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The Secrets of Palladio's Villas
About 500 years ago, in the twilight of the period we call the Renaissance, there began to appear near the coast of the Northern Adriatic around the present city of Venice, Italy, a group of country houses unlike any homes ever seen before. They were all within a radius of about 50 miles, and they were all the work of a single architect. Toward the end of his career, that architect used the new technology of movable type -- then about 100 years old – to produce a four-volume illustrated catalog of his work with a commentary on his principles and methods. The book, entitled The Four Books of Architecture, stunned the European world. It revolutionized Western architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries; it produced the school of Southern architecture in the 19th century; and it remains a major influence throughout the world even today. Andrea Palladio's personal history would seem beyond the imagination of even Horatio Alger. Beginning as a 13-year-old apprentice to a stonemason, he grew up to become the sought-after companion of aristocrats and intelligentsia, as well as the political, military and business leaders, of his day -- the dominant figure in his field, not just in his own lifetime, not just in the lifetime of those who knew him, but now -- more than 400 years later. What can explain this? It seems to me that there's only one possible explanation, namely, that he did just what he set out to do: From his studies of the past and his analysis of contemporary needs, he did in fact distill timeless and universal principles.
This and related developments effectively clipped Venice's already withered control of the land route to Asia. Venice was one of the greatest military and commercial powers on earth. Fortunately. There was also a new crop to plant -. Military expansion on the Italian mainland then continued until the early 1500s. In just 44 years the Mediterranean Sea -. First. at its height. In Palladio's time Venice was not just a city. the mighty Venice had no land at all on the Italian mainland until the mid 1300s. Venice's power came from the fact that its forces stood astride both of the great East-West trade routes of the day: the Northern or land route to Asia and the Orient. in 1453 stormed and captured Constantinople. It was the center of a vast empire with military and commercial enclaves all around the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean. Now the merchants of Western Europe no longer had to pay Venice for safe passage to the East. peace had broken out on the mainland. The mainland areas near Venice finally had the security necessary for large-scale agriculture and for transporting those harvests to the population centers. the massive capital of the long-faded Eastern Roman Empire.went from being the center of the earth to the center of very little.Palladio's Contemporary Needs Let us begin by looking at the needs of his time. in 1492 the Spanish expedition of Christopher Columbus discovered the Western world. By then three dramatic events had set in motion a land rush for the vast undeveloped areas of the European mainland west of Venice.corn from the New World. In fact. (Remember that Columbus' voyage -. four times the size of Rome and London combined. the Ottoman Turks. Venice rose to power in the 1100s by developing an advanced system for constructing war galleys.MediTerrano. Based on a group of small islands in an Adriatic lagoon several miles from the mainland. In fact. and the Southern or sea route. in 1497 Vasco da Gama of Portugal demonstrated a new sea route to Asia by sailing around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. In population. the center of the earth for thousands of years -.that . which in ensuing years rapidly replaced the Orient as the most lucrative destination of European traders. Venice originally was entirely a sea power. the great Christian city of the eastern world. Second. Third and finally. after hundreds of years of fighting. and put its sea route under great pressure as well. who had for decades been nibbling away at Venezia's eastern outposts.
that kind of building would cost an arm and a leg. They had amassed their fortunes in foreign trade. But it wouldn't do just to build a Venetian palace out here in the countryside. ennobling thing to do. and there finally their spirits. and contemplation -. Fortunately.in agriculture: Huge plantations in Crete. They needed a magnificent home. which one can take in the country on foot or on horseback. only about 50 years earlier. restful. something that reflected their own magnificence and virtue. a certain stone mason in Vicenza -. It turned out to be the central problem at the intersection of modern architecture and modern economics. they will preserve their health and their strength. comfortable. Something entirely new was needed. will take great refreshment and consolation. . or storing the grain and wine produced. yet at the same time functional as the center of activity for dozens of farm workers. it turned out that the problem posed was not unique to Venice. Moreover. drain the swamps. And perhaps most important. these nobles also concluded that getting away from the hurly-burly and commerce of the city.about 60 kilometers from Venice -. Andrea Palladio's solution has been the cornerstone of architecture ever since. was beneficial to the spirit. the virtuous. . but inexpensive. in shipping. It being a constant trait of mankind to make a virtue of necessity.was waiting with the answer.was a current event. Remember the problem: The need for a structure that is magnificent. getting closer to the calm and reflection of country life. there was a class of entrepreneurs with the capital to clear the fields. These were the noble families of Venice. That sort of building wouldn't be functional -.as for that purpose the wise men of old times used often to follow the practice of retiring to similar places." The Villa Problem But where were these noble families to stay in the countryside? Mud huts wouldn't suit. Something comfortable. and elsewhere through their overseas empire. in Cyprus. and they can attend quietly to the study of letters. Something magnificent. yet .suited to the business of supervising a large agricultural establishment. organize the farm centers. tired of the agitation of the city. yet inexpensive. That kind of urban building wouldn't facilitate the communication with nature that the man of virtue requires for repose and contemplation. . and their kin . and -. where they were visited by good-hearted friends. to pull these elements together. Now they could put their capital and their overseas agricultural experience to work close to home.crippling event for Venice -. Listen to Palladio himself: "[B]y exercise. Therefore.surprisingly for a sea-going class -.) At the same time.
presents a loggia pierced by three openings. A long and dangerous journey. The simplest. mostly in ruins. 2. Palladio's devised a solution with three principal elements: 1. Type II.an audacious step. but he visited Rome five times. most modest and most numerous among the constructed works. Palladio's 3-Part Solution Drawing upon his own insights and observations. 3. upon the re-discovered treatise of the Roman writer Vitruvius and the writings of Alberti and Serlio. Type I (as I will call it). Economical materials. The second. had borrowed from the Greeks. . Dramatic exterior motifs. and (to a lesser degree) upon the works of elders such as Raphael. and one that could only be taken by a confident architect with proud patrons. the classic public buildings of Imperial Rome -. It was Palladio's inspiration to adapt the Greek pediment and columns to private residences -. Dramatic Exterior Motifs Palladio ultimately developed three primary types of exterior elevation that we have come to characterize as Palladian.which the Romans.functional. of course. Internal harmony and balance. Palladio never saw the Greek monuments. borrows the Greek temple front. Sanmicheli and Sansovino. There he saw. Falconetto.
Villa Pisani at Bagnolo (probably incorporating an earlier tower on the left). But I would suggest that there are a few elements here that you should begin to watch -. there is symmetrical balance from left to right. Heavy volumes at the left and right are reminiscent of the fortress-like villas of the prior century and the early 1500s.has been combined with other elements in a way that begins to open the villa to the world outside. The first motif. Villa Trissino. At least there's nothing obvious. the villa in Cricoli that Palladio's great benefactor Giangiorgio Trissino built two or three years earlier. Secondly. Villa . This may seem a small thing -. although he sometimes elaborated the three openings with a Serliana motif.but I would remind you that it is a striking contrast to the unsymmetrical gothic palaces of Venice. Lasting peace -. the three-opening loggia.Finally.was now 30 years in the past.had come to the Veneto. which was constructed about 1540. That fact is subtly underscored by Villa Godi.at least in a relative sense -. There's less variety among these than we find in the grander villas of the second and third motifs. complete columns above and below. the third and most innovative and modern of the three motifs: the double-columned loggia. Let's consider a few more examples of this triple-opening loggia. First. devastating War of the League of Cambrai -. comes to mind. The great.elements that you will see evolve and mature. There's really nothing here to inspire the architects of future centuries. There is a certain clumsiness to this first outing.certainly not a new idea either -. That is. And it becomes a cornerstone of Palladian villas.and it certainly has many antecedents -. appears in Palladio's very first villa: Villa Godi. the three-opening loggia -.
The story turns dramatically when we move to the true temple-front examples. 4-Right Barchessa. Influential in a whole range of ways. 3-Residence. Not yet the dramatic classical adaptation found in Palladio's great works." At the ends of the barchessas Palladio added dovecotes on top and faced them with sundials. 2-Left Barchessa. Villa Saraceno. The result is one of the lasting legacies of Western public architecture: the so-called 5-part profile. At Villa Barbaro in Maser we see one of Palladio's most magnificent and influential designs. we see the true Greek templefront. for example. Palladio and the proud patricians of Venice have had the selfconfidence to put it on the residence of a mere mortal. but a suggestion of the future. Not projecting forward in this example. Even American ranchstyle homes frequently display this Palladian profile. Capitol building. But a comparison of Villa Saraceno. Now you know where it began. but clearly a pediment of the Greek style is beginning to emerge atop a traditional Italian motif. First.Caldogno. The dovecotes on the ends are less . Count the parts from left to right: 1-Left Dovecote. But in England there are dozens of country homes with this 5-part profile. How many buildings have you seen based on this scheme? Start with the U. and modest in their exterior motif. Now we are moving to the great homes in the history of architecture. and Villa Gazzotti shows a fascinating element beginning to emerge at Villa Gazzotti: the pillars of the loggia begin to metamorphose toward classical columns supporting a pediment! At Villa Gazzotti the "columns" are only pilasters. 5Right Dovecote. Of course. S.are all substantially similar. but surmounted by a brilliant classical pediment. Here's another example of the 5-part form: Villa Emo at Fanzolo. Villa Gazzotti -. the temple/villa is flanked by adjoining farm buildings for storing grain and wine and for housing farm animals. to keep things in perspective. The Venetians call these farm buildings "barchessas. What chutzpah! This is the design for the front of a temple.
prominent here. he could build his villas of brick instead of stone. As you know. The stone was then usually clad in marble from Istria or beyond. Perhaps he was inspired in some way by Villa Giustinian about 40 miles away in Roncade. and clad them in stucco instead of marble. and the street side brings the grand culmination of the evolution of Palladio's exterior motifs. Hard to believe. A device to be used throughout posterity. Even the ornate capitals hold a secret: terra cotta. But now you know their nasty secret: brick. The garden side at Villa Cornaro shows this motif in its simpler form. Now the columns are free-standing. Terra cotta! Can you believe those capitals are like 450-yearold flower pots? The architraves supporting these mighty pediments? Wood! Wood covered with straw . But because Palladio had achieved his visual impact through his design motifs. but two loggias. Economical Materials So much for Part I of Palladio's solution: the dramatic exterior motifs. But essentially we have here a most unusual event: a completely new idea. It's a place to sit and look from a protected area out into the world. Here is the first example of this motif ever built. At least on the sunny south side. was the use of economical materials. Think how far things have come. because now it seems so common. you probably thought these magnificent villas we've been seeing were built of granite. but look at the temple front. on the north facade the capitals might be stone because of the weather. with the loggia recessed within the central core of the villa. Not one loggia. Compare this bold villa-as-part-of-the-world with the glum defensive Villa Godi with which Palladio began. It's the leap to the modern world! Suddenly the "rooms" are not buried in the core and looking out at the world. This must be one of Palladio's greatest achievements. you will recall. the palaces of Venice itself are built of stone brought from distant mainland quarries. Brick and stucco. I think of it as being like the invention of calculus. Part II of the solution. Surprised? Yes. Now the rooms are thrust out into the midst of the world! What a break with the past! The first appearance in architecture of projecting double-columned loggias with architrave and pediment. But Villa Cornaro is one of Palladio's double-faced villas. one on top of the other. Where could this evolution go next? Palladio moved ahead to his third major motif.
Palladio certainly tried to conceptualize and convey his insight. the least understood.the richest family of the Republic -. real niches. Interior Harmony and Balance This brings me to the last. First. you may have noticed that the walls are bare although the cornices and ceilings may be magnificently decorated. the concept of the floor . if the walls could be decorated some other way.innovative as they are -can be copied. This seems simple in theory but has proved nearly impossible for most of posterity's Palladio wannabes. To use a currently fashionable term. Frescos were the answer.not cheap imitations by Veronese.and I mean standing anywhere in it -. Did you ever for a minute imagine that the magnificent frescos of the villas were a cost-cutting device? If you didn't mind going down-market. If you've visited inside any of the palaces of Venice itself. His exterior motifs -. Now let's move inside. since the villas out in the countryside were only for use in the summer farming season. the insulating qualities were not needed for warmth.lathing and then stucco.you have at all times a sense of where you are within the total structure. and fundamentally. His economical materials can be duplicated. It's the difference between Palladio himself and Palladianism. Standing in one of Palladio's villas -. only the Cornaro family -.but it seems to elude the Palladians of other countries and later times. In fact. the huge cost of tapestries could be eliminated entirely. The missing element today is the tapestries. even improved. and the most evanescent element of Palladio's solution: Palladio's interior harmony and balance.seems to have resisted the temptation. (Thank God Palladio didn't know about styrofoam!) But Palladio's balance and harmony seem to live only in his 18 surviving villas of the Veneto. The harmony and balance of Palladio's interior spaces is their great epiphanal triumph -. real statues -. Palladio states that the parts of a house must correspond to the whole and to each other. Now. But perhaps it's like analyzing the success of the Mona Lisa in order to duplicate its effect in another painting. In the 16th century the palace walls were covered in magnificent tapestries -.both for their beauty and for their insulating qualities in the winter. you could hire Veronese or Zelotti to stop by for a month or two and give you some imitation tapestries and columns and statues. their villa at Piombino held out for the real thing: real columns. So.
The ratios of width to length -. His inspiration here is said to have been the Classical Roman baths with their rooms on three scales. In other words. But Wittkower was right in emphasizing the importance of number theory or numerology as a foundation for Palladio's proportions. as to the shapes of individual rooms." The numbers "6" and "10" were deemed to be "perfect" numbers because they reflect the proportions of the human body in several dimensions. In 1570 Palladio published the floor plan as part of Plate 36. Finally. in a grammatical challenge. particularly the later ones. Rudolph Wittkower in 1949 published Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism with his breathtaking proposition that the ratios of width to length in Palladio's rooms are based on the harmonic proportions of music. Palladio varies the volumetric size of his rooms with the creativity and discipline of a Bach fugue. Villa Cornaro. primarily because it was the sum of the other two. of his Four Books of Architecture. it'll look and feel good" principle. . Harmonic proportion provides an insight to some of Palladio's villas. Secondly. you would feel comfortable in a room that was in the ratio of 6-to-10 because the room would have the same proportions as your own body. Then. he offers up a smorgasbord of possibilities.have been the subject of a great deal of recent scholarly research with little concrete result. Book II. Compare that with a large modern house where you never know what twist or turn or size or shape of room may lie around the next corner. the number "16" was deemed to be the "most perfect" number. that Palladio worked on an "If it sounds good. The Perfect Scale of Villa Cornaro Now let's put all this together in an analysis of the central core of the villa I know best.plan is transparent.both as published in his Four Books of Architecture and as measured in the completed villas themselves -. including the ratio of front-to-back and side-to-side. The enthusiastic acceptance of this theory was only modestly tempered by the fact that some of Palladio's rooms reflect harmonic musical proportions and some don't. but equally or more important was the theory of "perfect numbers. from the square and the circle to rectangles in a variety of ratios of width to length. In other words.
You can't see it. The relation here is not obvious. Then let's look at the proportions of one of the long rectangular rooms on the north. But then on both the east and west sides. all set within a square . And the actual width of this room? Sixteen Vicentine feet: the most perfect number of all. in Palladio's floor plan and elevation. Now we are moving toward the central inspiration of Villa Cornaro. but it finally emerges. So here you are looking at Palladio's perfect room. Next we notice the fugal variation of room sizes. The ratio of length to width in the room is 3-to-5. but remember Palladio's fundamental premise: the parts must relate to the whole and to each other. there is a square room with a small room behind it. Yes. but the heights of the rooms modulate as well. obviously. the grand salon is two of our "perfect" rooms side by side. How does that work here? Well. There you have the secret to the harmony and balance of Villa Cornaro: the central living area is six repetitions of the module of the perfect room. But consider 3-to-5! That's the same as 6-to-10. Those two rooms together repeat the dimensions of the perfect rooms on the north! Now that only leaves the large room. A remarkable artefact to be sure. there is another room the same size on the north. this room is in the ratio of the two "perfect" numbers. a square. You'll feel very comfortable in this room.The first thing that strikes us is that the central core is one of Palladio's preferred shapes. of course. Yes.
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