths and gardens. The grand villa at Woodchester preserved its mosaic floors when the Anglo-Saxon parish church was built (not by chance) upon its site. Burials in the churchyard as late as the 18th century had to be punched through the intact mosaic floors. The even more palatial villa rustica at Fishbourne near Winchester was built uncharacteristically as a large open rectangle with porticos enclosing gardens that was entered through a portico. Towards the end of the 3rd century, Roman towns in Britain ceased to expand: like patricians near the center of the empire, Roman Britons withdrew from the cities to their villas, which entered on a palatial building phase, a "golden age" of villa life.
Two kinds of villa plan in Roman Britain may be characteristic of Roman villas in general. The more usual plan extended wings of rooms all opening onto a linking portico, which might be extended at right angles, even to enclose a courtyard. The other kind featured an aisled central hall like a basilica, suggesting the villa owner's magisterial role. The villa buildings were often independent structures linked by their enclosed courtyards. Timber-framed construction, carefully fitted with mortices and tenons and dowelled together, set on stone footings, were the rule, replaced by stone buildings for the important ceremonial rooms. Traces of window glass have been found as well as ironwork window grilles.
In post-Roman times a villa referred to a self-sufficient, usually fortified Italian or Gallo-Roman farmstead. It was economically as self-sufficient as a village and its inhabitants, who might be legally tied to it as serfs were villeins. The Merovingian Franks inherited the concept, but the later French term was basti or bastide.
In Spain, a villa is a town with a charter (fuero) of lesser importance than a ciudad ("city"). Later evolution has made the distinction between villas and ciudades a purely honorific one. Madrid is the Villa y Corte, but the much smaller Ciudad Real was declared ciudad by the Spanish crown. Villa (or its cognates) is part of many Spanish placenames, like Vila Real and Villadiego . When it is associated to a person name , it was probably used in the original sense of a country estate rather than a chartered town.
In 14th and 15th century Italy, a 'villa' once more connoted a country house, sometimes the family seat of power like Villa Caprarola, more often designed for seasonal pleasure, usually located within easy distance of a city. The Villa d'Este near Tivoli is famous for the water play in its terraced gardens. The Villa Medici was on the edge of Rome, on the Pincian Hill , when it was built in 1540. In the later 16th century the villas designed by Andrea Palladio round Vicenza and along the Brenta Canal in Venetian territories, remained influential for over two hundred years. Palladio often unified all the farmbuildings into the architecture of his extended villas (as at Villa Emo). Other famous Italian villas are the Villa Madama, the design of which, attributed to Raphael, was carried out by Giulio Romano in 1520; the Villa Albani , near the Porta Salaria; the Villa Borghese with its famous gardens; the Villa Doria Pamphili (1650); the Villa Giulia of Pope Julius III (1550), designed by Vignola. The cool hills of Frascati gained the Villa Aldobrandini (1592); the Villa Falconieri and the Villa Mondragon .
In the early 18th century the English took up the term. Soon neo-palladian villas dotted the valley of the River Thames. In many ways Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is a villa. In the 19th century villa was extended to describe any suburban house that was free-standing in a landscaped plot of ground, as opposed to a 'terrace' of joined houses. By the time 'semi-detached villas' were being erected at the turn of the 20th century, the term collapsed under its extension and overuse. The suburban 'villa' became a bungalow after World War I.
- John Percival, The Roman Villa, 1976
Upper class, wealthy Roman Citizens in the countryside around Rome and throughout the Empire lived in villa-complexes, the accommodation for rural farms.
The villa-complex consisted of three parts.
The "Villa Urbana" where the owner and his family lived. This would be similar to the wealthy-persons Domus in the city and would have painted walls and lovely artistic mosaics on the floors.
The "Villa Rustica" where the staff and slaves of the villa worked and lived. This was also the living quarters for the farms animals. There would usually be other rooms here that might be used as store rooms, a hospital and even a prison!
The third part of the villa-complex would be the storage rooms. These would be where the products of the farm were stored ready for transport to buyers. Storage rooms here would have been used for Oil, Wine, Grain, Grapes and any other produce of the villa. Other rooms in the villa might include an office, a temple for worship, several bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen.
Villas were often plumbed with running water and many would have had under-floor central heating known as a "hypocaust".
In most parts of the Roman Empire wealthy homeowner lived in one story building with few windows. This was to prevent both noises coming from the streets. Wealthy homeowners' often rented out the two front rooms of their home to merchants if they lived on busy streets. As you are able to see in the diagram below a wealthy Roman Citizen lived in a large home. These homes were separated into two parts, and linked together through the tablinum/study or a small passageway. The above diagram is designed after the home of Caecilius, a rich banker, who was buried along with his home in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The main entrance to the house was facing the street, and consisting of a double-door. On passing through the door you would walk through a short passageway and enter into the atrium. The atrium is the most important part in the house. This is where guests were greeted and usually consisted of a small mosaic on the floor around the impluvium. The atrium was also high ceilinged and often consisted of sparse furnishings to give the effect of a lot of space. In modern architecture, an atrium is often used as a greeting centers with a fountain in the middle just the same as it was during the Roman Empire. This is one of the many influences Roman Architecture had on Modern Architecture. In the center of the ceiling was a square opening which was called the compluvium. The roof was slanted slightly towards the opening so that rain water could come in. Directly below the compluvium was the impluvium. The impluvium, often lined with marble, was a shallow rectangular pool to gather rainwater. Surrounding the atrium were arranged the master's families main rooms, the cubicula or bedrooms, the tablinum or study, and the triclinium or dining-room lined the atrium. Only two objects were present in the atrium of Caecilius; a small bronze box that stored precious family items and a small shrine to their household gods. This shrine was called a lararium. These shrines were used to pray to gods in the privacy of a citizens own home. In the master bedroom was a small wooden bed and couch which usually consisted of some slight padding. In each of the other bedrooms were usually just a bed. The triclinium had three couches surrounding a table. The triclinium often was similar in size to the master bedroom. The study/tablinum was used as a throughway to the second part of the house. If the master of the house was a banker or merchant the tablinum often was larger because of the more need for materials. The back part of the house was centered around the peristylium much like the front was centered around the atrium. The peristylium was a small garden often surrounded by columns. Surrounding the peristylium were the bathrooms, kitchen and summer triclinium. The kitchen was usually a very small room with a small counter of sorts and a wood-burning stove. The wealthy had a slave who worked as a cook and spent nearly all their time in the kitchen. During a hot summer day the family ate there meals in the summer triclinium because it was warm. In ancient Rome there was no electricity and this is the reason for many of the features the buildings. Most of the light came from the cumpluvium and the no roof peristylium.