A villa was originally an upper-class country house, though since its origins in Roman times the idea and function of a villa has evolved considerably. After the fall of the Republic, a villa became a small, fortified farming compound, gradually re-evolving through the Middle Ages into luxurious, upper-class country homes. In modern parlance it can refer to a specific type of detached suburban dwelling.
Roman writers refer with satisfaction to the self-sufficiency of their villas, where they drank their own wine and pressed their own oil. This was an affectation of urban aristocrats playing at being old-fashioned virtuous Roman farmers, but the economic independence of later rural villas was 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 vineyards, 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 centre 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. Villae rusticae are essential in the Empire's economy.
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.
Villa (or its cognates) is part of many Spanish placenames, like Vila Real and Villadiego: a villa is a town with a charter (fuero) of lesser importance than a ciudad ("city"). When it is associated with a personal name, villa was probably used in the original sense of a country estate rather than a chartered town. Later evolution has made the Hispanic distinction between villas and ciudades a purely honorific one. Madrid is the Villa y Corte, the villa considered to be separate from the formerly mobile royal court, but the much smaller Ciudad Real was declared ciudad by the Spanish crown.
Rome had more than its share of villas with easy reach of the small sixteenth-century city: the progenitor, the first villa suburbana built since Antiquity, was the Belvedere or palazzetto, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo and built on the slope above the Vatican Palace. The Villa Madama, the design of which, attributed to Raphael and carried out by Giulio Romano in 1520, was one of the most influential private houses ever built; elements derived from Villa Madama appeared in villas through the 19th century. Villa Albani was built near the Porta Salaria. Other are the Villa Borghese; the Villa Doria Pamphili (1650); the Villa Giulia of Pope Julius III (1550), designed by Vignola.
However, many among the most beautiful Roman villas, like Villa Ludovisi and Villa Montalto, were destroyed during the late nineteenth century in the wake of the real estate bubble that took place in Rome after the seat of government of a united Italy was established at Rome.
In the early 18th century the English took up the term. Thanks to the revival of interest in Palladio and Inigo Jones, soon neo-palladian villas dotted the valley of the River Thames. In many ways Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is a villa. The Marble Hill House in England was conceived originally as "villas" in the 18th-century sense.
In the nineteenth century, villa was extended to describe any large suburban house that was free-standing in a landscaped plot of ground. By the time 'semi-detached villas' were being erected at the turn of the twentieth century, the term collapsed under its extension and overuse. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the creation of large "Villenkolonien" in the German speaking countries, wealthy residential areas that were completely made up of large mansion houses and oftentimes built to an artfully created masterplan. The Villenkolonie of Lichterfelde West in Berlin was conceived after an extended trip by the architect through the South of England.
With the changes of social values in post-colonial Britain after World War I the suburban "villa" became a "bungalow" and by extension the term is used for suburban bungalows in both Australia and New Zealand, especially those dating from the period of rapid suburban development between 1920 and 1950. The villa concept lives on in the German speaking countries, southern Europe, Latin America and particularly on the American westcoast, where villas are associated with upper-class social position and lifestyle.
Modern architecture also produced some important examples of buildings called "villas":