While the Romans may have retreated from England in the 5th century, it seems they never left the English mind. By the early 18th century, the English had managed to drag themselves up from the misty muddy fields that they had long inhabited and at least a few of them began to think of themselves as on a par with the Romans, if not surpassing them. They had a confidence that seems premature; they were only just beginning to put together an empire that would in in later times come to surpass that of ancient Rome.
To befit their new status, or at least their image of themselves, they needed houses to suit. But how to build a house like the Romans? With only scattered ruins (of public buildings) and only one rather confusing book from ancient times as a guide, no one really knew and many speculated. It was the 16th century Veneto architect – Andrea Palladio – that they turned to. He provided a ready- made set of plans and ideas (in his famous book) and numerous built examples of functioning rural villas (a menu of designs), and he had credibility (crawling over the ruins of Rome & devising a thorough systematic design approach). For the new practical no-nonsense Anglo-Romans, it was simply a case of grabbing all this; no need for prolonged debate; get on with the building.
But the differences are immediately apparent: stiff all-stone constructions in a vast sea of green have replaced the mellow rendered-brick working farms of the Veneto. Instead of houses proudly celebrating the ‘holy’ agriculture going on about them, including farming scenes on their internal walls, a house such as Houghton Hall near the north Norfolk coast stands pure and aloof, with a portrait or bust of its creator, Robert Walpole (the first English PM), or his connections, plastered on almost every available wall. The Palladian formula was there: a balanced composition focussed on a temple-front, with wings linked by curving colonnades (see image), but the subtleties, such as the need for proportions to control the whole composition, not only the cubic double-height central space (see image), were lost in translation. A bust of Sir Robert dominates the main space, surrounded by a collection of Roman emperors placed just that little bit lower on the wall. You can’t help but think that while Palladio was a useful interpreter of the Romans, his ideas would be used or discarded on the whims of the local lords.