European Architecture Series
Andrea Palladio

Biography of Renaissance Architect, Venice: Palladian Villa Designs.

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Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562)
Venice. An awesome masterpiece of
Renaissance architecture, designed
by Palladio.

For a short guide to terminology
see: Architecture Glossary.

Venetian Painting (c.1450-1800)
Characteristics of Oil Painting.
Renaissance in Venice
Architecture, Painting, Sculpture.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80)


Early Life and Training
Villa Architecture
Palladian Villa Design
Civic and Palace Architecture
Patronage of the Barbaro Brothers
Church Architecture
Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562-1610)
The Church of Il Redentore (1577-92)
I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura
Famous Buildings

Villa Capra (La Rotunda)
(1566-91) Vicenza. A fine example
of Palladio's classicism from the
16th century.


One of the giants of Venetian Renaissance architecture of the 16th century, Andrea Palladio based his designs on the values of Greek architecture, and the traditions of Roman architecture as outlined by Vitruvius. He is regarded as one of the greatest architects in the history of Western art, best known for his villas (in the Veneto), as well as his palaces (Vicenza) and churches (Venice), all located within the Venetian Republic. His architectural theories were laid out in his treatise Quattro Libri dell Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), which had a profound impact on building design throughout Europe and America. His style of architecture - a blend of Greek, Roman and Renaissance art, later known as Palladianism - accorded the greatest priority to maintaining symmetry, perspective and overall harmony, in the manner of Greco-Roman temple architecture, and was widely imitated during the 17th and 18th centuries. In effect it was an early form of Neoclassical architecture. Palladio's greatest works include: the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562, Venice), Villa Cornaro (1552-54, Piombino Dese, Treviso), Villa Capra (La Rotunda) (1566-91 Vicenza), and the Church of Il Redentore (1577-92, Venice). A number of Palladio's buildings in Vicenza and in the Veneto are protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In both his practical designs and his interest in architectural theory, Palladio had much in common with another great architect of the Mannerism period, Giacomo da Vignola (1507-73).



Early Life and Training

Born Andrea Di Pietro della Gondola in Padua, the son of a miller, Andrea Palladio was lucky to be young enough to be unaffected by the warfare which struck the Veneto (the region around Venice) in the early years of the cinquecento. In 1509, when he was six months old, the combined forces of the League of Cambrai defeated the Venetians at the Battle of Agnadello and overran most of the Veneto. Only a series of courageous military efforts enabled the Republic to regain its political viability. While in Padua, Palladio trained as a stone mason in the workshop of Bartolomeo Cavazza da Sossano. At the age of 16 he moved to Vicenza, where he settled for much of his life. He became a pupil in the busy Pedemuro workshop, which specialized in stonecutting, and joined the local guild of stonemasons. His particular specialty was the carving of monuments and decorative sculpture.

Villa Architecture

Palladio's first works date from the 1530s, when the stability had been restored on the Venetian mainland. But the key year was 1538-9, when he worked for the Humanist scholar, Gian Giorgio Trissino, on the reconstruction of the Villa Cricoli. Trissino, who was an avid follower of the Roman architect Vitruvius, took an interest in the young man's work and encouraged him to study the arts and sciences, and to study Ancient architecture in Rome. In fact, Palladio accompanied his patron on three trips to Rome, where he made sketches of Roman monuments. Trissino also gave him a new name - Palladio, meaning "wise one", after the Greek goddess of wisdom Pallas Athene. See also: Greek Art (650-27 BCE).

By the time of his death in 1580, he had designed two dozen villas. Most of these were catalogued in the second book of his famous treatise, the Quattro Libri dell Architettura, published in Venice in 1570. Not all were built, and several remained unfinished; but the surviving villas stand as impressive monuments to his own genius and to his illustrious patrons.

Palladio was certainly an innovator. However, his designs were also firmly rooted in local architectural traditions. Fifteenth-century villas in the Veneto had ordinarily been fortified, symbolically at least, by towers and roof-top crenellations. In more rural sites, the whole villa, together with its gardens and outbuildings, were protected by a fortified enclosure. The principal legacy of villas such as these to Palladio was the characteristically Venetian convention of the symmetrical, three-part facade.

After the Cambrai Wars, three of Palladio's immediate predecessors began to show how classical architectural language could be more systematically and correctly applied to traditional villa types. The designs of Falconetto's Villa La Vescovi, Sansovino's Villa Garzoni, and Sanmicheli's Villa La Soranza, reveal the impact of these three architects' intensive studies in the ruins of ancient Rome.

The adoption of Roman forms in the Veneto was not only a question of architectural fashion; it also served to remind Venetians of their legendary ancestry as refugees from barbarian invasions at the fall of the Roman Empire. The fact that modern Rome had been horrifically sacked by imperial troops in 1527 pointed to an ever-present "barbarian" threat. Civilization had to be defended at all cost, and the revival of classical architecture became one of the most effective vehicles for its expression. See also: Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE)

Like the three forerunners just mentioned, Palladio studied assiduously in the ruins of ancient Rome. Indeed, he made no fewer than five visits between 1541 and 1554. However, before the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, few remains of classical domestic buildings were known. Literary sources such as Vitruvius and Pliny provided the only detailed evidence for the villas of the ancients. Palladio's great feat of imagination was to combine his knowledge of the ruins of ancient temples and civic buildings with written information relating to antique villas, and to adapt this synthesis to the practical needs of the Veneto landowner.

Palladian Villa Design

In the pages of the Quattro Libri Palladio displayed his villas as an imposingly unified corpus of works, a series of ingenious variations upon a single theme. Each plan is symmetrically arranged, both inside and out, with a loggia and central hall flanked by large, medium-sized and small rooms on each side. Villas with two main living storeys, generally those sited in or near villages or towns, have gracious staircases, one on each side, in prominent positions. In single-storey villas the stairs are tucked away in inconspicuous corners, since they give access only to the grain-lofts above and to the kitchens and cellars below.

Most of the villas were intended as working farms, with long wings on each side of the owner's residence, containing stables, wine-cellars, shelters for carts and ploughs, and accomodation for the farm manager. Dovecotes often marked the ends of the side wings, as in the Villa Emo and the Villa Barbara, to add interest to the long, low profile, as well as to supply birds for the owner's table.

In reality, the villas of Palladio are much less homogeneous than the reader of his Quattro Libri would imagine. Each is stamped with an unmistakeable individuality, finely tuned to the special character of the site, and to the needs and personality of the owner. Even the first of his villas, the Villa Godi begun in 1537, reveals a distinctive, elegant simplicity on its spectacular hillside site. One of the most adventurous early designs was that of the Villa Poiana, with its central loggia conceived as a serliana crowned by a semicircle of porthole windows.

By the 1550s, Palladio had evolved what has come to be regarded as his standard formula for a villa facade, with a classical temple-front as its centrepiece. This theme is exemplified by the Villa Foscari, known as the "Malcontenta", where an Ionic, pedimented portico overlooking the Brenta Canal shelters an airy loggia opening into the stately central hall. Yet the rear of this villa, marked by the playful shallow rustication and the huge thermal window breaking into the pediment above, is once again quite individual.

Civic and Palace Architecture

Palladio's first significant public building project involved the rebuilding of Vicenza's medieval town hall, known as the Basilica Vicenza. He based his remodeling of the structure on his own idea of how a contemporary Roman basilica might look. The ground floor arcade is Doric, the upper storey Ionic. Both are characterized by Palladio's signature openings (used in doorways, windows, or as here, in arches) consisting of a round-topped arch supported by a pillar on either side, with both pillars further supporting entablatures constructed so as to allow a narrow, vertical opening between pillar and wall. The basilica's parapet is decorated with statues, while the copper-clad roof rises up behind it. Palladio's arcaded facade runs around three sides of the old building only. The structure was completed in 1617.

After completing his design for the Basilica Vicenza, Palladio went on to develop three main types of palace design. In 1550, he completed the Palazzo Chiericati, Vancimuglio di Grumolo delle Abbadesse, in the Veneto. In 1552, he rebuilt the Palazzo Iseppo Porto in Vicenza, employing a colonnade of Corinthian columns to surround a main court. In 1556, he built the Palazzo Antonini in Udine, using a centralized hall with four columns. In his urban projects Palladio used his own improved version of the standard Renaissance palace, in which the owner's second storey living quarters were enhanced through the use of a pedimented classical portico, adapted from the design used by Michelangelo in his Capitoline buildings in Rome.

Patronage of the Barbaro Brothers

Following Trissino's death in 1550, Palladio received support and patronage from the Foscari, Corner, and Pisani families, as well as the Barbaro brothers - Cardinal Daniele Barbaro, who stimulated him to extend his studies of classical architecture and brought him to Rome in 1554, and Marcantonio Barbaro, the cardinal's younger brother. The well-connected Barbaros also introduced Palladio to influential circles in Venice, where he was duly appointed chief architect of the Republic, after Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570).

Towards the end of his career, Palladio became increasingly involved with theories of harmonic proportion. In a series of late works he managed to invent designs in which almost every dimension could be incorporated into a series of musical ratios. One example is the design for the Villa Sarego at Santa Sofia, for a Veronese family active in avant-garde musical circles.

Church Architecture

It was not until his reputation had long been established in the countryside and in his adopted home town of Vicenza that the conservative Venetian ruling class dared to employ him in their own city. His most famous commissions involved the design of numerous churches in Venice. See also: Venetian Altarpieces (1500-1600).

NOTE: For more about Florentine Renaissance architecture, see: Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance (1420-36).

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562-1610)

The sublime but costly Benedictine church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is one of the great set pieces of European architecture. Picturesque, romantic but rigorously (one ought to say harmoniously) geometric, it presents its beautiful facade to the Piazzetta di San Marco across the water of the bay. Commissioned to design a traditionally cruciform church, he concealed the essentially Gothic or medieval nature of the plan with a grand pedimented white marble facade, articulated with four threequarter Composite columns linked by festoons and raised on high pedestals framing the entrance. The bright white nave, inspired by Roman baths, is barrel-vaulted, lit by semi-circular windows, and capped with a lantern-topped dome. The church was finished in 1610.

The Church of Il Redentore (1577-92)

The Church of Il Redentore, widely regarded as Palladio's finest church, looks just like a huge red ship berthed between the packed houses of the Giudecca, across the water from St Mark's square. It has the traditional long nave - flanked by chapels lit by semi-circular windows (lunettes) and supported by deep external buttresses - and a crossing crowned by a simple dome. The white stone facade is remarkable, a brilliant composition of grouped pediments set one within another.

I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura

An important factor behind Palladio's widespread influence and fame was the publication in 1570 of his treatise The Four Books of Architecture (I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura). Book One features studies of decorative styles, classical orders, and materials. Book Two includes Palladio's town and country house designs and classical reconstructions. Book Three contains designs for basilicas and bridges, rules for urban planning, and classical halls. Book Fourfeatures the reconstruction of ancient Roman temples.


Later architects continued to admire and imitate Palladio's style, and this revival of Palladianism eventually became fashionable during the 17th, 18th and early 19th century in Europe and the USA. In Britain, both Inigo Jones (who owned a huge collection of original drawings and sketches by Palladio) and Christopher Wren were huge fans of the Italian. In France, Palladian villas can be seen extensively in parts of the Loire Valley. In Germany, Johann von Goethe described Palladio as a genius, and acclaimed his Convent of S. Maria della Carita as one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Europe. In Russia, Charles Cameron (c.1745–1812) was an avid exponent of Palladianism. In America, Thomas Jefferson was a notable supporter - as were Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) and Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) - and commended the United States Capitol building (1793-1829) as a version of Palladianism. Other examples of Palladian architecture in America include: Jefferson's Monticello mansion in Virginia; Drayton Hall, South Carolina; Redwood Library, Newport, Rhode Island; and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, New York City. In 1979, a nonprofit membership organization - The Center for Palladian Studies in America, Inc. - was established to promote understanding of Palladio's style and influence in American architecture during the preceding century and a half.

Famous Buildings

Among the many surviving buildings designed by Palladio, several of which were popular sights on the European Grand Tour (c.1650-1850), are the following:

- Villa Pisani (1544) Bagnolo.
- Villa Polana (1545-50) Maggiore, Vicenza.
- Palazzo Chiericati (1550) Vancimuglio di Grumolo delle Abbadesse, Veneto.
- Villa Cornaro (1552-54) Piombino Dese, Treviso.
- Palazzo Iseppo Porto (1552) Vicenza.
- Villa Barbaro (1554) Maser.
- Palazzo Antonini (1556) Udine.
- Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta) (1558-60) Mira, near Venice.
- Villa Cagollo (1565) Vicenza.
- Villa Capra (La Rotunda) (1566-91) Vicenza.
- Church of San Pietro di Castello (1558) Venice.
- Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562-1610) Venice.
- Church of San Francesco della Vigna (1562) Venice.
- Church of Il Redentore (1577-92) Venice.

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