All over the western world, hundreds of thousands of houses, churches and public buildings with symmetrical fronts and applied half-columns topped by a pediment descend from the designs of Andrea Palladio. He is the most imitated architect in history, and his influence on the development of English and American architecture probably has been greater that that of all other Renaissance architects combined. — James S. Ackerman, Palladio, p. 19
By Stephen R. Wassell, Professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Sweet Briar College.
Half a millennium ago in Padua, a prominent city in the Veneto region of Italy, decades before the future architect would adopt the moniker Palladio, Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola (1508–1580) was born into a family of modest means; his father Pietro was a mill worker. In 1521 Palladio was apprenticed to a Paduan stonemason, Bartolomeo Cavezza, but he broke away from Cavezza in 1524 and moved to Vicenza. To this day his adopted city celebrates Palladio as its most famous citizen.
In Vicenza Palladio joined the Pedemuro bottega, a workshop of stonemasons that enjoyed a steady stream of sculptural and architectural commissions, due in no small part to Vicenza’s wealth. The workshop’s consistent use of “protoclassical elements” with a “rare and unusual virtuosity in the range of artisan skills” undoubtedly influenced Palladio, although the workshop’s classical “references have the effect of quotations embedded in vernacular architecture.” 1 Palladio inherited his first architectural commission, Villa Godi (begun c. 1537), from Pedemuro at about the same time that he left the bottega.
During these formative years, Palladio developed the origins of his classical architectural vocabulary, deriving elements from many skilled architects, scholars, and practitioners in the surrounding region. These included the Pedemuro master Giovanni di Giacomo da Porlezza; the prominent Paduan patron Alvise Cornaro and his architectural circle, most notably Giovanni Maria Falconetto; Michele Sanmicheli; Jacopo Sansovino; Giulio Romano; and Sebastiano Serlio, whose nascent treatise on architecture was available to Palladio, books Three and Four being published by 1540. Palladio’s drawings of classical elements such as capitals and entablatures from this time period show his desire to exercise his growing vocabulary, and it is telling that he later modified a number of these drawings after seeing the original buildings with his own eyes.
What was clearly missing in his early years was a first-hand knowledge of the Roman architectural sources upon which any respectable classical language must be based. Instrumental in bridging this gap was Giangiorgio Trissino, an aristocrat, writer, and humanist, who recognized Palladio’s tremendous potential and facilitated his first trip to Rome in 1541. Palladio returned a number of times, with and without Trissino, where he meticulously researched, drew, and recorded copious amounts of architectural information, from ancient Roman sources to Renaissance masters such as Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, from intricate details to overall plans and elevations.2 Trissino also had formed an academy of sorts at his estate Villa Trissino in Cricoli (near Vicenza), on which Palladio had worked during his Pedemuro years. Here Trissino provided a humanistic education to promising scholars. He became a mentor to Palladio in the late 1530s and probably provided the young architect’s pseudonym. Through his study of the classics with Trissino, especially the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, and with the first-hand knowledge of Rome he acquired over several years, Palladio transformed his design approach substantially.
Let us first consider his earlier designs, during the 1540s, before the full extent of his education had taken force. Palladio makes scant use of the orders and other classical elements in many of his early villas. Instead he exhibits an innate interest in geometry as design medium, using simple forms such as the circle and semicircle to adorn his early façades, e.g., Villa Valmarana at Vigardolo (begun 1541) and Villa Poiana (begun c. 1548). Symmetry is a constant stabilizing force early on and remains so throughout his career. Palladio’s façade motif comprised of a three bay arcade surmounted by a pediment can inherently be viewed as a formal abstraction, a template from his toolkit — one that he realized at least four times, twice with rustication, once with orders, and once with minimal treatment; cf. Villa Pisani at Bagnolo (begun c. 1542–45), Villa Caldogno (begun c. 1545), Villa Gazzotti (begun 1541–42), and Villa Saraceno (begun c. 1545–8). Palladio makes use of the orders, on palazzos and a small number of villas, to convey the importance of the owners, yet a major formal role of the classical elements is to regulate the steady rhythm of the principal façade (see, e.g., Palazzo Civena [begun c. 1540], Palazzo Thiene [begun c. 1542–6], and Palazzo Iseppo Porto [begun c. 1549]). In his interiors Palladio demonstrates a natural genius for shaping space while addressing programmatic concerns; of particular note is his use of vaults, individually and in combination, which, whether frescoed or left monochrome, read beautifully in their form, geometry, and structural grace.