Why is Palladio so famous? Andrea Palladio is so important and influential for the history of art that one can almost consider architecture in terms of “pre- and post- Palladian”.
All the architectural works which were to follow could in fact be evaluated to the degree in which they followed the path that Palladio traced, or diverged from it.
The works of Palladio are above all extraordinarily beautiful, to a point, that even today, after five centuries, they are able to astonish visitors from all over the world.
His palazzos and villas are also functional. They are designed to be comfortable to live in, and to be suitable for all the operations they were designed for, whether destined to agricultural activities or Sunday masses.
Palladio is furthermore extraordinary for having theorized his modus operandi in the “Quattro libri“, a compendium of his projects and the theoretical system that underlies them. Architecture is codified in precise rules that transform it into a real language, with its grammar and vocabulary.
Like many of the greatest architects, Andrea Palladio did not have a traditional academic education. His fortune owes to Gian Giorgio Trissino, a nobleman from Vicenza, very well introduced in the aristocratic society of Venetian Veneto. He understood the potential of the young stonemason who was working on the rebuilding of his villa and took him under his wing, giving him the possibility of studying and thus expressing his natural talent.
During his career Palladio designed and built, in whole or in part, more than 30 villas, more than 15 urban houses, a theater, a dozen churches or it’s important parts, a dozen public buildings and 2 bridges.
In the 16th century, Veneto is a powerful regional state that has Venice as its capital. The families of merchants accumulated Immense wealth and invest their money in the creation of a lavish lifestyle, that includes elegant urban buildings and country residences: the so-called Venetian villas.
Palladio was born in 1508 in Padua, one of the major cities of the Republic of Venice. He is not Andrea Palladio yet. His real name is Andrea Della Gondola, and his family is of humble origins. Still the age of a boy, he starts working as a stonemason in charge of the production of stone decorations: portals, columns, capitals, corbels. He has the chance to work in the construction sites of some of the early Venetian villas, an architectural phenomenon that has begun to spread in the territories of the Serenissima. Rich families from Venice that created their fortunes with trade, had started to invest in land and agricultural production. In doing so they needed buildings to host operations and villas where they could to live up to their social status when they visited their properties.
In 1534 Andrea marries Allegradonna, also of humble origins. Together they will have five children.
Gian Giorgio Trissino
In 1535 the stonemason meets the person who will change his life and transform his name into Andrea Palladio. While working on the construction of a villa in Cricoli, just outside Vicenza, Andrea meets the owner, Gian Giorgio Trissino. He is a nobleman from Vicenza, a typical Renaissance man with a passion for literature, architecture and classical antiquities, who has been in the cultural circle of Pope Leo X and met Raffaello.
We do not know exactly what Andrea said or made to impress Trissino, but the latter is definitely struck by the figure of the skilled stonemason, and understands his potential yet unexpressed. The Vicenza nobleman takes Andrea Della Gondola under his wing and help him in his training. As skillful and intelligent as a craftsman, he lacks in fact the culture and intellectual formation indispensable for a complete architect. Trissino provides young Andrea with the theoretical base making him read the treatises of ancient Roman architect Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti.
He also invents the sophisticated classical name Palladio. What does Palladio mean? The name actually refers to the epithet of the goddess Athena, protector of the art: Pallade. Like a fairy godmother Tissino transforms Andrea Della Gondola into Palladio.
The Journey to Rome
Gian Giorgio Trissino brings Palladio to Rome for the first time, a fundamental step in the formation of a Renaissance artist. We can only imagine what the humble stonemason from Padua felt when faced with the grandeur and majesty of the architecture of ancient Roman civilization and the works of the great contemporary masters of papal Rome: Raphael, Bramante, Sangallo.
We can guess from the meticulous study that Palladio makes of Roman monuments: measurements, drawings, diagrams, sketches. It almost seems like he wants to discover and master the secrets of classical and eternal beauty that remains harmonious and modern even after thousands of years.
His efforts are repaid. Palladio returns to Vicenza with a new style, rigorous, elegant, clean and extremely harmonious. During his life he will travel to Rome several times to intensify his accurate studies. He identifies the elements at the base of the proportions of classical beauty and encodes them in a standardized system that allows to recombine the various elements according to the project. Palladio makes architecture a language, with its grammar and its words that can be chosen and combined in a sentence according to pre-established rules. In this way he can speed up the design by combining shapes, proportions, ratios between pre-established elements, which he can modify and adapt whenever a particular project of a client requires exceptions.
Gian Giorgio Trissino is a prominent person in the Venetian high society, whose members in those years are competing in the creation of sumptuous city palazzos and country villas. He introduces and recommends Palladio to the most prominent families who begin to entrust him their projects. The names of the villas and buildings designed by Palladio echo the greatness of Venetian high society: Pisani, Barbaro, Badoer, Foscari, etc. all surnames of the most important families of the time.
The architect is much appreciated by its clients not only for the beauty and functionality of his creations, but also for the ability to contain costs without compromising the impact and the magnificence of the project. His artisan origins have given him such a knowledge of materials that for families who could afford it, like the rich and powerful Pisani, he uses the expensive stone for columns and facades. For Taddeo Gazzotto, with limited possibilities, he reserved the stone only for bases and capitals while the pillars are made in cheaper bricks. At Villa Poiana, made more economically, the windows and the arches are completely devoid of decorations. Yet the beauty of each of these buildings, is not minimally affected by the type of material used. Even poor materials such as wood, brick, plaster, if wisely used, are ennobled by forms and finishings. The large columns that adorn the façades of many of Palladio’s villas are often made of brick, plastered and finished to look like solid stone that, if used, would have increased costs and processing time.
In 1570 he becames chief architect of the Republic of Venice.
The success of Palladio is such that no architect before can claim to have had so many commissions at the same time.
I Quattro Libri
Palladio didn’t leave us only his magnificent buildings. He also created an extraordinary testimony of his art: The Four Books of Architecture. Published in Venice in 1570 they are the architectural testament of Palladio, an extraordinary instrument of knowledge of his work told by himself.
In the First book he reveals the secrets for the choice of materials, their processing and construction techniques. He adds the formulas for architectural orders (Tuscanic, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and composite) and the right proportions for each one, for the size of the rooms, for the design of the stairs, details and decorations.
In the Second and third books Palladio offers a sort of retrospective of his work, with the explanation accompanied by projects and drawings of his palaces, villas, public buildings and bridges. No architect had ever written anything like this before.
The Fourth Book contains the reconstructions of the ancient buildings that Palladio had studied and measured during his trips to Rome.
The four books, are clear and capable of easily communicating even difficult concepts. They are certainly one of the reasons for the success and influence that Palladio had and continues to have all over the world. Anyone who appreciated his architecture in the four books could indeed find the rules for applying Palladian language by following its instructions.
Palladio died in August 1580 at age 72, in modest economic conditions, probably at Maser, where he was working in the temple of Villa Barbaro. His burial is in the Maggiore cemetery in Vicenza.
The impact of Palladio’s work on architecture was immense thanks to the beauty of his building and the theories of the four books. After his death his work continued in the projects of all those who were influenced by his art all over the world: France, England, United States. Just take a quick look at Monticello in Charlottesville, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia’s, or the White House itself to realize how Palladianism has been strong and extensive in the Western world.