Year of Palladio

Palladioís Influence in America

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

2008 MARKS THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY of the birth of Andrea Palladio. Americans might ask why we should see this as a cause for celebration. What does an Italian architect born long ago and far away have to do with us? Indeed, most Americanís have never heard of Palladio, much less recognize any impact he may have had on our surroundings. Some of our well-traveled countrymen may know one his churches, specifically Veniceís San Giorgio Maggiore, a building hard to miss by any visitor to that unique city. Or they may have seen a couple of his villas in the countryside around Venice, but they know little else about him or why he matters. So what do Palladioís life and works mean to Americans?

To answer these questions we need to do a background check on Palladio. Palladio (whose real name was Andrea di Pietro della Gondola) was born in Padua in 1508 and began training as a stonemason at age thirteen. When he was thirty he made the acquaintance of Count Giangiorgio Trissino, who hired Andrea to work on the loggia of his new classical-style villa. Trissino recognized a special aptitude as well as potential in Andrea. He decided to become his mentor and sponsor his education. He also gave him the name Palladio, a name suggesting the wisdom of the mythical figure Pallas Athene. Palladioís education stirred within him an intense interest in classical antiquity, particularly the architecture of the ancient Romans. This interest led Palladio from crafting buildings to designing them.

We now have to put Palladio in the context of his times. The first half of the 16th century marked the full-flowering of the Italian Renaissance: the rebirth or rediscovery of ancient Roman culture—its institutions, arts, and glorious buildings, all mostly destroyed or forgotten during the Dark Ages. Knowledge of Romeís culture remained largely dormant during the subsequent Middle Ages. The religious rigor of that period stifled curiosity about the achievements of a pagan civilization. The early 15th century, however, saw the emergence of a new interest in ìHumanitasî, the ancient ideal of the importance of the individual human and his understanding of the world around him. This led to a study not only of ancient philosophy and literature but of the surviving relics of Roman antiquity, including its architectural remains. Regrettably, so many of the Romansí great buildings and structures had fallen into ruin and plundered for their materials. What was left, not only in Rome and in other regions of its former empire, was little more than sections of walls, broken columns, and half-buried rubble. Nevertheless, for individuals inspired by the Renaissance, these ruins excited the imagination and stimulated studyóa seeking of architectureís fundamental aesthetic principles.

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