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Andrea Palladio Revisited: Architect Par Excellence

by Dr. Angela A. Puglisi

“Beauty will result from the form and the correspondence of the whole, with respect to the several parts, of the parts with regard to each other, and of these again to the whole; that the structure may appear an entire and complete body, wherein each member agrees with the other, and all necessary to compose what you intend to form.”
-- Andrea Palladio

The 16th Century Renaissance was a fertile period of artistic and intellectual activity. It is therefore, not surprising that Italy produced one of the giants in architecture, Andrea di Pietro della Gondola known as Andrea Palladio. It is through his buildings and publication of I quattro libri dell’architettura (1570) that his legacy was established throughout the world (particularly in England and the United States).

Palladio devotes his four books to different themes: technical questions, domestic architecture, civic architecture and ecclesiastical architecture. It is illustrated with classical architecture and includes the works of the 16th century architect Donato Bramante and some of Palladio’s works.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia
This summer marks the 500th anniversary of Palladio’s, birth (1518-80). Although born in Padova, then part of the Republic of Venice, his early training began in Vicenza, his adopted city, where became an assistant in the leading workshop of stonecutters and masons.

He would become famous for re-interpreting and re-vitalizing Roman classical architecture and becoming one of the most influential architects from the 16th century onward in terms of architects incorporating some elements of his design which are still in vogue, albeit selective elements.

Humanists loved to codify ideas into theories. Palladio was no exception. In his book on architectural theory, Palladio established his legacy and influence. One of the reasons is that in this work he discussed practical considerations to make architecture “useful” and “commodious.”

In addition, he envisioned architecture as aesthetically pleasing and integrated with the surrounding landscape. He also took into account the social position of the new patrons (i.e. Venice’s new aristocratic merchant society). He created villas embellishing them with porticos, pediments, colonnades and other classical elements.. His palaces and villas were imitated for c. 400 years.

Critics cite that Palladio was the first architect to systematize the plan of a hMonticelloouse and consistently use the ancient Greco-Roman temple front as a portico, or roofed porch supported by columns (this was probably his most imitated architectural feature), which is still used today in many houses (especially in some of today’s McMansions).
To understand Palladio, we need to see him in the context of the Renaissance. This was a period which fostered rationalism, individualism and classicism. Palladio used the mathematical principles (geometric analysis of space), as a basic structure in his works. Thanks to the Renaissance patronage of Trissino and Daniele Barbaro, Palladio was able to develop a taste for this classicism. Early on, it was Trissino, who took Palladio to Rome to study the ancient monuments. He recognized Palladio’s talent and, not only gave him his new noble name, Palladio, which alludes to the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene, but also his early building projects.

Another patron instrumental in Palladio’s career was Daniele Barbaro. He introduced Palladio to the study of Roman classicism that was in vogue during this time. Barbaro’s love for the ancients included a published commentary on the ancient Roman Vitruvius and Palladio illustrated it.
This love of classicism fostered an aesthetics of perfect harmony, proportion and balance in the structuring of basic geometric shapes in the creation of all the arts. Palladio kept these ideals in mind when creating villas, churches, or palaces for his clients. The simplicity of form and geometric clarity and order of design all became part of Palladio’s architectural vocabulary, which would influence future architecture. (i.e. using a pediment, cornice, portico, colonnades, and symmetrical floor plans).

These elements were re-interpreted by architects. For example, in the United States, Thomas Jefferson admired Palladio so much that he referred to I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura’ as his bible. He would translate Palladio’s design not only in his home, Monticello, but also in designing the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, which pays homage to Palladio’s love of classicism in its Pantheon-like structure.

The John A. Wilson D.C. BuildingYou can’t walk around Washington D.C. and its environs without seeing remnants of Palladio influence. Classicism revived thanks to Palladio is seen in his use of combining a basic rectilinear structure with columns, pediments, arches, as needed to create a unified whole. Some buildings in Washington that use some of these elements are District Building (columns), White House (i.e. portico), United States Capitol dome, National Archives and The Supreme Court’s building temple-like design, the Library of Congress (columns, etc), , the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art (columns, dome and rotunda). These are just some, not all of the buildings which reflect the classical inspiration that Palladio brought back to life.

Ultimately, Palladio understood the value of preserving the past, while embracing the present in his design. As the carving on the National Archives building states, “What’s past is prologue.” Palladio certainly understood this, hence his works and influence, remain.

Due to his international contribution to architecture, it is most fitting that Italy and the world celebrate his legacy. It was reported that last year the Italian Government took the initiative to appropriate more than $3 million for the restoration program of Palladio villas along the Brenta Canal and Veneto region. Palladio would have been delighted since what he loved most has been preserved and will be shared with the world. As Palladio believed, his trinity was: “Rome, my mistress, Vitruvius, my master, architecture, my life.”

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Dr. Angela Puglisi specializes in Renaissance art and culture, and the 19th century. She recently lectured in Tuscany, Italy, on selected masters of Sienese and Florentine art, architecture and sculpture. She has served as Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University in the SCS/Art Culture for 22 years and has lectured at Catholic University and the Smithsonian programs. She has written on Pietro Aretino’s literary and artistic aesthetics and is also a professional artist and educator.