Venice's Palladian Architecture

Architect and critic Joseph Giovannini explains the how and why of this master builder’s enduring and powerful legacy.

The Basilica di San Marco, with its shimmering, otherworldly Byzantine mosaics, may be the definitive postcard image of Venice. But a rival lies just across the lagoon. There, Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore embodies a contrasting and overtly rational architectural vision, one based in classical Rome. Its façade, composed of two temple fronts—one large, the other larger—commands the lagoon with serene and disciplined beauty. Just up the Giudecca Canal stands another ecclesiastical Palladian masterpiece, Il Redentore. The mathematically proportioned designs of both are acts of human reason.

Neither Palladio nor classicism was native to Venice. The architect who did so much to import the columns and pediments of the antique world to the Byzantine city actually hailed from nearby Vicenza, where he belonged to a group of humanists who were rediscovering and channeling the ancients. As much modernists as antiquarians, they believed in progress above all else, however, and Palladio based his church designs on Rome’s temples not to imitate them, but to build on those traditions.

It was this expansion and reinvention of tradition that makes Palladio one of, if not the, most beloved of Renaissance architects. But his Venice churches were only the final fruit of a career that first blossomed in Vicenza, where he designed a dozen palaces and civic buildings, and then in the surrounding Veneto region, where he built 20 villas, many of which remain open to the public today. Just a short drive from Venice, the buildings comprise prime ground for a Palladian tour made over several days.

Until he was discovered by the humanist Count Giangiorgio Trissino in 1538, Palladio was a stone carver. Trissino quickly became Palladio’s academic mentor, introducing him not only to the newly uncovered ideas of the Greeks and Romans but also to the aristocrats who would become his patrons. Palladio’s architectural career began as Vicenza was entering a period of prosperity after a cycle of wars. His palazzi there make up a professional biography, and they range from the austere to the sumptuous. There were many Palladios, all searching and inventive; new versions emerged with successive commissions.

It all started with a two-month stay in Rome in 1541, the first of four research trips that set the young architect in a direction that would guide him for the rest of his life. The Palazzo Thiene, designed the following year, makes a proud display of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders on its massive stone façades, with classical quoin and voussoir motifs sculpted in high relief. Thiene is monumental, assertive and passionate, a powerful introduction of Palladio’s thesis about the value and grandeur of classicism.

These ideas reached rapid maturity, and within six years Palladio, by then Vicenza’s official architect, designed the masterful Palazzo della Ragione (better known as the Basilica). For this first public commission he pulled out all the classical stops, wrapping a two-story loggia of exquisitely detailed arcades around the city council’s meeting hall, its nine bays of beautifully proportioned triumphal arches marching down the long façade. Here, he took the monumentality of Rome’s buildings and applied it to a civic structure to project the essence of measured and rational rule. It embodies splendor, precision and authority.

Palladio didn’t always remain the erudite archaeologist citing Rome, however; if anything, he became more Venetian and less Roman over time. In the inventive Palazzo Valmarana, he stretched pilasters the full height of the façade, inscribing the image of a larger building over that of a smaller one. Toward the end of his career, he used the classical vocabulary with ever greater freedom. On the commanding Palazzo Barbarano, he projected columns and balconies to paint the stuccoed façades with light, shadow and color. Geometry gave way to visual effects.

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For his Vicenza finale, the Teatro Olimpico, Palladio designed an indoor theater whose façade imitates the plein-air backdrops of its ancient alfresco precursors, using optical tricks to adjust the architecture to the audience’s viewpoint. His successor, Vincenzo Scamozzi, built on that illusionism by creating a series of forced-perspective street scenes. The Romans may have developed the idea of perspective, but Renaissance architects had all the fun.

the advent of peace in vicenza brought a building boom to the Veneto, too, and Palladio was the right architect in the right place at the right time, especially since Venice was then turning from the water to the land for development. But if in Vicenza Palladio channeled the elaborate classical canon of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, in the countryside he sought to simplify, stripping the buildings to plain but equally strong structures.

It turns out Palladio wasn’t just looking at Rome’s civic and religious buildings; he was also looking at the ancients’ ordinary workaday structures, and in the Veneto he designed villas based on those largely ignored precedents. His originality lay in his celebrating buildings that no one else had bothered to notice, and his great innovation was to combine their style with temple architecture.

Many of his Veneto villas were symmetrically massed, with equal wings flanking a central temple-fronted residential block. Such simplicity was appropriate for the economy of these working farms, but since they belonged to people with social status and cultural aspirations, Palladio, through restrained decoration, enhanced these homes. Focusing his embellishments on the residential block, he added ennobling adornments and quite literally elevated the villas by lifting the central portion with a flight of stairs. At the same time he collected all the farm’s outbuildings into a single continuous structure, creating a clear hierarchy. The magisterial Villa di Maser, for example, has two arcaded working wings centered on a residential block whose façade is decorated to resemble a temple. The serenely composed Villa Emo is also laid out with arcaded wings flanking a classically porticoed block where the Emo family lived. In each the interiors are created more through painting than building. Paolo Veronese at Barbaro and Giovanni Battista Zelotti at Emo created illusionistic frescoes in which figures seemed to spill out over classical trompe l’oeil elements and into the rooms.

Palladio’s work in the Veneto embodies an attitude of nobility toward the land, presiding over the landscape with civilized decorum. Villa Capra, Palladio’s most famous building (usually called La Rotonda), has a temple front on each of its four sides; its axes radiate from the center into the fields it dominates and protects.

These are masterpieces, even though—or precisely because—they are, surprisingly, straightforward. Palladio fused both obvious and arcane influences to create one of the most admired and imitated building types the world has ever seen. If visitors arriving in the Veneto today feel they are seeing something familiar, it’s because they have been coming across its progeny for years—often in their very own towns and cities. In America the architecture appears on the nickel, in the form of Thomas Jefferson’s very Palladian Monticello. The master designer’s influence is at the tips of our fingers, in our pockets and purses. And it all began in the Veneto.

Chasing Palladio

Palladio’s Veneto is best toured over a few days, with nights spent in the medieval hill town of Asolo and the Renaissance city of Vicenza. Villa opening hours change often, so having one of our “Top Venice Travel Specialists ”; (BlackBook), or Charles FitzRoy, of Fine Art Travel (44-207/437-8553; finearttravel.co.uk), make arrangements is key. As is having GPS—the villas can be tricky to find.

Around Asolo

The beautifully gardened Hotel Villa Cipriani (rooms, from $260; 298 Via Canova; 39-042/352-3411; villaciprianiasolo.com) and Albergo Al Sole (33 Via Collegio; 39-042/395-1332; albergoalsoleasolo.com), above the town square, are good bases for trips to the villas di Maser and Emo (Cornaro and Malcontenta can be visited on the way from Venice). Cà Derton (dinner, $60; 11 Piazza d’Annunzio; 39-042/352-9648; caderton.com) is the place for dinner.

Around Vicenza

In Arcugnano, about 20 minutes south of the city, lies the arcadian Hotel Villa Michelangelo (rooms, from $340; 35 Via Sacco; 39-044/455-0300; hotelvillamichelangelo.com). Once a convent, it can feel cloister-like, but a redo this autumn should fix that. Trattoria Zamboni (dinner, $40; 73 Via S. Croce; 39-/044-427-3079; trattoriazamboni.it) and Trattoria la Moreieta (dinner, $25; 35 Via Soghen, Arcugnano; 39-044/427-3311; moreieta.com), both a short but harrowing drive through the Berici Hills, do excellent rustic but refined Vicentine food. And Villa Saraceno (from $530 a night, three-night minimum; 44-162/882-5925; landmarktrust.org.uk), 40 minutes south of Vicenza, near Finale, is the only Palladian villa that can be rented in its entirety. Sensitively restored and tastefully furnished, it’s now owned by the UK’s Landmark Trust and sleeps up to 16 people.

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Must-See Villas

One can visit the architect’s Vicenza buildings and about a dozen of his villas—including these five—all within an hour-and-a-half drive of Venice.

Villa Capra (La Rotonda)

Arguably the most perfect of the villas, La Rotonda’s form, like the Parthenon’s, is based on a sphere within a cube. It sits atop a hill in Vicenza’s outskirts, with temple fronts on all four sides. At 45 Via della Rotonda, Vicenza; 39-044/432-1793.

Villa Cornaro

Significant for its double-height portico, Cornaro is best toured with Carl and Sally Gable, the Atlanta couple who famously bought it in 1989 after seeing an advertisement for it in The New York Times. At 104 Via Roma, Piombino Dese; 39-049/936-5017.

Villa Emo

A farming estate incorporating barchesse (long, low, arcaded wings), Emo features frescoes by Giovanni Battista Zelotti. At 5 Via Stazione, Vedelago; 39-042/ 347-6334; villaemo.org.

Villa Foscari la Malcontenta

Still used by the Foscari family, this villa is the easiest to access from Venice, only 20 minutes from the airport. At 9 Via dei Turisti, Mira; 39-041/547-0012; lamalcontenta.com.

Villa di Maser (Villa Barbaro)

Commissioned by the polymath Barbaro brothers, Maser is one of the more decorated villas, with frescoes by Paolo Veronese and extensive plasterwork and sculptures. At 7 Via Cornuda, Maser; 39-042/392-3003; villadimaser.it.

Giovanni Battista Zelotti’s pastoral and mythological frescoes in the main hall of Villa Emo include imagery of The Death of Virginia.