Showing an architect's signs of genius

Palladio's last work, the Teatro Olimpico (1585), is the oldest surviving Renaissance theater.
Palladio's last work, the Teatro Olimpico (1585), is the oldest surviving Renaissance theater. (Paul French for The Boston Globe)
By Paul French
Globe Correspondent / September 14, 2008
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Barcelona has Gaudí. Glasgow has Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And this city has Palladio, a multitasking maestro whose name is synonymous with his homeland.

Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect and master builder, created a living museum with his groundbreaking, neoclassical designs that went on to influence everything from czarist palaces in St. Petersburg to the White House. And this year, the 500th anniversary of his birth, Vicenza will celebrate Palladio's legacy, putting a spotlight on this lesser-known jewel of a city in the Veneto region.

Vicenza is a northern city, lying about halfway - 35 miles in each direction - between Verona and Venice, which may be one reason why this quiet burg is overlooked by tourists who flock instead to Romeo and Juliet's balcony or the waterways of the Queen of the Adriatic. And although this provincial capital of 120,000 people has a plain setting amid farmland, it is the dramatic stage for a banquet of buildings from a man considered the most singularly influential in the history of Western architecture.

By marrying the grandeur of classical Greek and Roman design with the humanist sensibility of the Renaissance, Palladio (1508-80) fashioned a new aesthetic that brought him fame in his time and lasting distinction to Vicenza, which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage City with 23 sites listed in the historic center and 28 more in the countryside.

Many of Palladio's spare and elegant palaces, city buildings, and country villas are open to the public. For the ultimate in archi-tourist vacations, one villa is available for rental by the week.

Getting around the compact city center is easy, so I took a walking tour to get an overview of the architect's impact. His namesake boulevard, Corso Andrea Palladio, is an 800-yard showcase of palaces by him and his contemporaries, rich in his signature details of columns, pediments, and porticoes.

The Piazza dei Signori, the central square, has a magnificent example of Palladio's style: the Basilica, which is not a religious building but a medieval-era meeting hall to which he added a two-story loggia in white Piovene stone to create an interplay of light and shade through arches and porthole windows. The effect is like painterly chiaroscuro drawn in stone and plaster.

In buildings such as the ornate Palazzo Chiericati, now the city's art museum, Palladio's treatment is theatrical in design. But just across the street his masterpiece, the Teatro Olimpico, is so understated, at least from the outside, that you might not know it's there at all. The first covered theater of the modern world, which is still in use for concerts and plays today, is tucked in the courtyard of a 13th-century castle.

The intimacy of the venue is breathtaking. Behind tiered rows with just 430 seats stands a line of columns topped by statues that recall an ancient Roman theater. And the stage looks like one of his façades. This was Palladio's last work. He died a few months after construction began in 1580 and his colleague Vincenzo Scamozzi added a tromp l'oeil set design, using just a few yards of space to create the perspective of receding streets. The theater lacks air conditioning and heating, so performances only take place in the spring and autumn, but it is open year-round for tours.

Palladio is best appreciated up close, and for those of us not versed in the nuances of architectural history, an important retrospective of his work and lasting influence opens Sept. 20 at another of his grand edifices, the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto. (It runs through Jan. 6 before moving to London and then to Washington, D.C., next fall.) There are 80 drawings by Palladio, architectural designs by Michelangelo, Inigo Jones, and Le Corbusier, and paintings from El Greco, Titian, Van Dyck, and Canaletto, along with 30 architectural models. The exhibit's curator has labored for years to get it right.

"It's difficult to convey architectural ideas to the public in ways that will engage them," said Guido Beltramini, director of the Andrea Palladio International Centre for the Study of Architecture. "Looking at important drawings and documents is one thing, but I want to get across the genius behind his ideas."

The show helps visitors think as Palladio did. "He translated his rules of proportion into what were essentially prefabricated designs. This allowed him to create unique houses for his clients," Beltramini said, holding up the brightly colored building blocks visitors will use to make their own Palladian villas. This approach, he adds, enabled the architect to offer options while keeping costs down.

Much of the exhibit, indeed much of Palladio's best-known work, is focused on country villas where he reconfigured barns, styes, and farmhouses into something altogether new. These stately homes were meant not only to function as working farm properties but also to elevate the status of the buildings to reflect their wealthy owners' self-images. "Architects must always please their clients," Beltramini said.

The Palladian villa typically consists of a centralized block raised on an elevated podium with grand steps, flanked by lower service wings. "Our homes," Palladio wrote in "The Four Books of Architecture," a 1570 work that carried his message around the world, "should be proportioned like our bodies, with rooms balanced on each side of the entrance hall." This approach found expression at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's National Gallery, and resonated to country homes from England to the Deep South.

I signed up for a country tour, which I would recommend over trying to find many of these villas on your own. Seeing these homes in their rural settings reveals another aspect of Palladio's vision: how graceful and composed they are, sturdy houses that please the mind and the eye through balanced proportions. Villa Valmarana, or "La Rotonda," is one of the most famous, with identical columned façades on all four sides topped with a dome that gives it the look of a temple. Little wonder Joseph Losey chose it to film his 1979 adaptation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Sadly, urban encroachment has lessened its bucolic setting on the outskirts of Vicenza.

Nearby is the unusual Villa Valmarana ai Nani (or dwarfs), sumptuously decorated with frescoes by the Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The garden wall is lined with statues of dwarfs. Legend claims early owners gave birth to a dwarf daughter and to protect her self-image, they only employed servants and farmers who were also dwarfs and then added similarly diminutive sculptures.

Villa Saraceno was bought and restored by England's Landmark Trust and is available for weekly rental. John O'Dowd from Shropshire, England, showed me around his holiday home. "The atmosphere is so special, it's timeless; you can rent a château in France, but it's not like this," he said. There was space for 15 friends to join him for the week and they slept in rooms converted in the attic granary. He didn't mind when tour groups popped around for a quick look at the frescoed halls. "There's plenty of room and a big garden."

Farther afield, Palladio built country houses for many Venetian noble families in the provinces of Padua, Rovigo, Treviso, Verona, and Venice. It would take a week or more to set off in search of them all. I didn't get to see Villa Emo, which was used in the delightfully creepy 2002 film "Ripley's Game," in which John Malkovich plays an aesthete killer who appreciates high living in a Palladian villa.

For all his acclaim, the architect never got to build a palazzo on Venice's Grand Canal. His work was "too modern, too radical," said Beltramini, "and it would have destabilized the political power structure as it was conveyed through architecture." So Venice kept Palladio at a distance, allowing him only to build on islands off the city where he erected two masterpieces, the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore. Palladio may have had the last laugh as these prominent positions now frame the city's harbor with greater visibility than anything on the Grand Canal.

Heading back to Vicenza, I was surprised to see a Palladian estate abandoned and in ruins. "There are more than a few of them that have been in families for generations and who can no longer afford their upkeep," said Rossella Bergamo, my guide. She said it's common for owners of restored properties to invite visitors in as a way to help maintain their homes.

Despite the detailed accounts Palladio left of his buildings - including explanations of the designs and advice on how to live in them - little is known about his own life. The stone mason who changed the course of architecture left no account of his own home or how he lived in it.

Paul French can be reached at


If You Go

Andrea Palladio 500

Sept. 20-Jan. 6, 2009

Palazzo Barbaran da Porto


Exhibit open Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 9:30. Adults $14, under age 18, over 65, students with student cards $11, under 6 free.

Teatro Olimpico

Piazza Matteotti, 11


Daily 9-5, closed Mondays. Admission $11, includes admission to Pinacoteca Civica, the city art gallery in Palazzo Chiericati.

Tourism information

Piazza Matteotti, 12


For information on walking tours, country tours, and other information about visiting Palladio's villas.

Villa Valmarana

"La Rotonda"

Via Rotonda

From March-November, the grounds are open Tuesday-Sunday 10-noon and 3-6 p.m., and the interior is open on Wednesdays 10-noon and 3-6. Admission $7 for the grounds, $14 for grounds and interior.

Villa Valmarana ai Nani

Via dei Nani, 8


Through Nov. 2, Tuesday-Sunday 10-noon, 3-6 p.m. Nov. 8-March 10, 2009, Saturday-Sunday 10-noon, 2-4:30. Admission $11.20.

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