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Andrea Palladio | Palladio and the Veneto
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» The creation of a systematic, communicable architecture
» Trissino and the linguistic aspects of Palladio's architecture
» Palladio's emergence as an architect
» Villa architecture
» Palaces
» The emergence of Palladio's personal style
» The Quattro libri and Palladio's influence

In the panorama of sixteenth-century architecture, Palladio is an exceptional figure. He came not from central Italy, as by birth or training did all the major architects who influenced him, but from the Veneto: he was born in Padua in 1508, but from the age of sixteen lived and worked in Vicenza. He was also unusual in that he was not a painter by training (like Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi and Giulio Romano) nor a sculptor (like Sansovino and Michelangelo) but a stonemason. In fact, were it not for his contact from the mid or later 1530s onwards with the Vicentine writer and nobleman, Giangiorgio Trissino (1478-1550), Palladio would probably have remained a skilled and intelligent craftsman, capable perhaps of designing portals and funerary monuments, but without the culture and intellectual skills by this time necessary in a true architect. He certainly would not have been transformed from maestro Andrea di Pietro, into the famous architect messer Andrea Palladio, the fine Roman name which Trissino invented for him.
Trissino was important for Palladio in many ways: he was himself a talented amateur architect, who made designs for rebuilding his city palace; he also remodelled his own suburban residence at Cricoli, just outside Vicenza, in the mid 1530s, in line with up-to-date architecture in Rome. Trissino, who had been a member of the inner cultural circle around the Medici Pope Leo X and had known Raphael, would have been familiar with the villa of Poggio a Caiano, designed by the patron, Lorenzo de' Medici and his architect, Giuliano da Sangallo: at Poggio one finds anticipations of Palladio's hierarchical grouping of rooms of different sizes around a vaulted central hall, as well as the application, for the first time, of a temple front to the façade of a Renaissance residential building. At Cricoli Trissino already employed a system of rooms of different sizes, and a scheme of interrelated proportions and thereby established what became a key element in Palladio's system of design.
Trissino was of great importance for Palladio in other ways. On a practical level he almost certainly had a determining role in recommending Palladio to his fellow Vicentine patricians in the early years of his activity. It was with Trissino too that Palladio made his visits to Rome in the 1540s, which opened his eyes as to the character of ancient and modern architecture in the city, which till then he would have known only through drawings and Serlio's Quarto Libro (1537) and Terzo Libro (1540). Thirty years later Palladio recalled that he found the ancient buildings "worthy of much greater attention, than I had at first thought" (Quattro Libri, I, p. 5). The impact on him of these works, which he saw with fresh eyes at a fairly mature age, was extremely powerful, and furnished him with a wide range of models which he immediately adapted to his commissions. Trissino probably also guided Palladio in his initial reading and Vitruvius. It is not known whether Palladio could read Latin; even if he could not (and it should not be excluded that he had a reasonable reading knowledge of the language) by the 1540s it was already possible to have access to many important Latin and Greek works in Italian translations (Alberti's treatise for instance already appeared in an Italian translation in 1546). This must have greatly aided Palladio in his efforts to acquire a wide ranging culture, and to assimilate texts that presented difficulties even for scholars.


If we return to the question of the ways in which Palladio resembles and differs from his contemporaries, and the authors of the "modern classics" which he studied in Rome and elsewhere, there emerges what is probably the greatest debt that he owed to Trissino. Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Giulio Romano, Falconetto, Sanmicheli and Sansovino all had a considerable influence on Palladio when he was in his thirties. All of them employed the classical orders in their works, in a way which was relatively consistent and represented a compromise between Vitruvius' specifications, and the observable practice of ancient Roman architects. All of them incorporated into their works both planimetric and elevation schemes derived from the Antique. And in all this they were similar to Palladio.
The great difference however between these architects and Palladio was that from the late 1540s onwards the Vicentine architect makes use of a standard series of overall types, of room shapes, of forms for the orders. He saw the distance between the columns as an integral part of each order, with for instance two and a quarter column diameters serving as the intercolumniation for the Ionic order, and two for the Corinthian. The order thus becomes - for the first time in Renaissance architecture - a potential generator both of two dimensional and three dimensional schemes. His work displays an adherence to a system of design, which makes use of a grammar of forms and proportions, and a "controlled vocabulary" of motifs. His immediate predecessors and elder contemporaries are less systematic. There are reasons for this. They were in a sense inventing and changing the rules as they went along, developing as architects from work to work. They were also often faced with such novel and unusual commissions.
Palladio too was faced sometimes with unique, "one off", problems: the Logge of the Basilica in Vicenza, palazzo Chiericati, the Teatro Olimpico, his two great Venetian churches, the Rialto bridge. But the bulk - and it was a very large bulk - of his commissions were for town and above all country houses, where the needs and requirements were roughly similar. No architect up to that time, not even Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, had had as many commissions for villas and palaces. This made the establishment of standard optimal forms and dimensions desirable, not least as a way of reducing the amount of work which was needed to design an individual building. Early on in his architectural career Palladio realised that it was not necessary to decide for each house how wide and high the interior doors should be, what forms stairs should have, or what profile and proportions to give to the Doric capital. It was enough to decide on a set of standard forms to be modified, certainly, when necessary, but in general applicable in most projects. Palladio's architecture therefore, more than that of any other Renaissance architect, is founded upon a set of carefully worked out, conceptually pre-fabricated elements.
Common sense entered into the elaboration of this system; so too did the working habits of craftsmen and stone masons in Venice and the Veneto. Venetian masons had long been accustomed to order blocks in standard sizes from the quarries, and to use standard forms and sizes for doors, windows, columns. But overlaying Palladio's concern with creating an architecture of fixed forms, fixed proportions, regularly implemented principles, is a conscious attitude, which probably derives from the many hours and days he must have spent in discussion with Trissino. Trissino was one of the leading writers on orthography, grammar and literary theory of his time. Like others of his literary contemporaries he was concerned with the most appropriate form for written Italian, in a period in which no standard literary version of the language existed, apart from the Tuscan forms employed by Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Trissino however went beyond a concern with the most "correct" form of Italian, to a realisation that literary effect depends on grammar and choice of vocabulary. It may be that Trissino himself saw the parallel between linguistic structure and a structured approach to architectural design; alternatively Palladio by a process of intellectual osmosis, helped by his reading of Vitruvius and Alberti, may have transferred Trissino's view of the relation between literary style and linguistic rules to architecture. His architecture in any case assumed a linguistic and grammatical character, which consciously or unconsciously was recognised and approved by humanist intellectuals, like his friend and patron Daniele Barbaro. For Barbaro and his well educated friends, Palladio offered something which even the great and the richly inventive Sansovino could not: a truly rational architecture, based not only (as Alberti had recommended) on the application of reason and principles derived from nature, but structured along the lines of humanist linguistics. Barbaro's preference for Palladio's systematic approach to architecture led him to obtain for the Vicentine architect from the late 1550s onwards a series of major ecclesiastical commissions in Venice itself (the façade of San Francesco della Vigna, the refectory and church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the rebuilding of the Convento della Carità) which might otherwise have fallen to the elderly but still much respected Sansovino.


It is not clear exactly how Palladio passed from manually executing demanding details like capitals, and probably also designing small scale works, to becoming first a part-time, then a full-time architect, working not with mason's tools, but with his mind, his books, his pen and ruler, and his drawings after the antique. He is documented as making a design for the villa Godi in 1540, but his intervention there was at this time probably restricted in scope, as the foot-print of the great villa had probably already been established, and does not correspond to Palladio's preferred division of a villa plan into suites of rooms (usually three) of different shapes and sizes. More important was his work on the palazzo Civena (for four moneyed but socially unimportant brothers) for which several drawings survive. The palace had originally belonged to Trissino's friend Aurelio Dall'Acqua, and one can suspect that Palladio and Trissino may have made designs for rebuilding the palace even before it was acquired, in 1540, by the Civena family.
With Palladio's unexecuted designs for the villa Pisani at Bagnolo, and other drawings for villas from around 1542 one can see for the first time the impact of Palladio's first visit to Rome. Motifs from the baths, from the Cortile del Belvedere and the villa Madama appear, in enthusiastic abundance. In the final design these features were simplified and reduced, to leave more space for living rooms, and to spare the patrons' pockets. The architecture which emerges however in Palladio's work around 1542, with high barrel-vaulted or cross-vaulted halls, ample loggie and column screens, stays with Palladio throughout his career, waiting the moment when it can be put to the best use, as in the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore in Venice. Even the villa Pisani as built is astonishing in the grandeur of its absidally terminated loggia and its great vaulted hall: a similar height and magnificence at his date would have been familiar to contemporaries only in major churches, and its architecture must have surprised, even shocked, many of those who saw it for the first time.


By 1550 Palladio had produced a whole group of villas, whose scale and decoration can be seen as closely matching the wealth and social standing of the owners: the powerful and very rich Pisani, bankers and Venetian patricians, had huge vaults and a loggia façade realised with stone piers and rusticated Doric pilasters; the (briefly) wealthy minor noble and salt-tax farmer Taddeo Gazzotto in his villa at Bertesina, had pilasters executed in brick, though the capitals and bases were carved in stone; Biagio Saraceno at Finale had a loggia with three arched bays, but without any architectural order. In the villa Saraceno as in the villa Poiana Palladio was able to give presence and dignity to an exterior simply by the placing and orchestration of windows, pediments, loggia arcades: his less wealthy patrons must have appreciated the possibility of being able to enjoy impressive buildings without having to spend much on stone and stone carving.
Palladio's reputation initially, and after his death, has been founded on his skill as a designer of villas. Considerable damage had been done to houses, barns, and rural infrastructures during the War of the League of Cambrai (1509-1517). Recovery of former levels of prosperity in the countryside was probably slow, and it was only in the 1540s, with the growth of the urban market for foodstuffs and determination at government level to free Venice and the Veneto from dependence on imported grain, above all grain coming from the always threatening Ottoman state, that a massive investment in agriculture and the structures necessary for agricultural production gathers pace. Landowners for decades had been steadily, under stable Venetian rule, been buying up small holdings, and consolidating their estates not only by purchase, but by swaps of substantial properties with the other landowners. Investment in irrigation and land reclamation through drainage further increased the income of wealthy landowners.
Palladio's villas - that is the houses of estate owners - met a need for a new type of country residence. His designs implicitly recognise that it was not necessary to have a great palace in the countryside, modelled directly on city palaces, as many late fifteenth-century villas (like the huge villa da Porto at Thiene) in fact are. Something smaller, often with only one main living floor was adequate as a centre for controlling the productive activity from which much of the owner's income probably derived and for impressing tenants and neighbours as well as entertaining important guests. These residences, though sometimes smaller than earlier villas, were just as effective for establishing a social and political presence in the countryside, and for relaxing, hunting, and getting away from the city, which was always potentially unhealthy. Façades, dominated by pediments usually decorated with the owner's coat of arms, advertised a powerful presence across a largely flat territory, and to be seen did not need to be as high as the owner's city palace. Their loggie offered a pleasant place to eat, or talk, or perform music in the shade, activities which one can see celebrated in villa decoration, for instance in the villa Caldogno. In their interior Palladio distributed functions both vertically and horizontally. Kitchens, store-rooms, laundries and cellars were in the low ground floor; the ample space under the roof was used to store the most valuable product of the estate, grain, which incidentally also served to insulate the living rooms below. On the main living floor, used by family and their guests, the more public rooms (loggia, sala) were on the central axis, while left and right were symmetrical suites of rooms, going from large rectangular chambers, via square middling sized rooms, to small rectangular ones, sometimes used as by the owner as studies or offices for administering the estate.
The owner's house was often not the only structure for which Palladio was responsible. Villas, despite their unfortified appearance and their open loggie were still direct descendants of castles, and were surrounded by a walled enclosure, which gave them some necessary protection from bandits and marauders. The enclosure (cortivo) contained barns, dovecote towers, bread ovens, chicken sheds, stables, accommodation for factors and domestic servants, places to make cheese, press grapes, etc. Already in the fifteenth century it was usual to create a court in front of the house, with a well, separated from the farmyard with its barns, animals, and threshing-floor. Gardens, vegetable and herbal gardens, fishponds, and almost invariably a large orchard (the brolo) all were clustered around, or located inside the main enclosure.
Palladio in his designs sought to co-ordinate all these varied elements, which in earlier complexes had usually found their place not on the basis of considerations of symmetry vista and architectural hierarchy but of the shape of the available area, usually defined by roads and water courses. Orientation was also important: Palladio states in the Quattro Libri that barns should face south so as to keep the hay dry, thus preventing it from fermenting and burning. Palladio found inspiration in large antique complexes which either resembled country houses surrounded by their outbuildings or which he actually considered residential layouts - an example is the temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli, which he had surveyed. It is clear, for instance, that the curving barns which flank the majestic façade of the villa Badoer were suggested by what was visible of the Forum of Augustus. In his book Palladio usually shows villa layouts as symmetrical: he would have known however that often, unless the barns to the left and right of the house faced south, as at the villa Barbaro at Maser, the complex would not have been built symmetrically. An example is the villa Poiana, where the large barn, with fine Doric capitals, was certainly designed by Palladio. It faces south, and is not balanced by a similar element on the other side of the house.


Between 1542 and 1550 Palladio was involved with the design of three major city palaces, all in Vicenza: the palazzo Thiene, the palazzo Porto, and the palazzo Chiericati. If the economic base of the leading families of the Veneto cities was largely in the countryside, their political life was centered in the cities, where most palace builders and owners controlled the affairs of the city as city councillors. The nobility in cities like Vicenza and Verona was usually grouped into two opposing "factions", one pro-French and pro-Venetian, the other pro-Spanish, thus reflecting the divisions in the international scene. These were in a sense predecessors of political parties, though they were above all expressions of a network of client-patron relationships, and often violently animated by family vendettas and hatreds. The faction leaders, like the Thiene and Porto on the one hand, and the pro-Spanish Valmarana on the other, had a particular need to express their pre-eminence in a large and opposing palaces. Palladio's reputation was such that leading figures from the opposing factions sought designs from him.
The first of the major palaces with which Palladio was involved, the palazzo Thiene, was begun in 1542 for Marcantonio Thiene and his brother, the richest individuals in the city at that time. On stylistic grounds, on the basis of the testimony of Inigo Jones, and because of the close links of the aristocratic Thiene with the Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, it seems likely that the initial design was made by the Gonzaga court architect, Giulio Romano, who visited Vicenza in 1542. Palladio, who had not yet achieved any real fame or standing as an architect, would have been employed initially only as the executing architect, to realise the designs of the admired Giulio Romano. After Giulio's death in 1546, he had the opportunity to impose his own ideas and motifs on the building, which he published in the Quattro Libri as entirely his own work. This collaboration with Giulio was probably of great importance for Palladio: it gave him the opportunity to have contact with a very sophisticated and experienced architect, whose memories went back to the last years of Raphael's life.


In the palazzo Porto, the villa Poiana, the Basilica and palazzo Chiericati Palladio completes his assimilation of lessons learned from his leading contemporaries; he passes from the eclecticism of the early 1540s to the formulation of his own distinctive language. He also displays an architectural intelligence of a high order. In the Basilica, for instance, he produced a monumental screen of particular magnificence around the pre-existing core (shopping mall below, the huge hall for the city's courts above). The structure, realised in solid stone, despite its Roman appearance, is almost Gothic in its combination of lightness and strength. Following a suggestion offered by the amphitheatres at Arles and Nîmes, the half columns of the piers and the entablature broken out over them constitute an effective way of buttressing and reinforcing the main bearing element, which has to resist the thrust of the vaults behind - the earlier loggie, which Palladio's structure replaced, had in fact suffered structural collapse. Combined with the strong but narrow piers, Palladio's adoption of the serliana motif, which had been used by Sansovino in the Libreria, and by Giulio Romano (for instance in the interior of the abbey church of San Benedetto Po) was a brilliant choice. It enabled the maximum of light to penetrate into the interior of the building (the amount of light is also increased by the oculi in the spandrels) and made it possible to absorb unavoidable irregularities in the elevation discreetly, almost imperceptibly, in the space between the small columns and the piers, leaving the large elements, the piers and the arches, regular and equal. The refinement of Palladio's design, in which functional, structural and aesthetic elements all play a part is to be seen even in details, like the choice of cylindrical (i.e. Vitruvian Tuscan) bases for the small Doric columns, in the place of normal attic bases. This is a functional move, for the cylindrical bases, without any plinth, do not project to trip up those who enter or leave the building; at the same time the simplification of the form of the base (maintained at the upper level as well) is a way of avoiding too much fussy small-scale detail, and of enhancing the impact of the large attic bases. It should be added that Palladio did not merely design an exterior. Originally the cross-vaults over the broad transverse passages were covered with clean white plaster, in which pulverised stone was a component. The inside therefore read as a continuation of the exterior, even in its colour and surface texture, a grand Roman space comparable to the market hall of Trajan's Forum, and with a large serliana at the end of the vista. The present grimy state of the unplastered brick vaults, deprives us of the impressive spatial experience created by Palladio.
A chronological account of his work after 1550 has to take account of the further enrichment of his architectural culture in the 1550s, as a result of his close collaboration with another great intellectual figure, the Venetian patrician Daniele Barbaro. It was Palladio who provided almost all the illustrations for Barbaro's monumental translation (with full commentary) of Vitruvius. This effort further defined Palladio's architectural language; it also crystallised for him certain motifs which he was to use constantly in his designs, like the pedimented temple front for villas, and the giant order with free-standing columns, spanning two floors, derived from his own reconstruction of Vitruvius' Basilica at Fano. Palladio realised this impressive solution in stone at the villa Serego.
Other works, like the undecorated but beautiful and structurally elegant wooden bridge a Bassano will have to be passed over here. Nor is there space to analyse one of Palladio's very last works, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, a learned, but also miraculously vital resuscitation of the layout of the ancient Roman theatre.


One of Palladio's most impressive creations cannot pass without mention, for it has so much to do with this exhibition. Palladio's Quattro libri (Venice, 1570), is his influential architectural testament, in which he set out his formulae for the orders, for room sizes, for stairs and for the design of detail. In the Fourth book he published restorations of the Roman temples which he had studied most closely, and in the Second and Third books (as no architect had done until then) offered a sort of retrospective exhibition of his own designs for palaces, villas, public buildings and bridges.
Concise and clear in its language, effective in its communication of complex information through the co-ordination of plates and texts, the Quattro libri represents the most effective illustrated architectural publication up to that time. The intelligence and clarity of the "interface" which Palladio offers to his readers can be seen if one compares it to Serlio's architectural books, which started to appear in 1537. Whereas Serlio does not inscribe dimensions on the plates, but laboriously rehearses them in the small print of text, Palladio frees the text of this encumbrance, and places the measurements directly on the plans and elevations. Unlike Serlio, Palladio presents buildings and details in a uniform fashion, redraws drawings that he derived from other architects, and presents all dimensions in a standard unit of measurement, the Vicentine foot of 0.357 mm.
It was therefore not only Palladio's architecture, with its rational basis, its clear grammar, its bias towards domestic projects, but the effectiveveness of his book as a means of communication that led to the immense influence of Palladio on the development of architecture in northern Europe, and later in North America.
Of course Palladio - as Inigo Jones for instance knew - did not spell out all his secrets in the Quattro libri. He did not say exactly how to design according to a system, without being boring or repeating oneself; he did not say exactly when or how to break his own rules; he did not tell how to use drawing as a way of generating many ideas and designs from a single initial scheme, or why it was important always to make alternative designs. And he did not explain how to design details that would be just right, not on all buildings, but only on a specific building, as the windows of the villa Poiana are just right for that villa, or those of the villa Rotonda for the Rotonda. In writing the Quattro libri he certainly wanted to educate, to improve general standards of architectural design. But like all good teachers (and all masters with apprentices) perhaps he knew that it is better to leave the pupils something to find out for themselves.

Howard Burns


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