THE VERY WORDS 'palace' and 'villa' have such different connotations in Italy, where they originated, than in other countries to which their use has spread, that a brief indication of their Italian origins and use is perhaps desirable. Originating in the Palace of the Caesars on the Palatine Hill, the word palatium was in early medieval times employed to denote the residences of popes, emperors and kings, in the same way as it is still used today in England for royalty and great ecclesiastics. But already in fourteenth-century Italy it was applied to the dwellings of those who held the reins of power -- the houses of the podestàs and captains of the people were called Palazzo del Podestà or Palazzo del Capitano. Thus by natural evolution when various individual families seized power, and created the signorie that dominated the small Italian city states, their houses were also called palaces, and the practice spread until the word was applied to the house of any particularly powerful family or person, impressive for its magnificence, until today in Italy palazzo is used to describe almost any large building, even blocks of flats and offices.
From the palatial pleasure houses of the Roman emperors and patricians, in medieval times the word 'villa' came to signify a country estate, of which the landowner's castle or house was simply a functional part. It is evident, however, from the chapter devoted to life in the villa in the late thirteenthcentury treatise on agriculture of Pietro de' Crescenzi, that the conception of this as a pleasure house already existed long before the humanist movement, inspired by the classical poets' descriptions of life in the villa as an aesthetic setting for the repose of a cultivated man of letters, resulted in the transformation of the villa into a palatial country house surrounded by magnificent gardens.
By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the increasing security, especially of cities, enabled the evergrowing wealth of private citizens to be displayed in the form of magnificent family palaces, that replaced the baronial strongholds and towers of medieval times. Hitherto Venice had been the only city in which such conditions reigned since a very early period -- already in the eleventh and twelfth centuries her merchant princes had built themselves palaces under the less formal denomination of Ca' or house, such as Ca' da Mosto, Ca' Farsetti and Ca' Loredan. In Genoa and Tuscany wealthy noble families such as the Doria, Tolomei and Guinigi had already built themselves palatial houses, but it was really only in the Florence of the Medici that security, wealth and aesthetic consciousness combined to produce the first great palaces and villas of the Renaissance, whose influence spread all over Italy. It is for this reason that the Renaissance has been chosen as the starting point of this brief survey of Italian villas and palaces.