Year of Palladio

Andrea Palladio


Towards the end of the 1540s and into the 1550s, as Palladio’s classical vocabulary developed, there emerged a more advanced approach to his praxis. While still utilizing his mastery of geometry and creative ingenuity, Palladio fully embraced the use of the classical orders, which he integrated in more sophisticated ways. The previous uniform rhythm of pilasters or columns along the entire front façade becomes richer through the use of column groupings and varying intercolumniations, or it gives way completely to a central pedimented zone containing the orders. Entablatures become more articulated and prominent. Orders of different scales are combined. Intercolumniations are reduced in order to better conform to Vitruvian specifications. Buildings from this time period include the famous Basilica loggias (begun 1549) that adorn the main piazza of Vicenza and helped establish Palladio as the preeminent architect of the Veneto, Palazzo Chiericati (begun c. 1551), Villa Pisani at Montagnana (begun c. 1552), and Villa Cornaro (begun c. 1552).

In combination with his more sophisticated use of the orders, Palladio also takes strides in unifying the various components of plan, elevation, and section, an approach he would later describe in a sort of general maxim:

Beauty will derive from a graceful shape and the relationship of the whole to the parts, and of the parts among themselves and to the whole, because buildings must appear to be like complete and well-defined bodies, of which one member matches another and all the members are necessary for what is required. 3

This unified approach, which Palladio further refined during the 1550s and 60s, was due in large part to the influence of his highly accomplished patron, Daniele Barbaro, a Venetian patrician, scholar, and humanist, who started working with Palladio soon after Trissino died in 1550. Palladio provided illustrations for Barbaro’s translation and commentary of Vitruvius, published in 1556. Barbaro’s commentaries are quite involved on topics concerning proportions, from the theory of the orders in Books III and IV, to music in Book V, to room ratios in Book VI. Palladio undoubtedly heightened his command of classical Roman architectural theory, as well as ancient Greek arithmetic and geometry, through his relationship with Barbaro. 4

Villas from Palladio’s later period include Villa Barbaro (begun c. 1556), Villa Malcontenta (begun c. 1558), Villa Emo (begun c. 1560), and the design widely considered to be his masterpiece, Villa Rotonda (begun c. 1566). His approach to design in this period has been the inspiration for much analysis. In “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” Colin Rowe compares Villa Malcontenta to Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, focusing mainly on proportional considerations. 5 Villa Emo is one that most easily fits into Rudolf Wittkower’s “harmonic proportions” formulation of Palladio’s design theory, which has generated much interest and scrutiny since its publication about 50 years ago. 6 It is true that such proportional analyses can be used to argue that the beauty of Palladio’s architecture is not necessarily tied to his use of the orders, and that architecture devoid of ornamentation can still delight the eye if aesthetically pleasing proportions are incorporated. 7 It is impossible to deny, however, that classical architecture has stood the test of time, and to this day classical designers look to the timeless beauty of Palladio’s oeuvre for guidance and inspiration. 8

The death of Sansovino in 1570 left open the position of proto of the procurators of San Marco, i.e., the primary architect of Venice. Although Palladio never officially filled this position, during the 1560s and 70s he succeeded in landing major commissions in the capital city, aided by his relationship with the Barbaro brothers, Daniele, who also died in 1570, and Marc’Antonio. Rather than adapt to Venetian styles, Palladio applied the architectural lexicon that he had derived from Roman sources and had mastered through years of study and practice. Palladio designed the front façade (commissioned 1562) of San Francesco della Vigna in a style that solves the problem of unifying the height of the central nave with the lower sides, by overlapping a classical temple front spanning the whole elevation with a colossal order fronting the nave. Variations on this same theme are seen on two churches in Venice fully designed by Palladio, San Giorgio Maggiore (church begun 1566) and Il Redentore (begun 1577). The interiors of these two may seem a bit austere to some observers, since the only ornamentation is that which is implicit in the orders and concomitant classical elements, but this underscores the importance he placed upon them. Their use in ecclesiastical architecture had already been established, having made the transition from pagan and secular sources in ancient Rome, where they had been used for the glorification of the gods or of the state. Palladio’s now fully Roman classical vocabulary was simply the only means of ornamentation acceptable to him. His genius lay in his inventiveness and creativity in assembling the elements of this vocabulary in order to shape space, articulate solid, and modulate light with elegance, grace, and beauty.

The work that secured Palladio such a prominent place in the history of architecture is not made of brick or stone, however. It is his treatise, I quattro libri dell’architettura, first published in 1570 but translated and republished myriad times since, which ensured that his influence would be felt centuries after his death in 1580. It became the de facto primary source book for classical architecture, since Palladio included a plethora of painstakingly detailed and amply dimensioned architectural drawings, from designs to details, which would be the inspiration for many later architects. 9 He also outlined his design philosophies in substantial detail, and the importance he placed on ratio and proportion (recall “the relationship of the whole to the parts, and of the parts among themselves and to the whole”) cannot be overstated. The specifications of the five orders in Book I are exhaustively dimensioned in terms of a module based on the column diameter, in some cases to such precision as to be beyond what could actually be achieved or perceived, which underscores his theoretical approach. 10 Later in Book I Palladio lists his seven preferred room types, namely the circle, the square, and rectangles with the following length-to-width ratios: 2:1, 4:3, 3:2, 5:3, and 2:1. 11 Of course, Palladio’s own designs in Book II, as well as those of Roman buildings in Book IV, are ready made for creative borrowing and extensive analysis. 12

Palladio’s later works in Vicenza include Palazzo Valmarana (begun c. 1565), his first palace with a colossal order; Palazzo Barbarano (begun c. 1570); Palazzo Porto Breganze (begun c. 1571); Loggia del Capitaniato (begun c. 1571), which resides across the piazza from the Basilica; and Teatro Olimpico (begun c. 1580). The last of these Palladio designed for the Accademia Olimpica, of which he was one of the earliest members, and he completed his design for the theater just prior to his death in August of 1580.

Palladio and his wife, Allegradonna, had five children, three of whom survived their father. Palladio’s body was buried in the Dominican church of Santa Corona in Vicenza, but his remains were exhumed in the nineteenth century and moved to prominent tomb in a new neoclassical civic cemetery.

Palladio certainly benefited from the renaissance of intellectual thought that surrounded him in cinquecento Italy. The studies occurring in the various circles to which Palladio belonged over the years, such as those associated with Alvise Cornaro, Giangiorno Trissino, and Daniele Barbaro, were widely ranging. Palladio himself was at times stone mason, architect, engineer, archaeologist and architectural historian. Through meticulous research in Rome and elsewhere, he was able to develop an authentic classical vocabulary from ancient and contemporary sources, which he incorporated with seemingly boundless care and ingenuity in order to design an impressively large number of exceptionally beautiful and sturdy buildings. In the final analysis, however, the exceptional beauty of his architecture depends on an inborn artistic ability that cannot be quantified or otherwise explained by the influences of those around him. There is a huge difference between classically true and truly beautiful, and it is Palladio’s innate mastery of aesthetics that is his greatest legacy.

1 2 Endnotes