Andrea Palladio's Renaissance Villa

Palladio's Villa Rotunda, one of his most famous villas, known for its four identical entrances.
Palladio's Villa Rotunda, one of his most famous villas, known for its four identical entrances.

During the Italian Renaissance, the standards held for the architecture of private villas were rather high. Private villas for those who were wealthy and of title were lavish and expansive, both on the sprawling Italian countryside and on the outskirts of cities.

One of the most famous and prominent architects who designed Italian villas was Andrea Palladio. Accomplished in that he published his own book on architecture, specifically on the study of ancient architecture in Rome, Palladio based his own work on the classical past. He studied both classical architectural writings such as Vitruvius as well as made visits to Rome to see the ancient styles for himself.

Many of his structures, including his palazzos and villas, pay a strong homage to the Roman style. Examples of inspiration which bear likeness to his creations can be seen all over Rome and elsewhere in Italy. It is understandable, given that an interest in a beautiful and timeless style would result in structures that seemed almost too grand for their time or their purpose. Palladio’s designs were inspiring, for his style went beyond his time, and were copied by other architects. The term “Palladianism” was coined, given to structures that bare similarity to Palladio’s structures.

Looking as if they had been standing much longer than five hundred years, Palladio’s villas mirror the structures of Roman antiquity, with a level of complexity and grandeur that are quite awe-inspiring. We will examine the design Palladio’s villas, specifically the Villa Rotunda and Villa Barbaro. Also, we will briefly explore how the villas were used by their owners. Following their examination, we will clearly see how by using the classical past as a strong architectural reference, Palladio was able to create villas that were grand yet simple, unique yet classical and were inspiring for architects who followed in his footsteps.

Andrea Palladio, as we mentioned previously relied strongly on the past for his inspiration in architectural design. According to Robert Tavernor’s book Palladio and Palladianism, he was “…a product of Italian humanism, which is characterized by a revived intellectual concern for the writings and physical remains of classical antiquity.” (11). Understandably so, for Italy was full of classical relics surviving from the days of the Romans and beyond, so having access to such antiquities and ancient writings of Vitruvius to compare them to, Palladio had an entire entourage of resources at his fingertips.

Palladio’s interest in the architecture really peaked upon his first visit to Rome in 1541, where he was able to see some of the great ruins, including the Roman Forum. He made many observational drawings and returned to the city of Vicenza, where he was able to make use of his studies and begin designing some of his first villas (Tavernor 28). Overall, Palladio revisited Rome five times, doing minor works in the city but mainly focusing on his detailed drawings and study of the architecture. He also took upon his imagination to sketch reconstructions of ruins that were in terrible condition. It was also during these visits that gave him the inspiration to write his two guidebooks to Rome: L’antichita and Le chiese (Hart, Hicks xxix). These guidebooks provided detailed accounts of all aspects of the city, a valuable source to other architects or historians alike.

Upon returning to Vicenza after his first visit to Rome, initially Palladio relied strongly on advice from other architects, mainly Gian Giorgio Trissino and Alvise Cornaro with whom he was close, in addition to his studies he made in Rome.

His first commissioned villa, the Villa Valmarana, was one that he designed based on the inspirations mentioned above, with equal homage to Trissino and Cornaro’s styles as well as what he saw in Rome. To be described, “…Outwardly, the villa is almost barn-like in appearance, with ornament confined to the doors and windows, but internally spaces are vaulted and reflect the influence of the ancient Roman baths… the elegant simplicity and unadorned wall surfaces seem to reflect Cornaro’s view that not every building requires a profusion of ornament to be classical…” (Tavernor 28-29). Valmarana is a simple yet elegant villa indeed, although when compared to villas that Palladio later designed, such as the Villa Barbaro or Villa Rotunda, we can see that Palladio did not continue to stick to closely to the views of other architects, specifically the lack of need for ornament. His later villas are quite beautifully ornamental, although still classical in their appearance.

In detail firstly we shall look at Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. It is one of his most famous villas and is as unique as it is classical in its design. Located just outside of Vicenza, Villa Rotunda is not as large and grand as Villa Barbaro, which will be examined next. In the villa’s defense, it does not need to be as grand as it was not designed to carry out the same function. While Villa Barbaro is expansive and could be used for a variety of functions and purposes, Villa Rotunda’s purpose is simple: it exists solely as a quiet retreat or for leisure, a “pleasure villa” for parties and recreation.

It is comprised of a square plan, topped with a rotunda – hence the name – and has four separate entrances, one on each side of the building. Each entryway is identical in size and appearance, with a grand columned façade topped with statues. It provides a wonderful view of the villa’s surrounding landscape in each direction. Palladio and Palladianism has a more elaborate description of the villa: “It is as if Palladio wished the villa to appear isolated on its low hill, for each hexastyle portico has equal emphasis, and the Rotunda is at one with its natural theatre-like setting: at the centre of the changing seasons, and the focus of a man’s cultivation of Nature.” (78). The classical influences that inspired Palladio in this villa’s design are impossible to ignore – it is quite easy to see the strong resemblance to Rome’s Pantheon, with its large portico entryway leading to a square-shaped building, topped with a rotunda. In this villa, Palladio succeeded in creating a simplistic yet stunning retreat that ebbs with classic architectural influences, set ideally in the midst of nature, outside the hustle and bustle of the city.

Even though Palladio relied more so on his own ideas and influences from the past after his visits to Rome and he had established himself successfully as an architect, he was not completely opposed to others’ input. This brings us to the next villa we will examine more closely. One of his most famous villas, the Villa Barbaro in Maser was commissioned by brothers Marc’Antonio and Daniele Barbaro. Throughout the design and building of the structure, Palladio collaborated willingly with the two brothers and the painter Paolo Veronese. Both Marc’Antonio and Daniele had gained an interest in architecture, and wanted to have part in the villa’s construction (Howard 24). The villa is grand and expansive, and could easily be categorized differently than Villa Rotunda. If they were to be compared, their similarities would only reside in the fact that Palladio implemented various classical aspects into the design, and that like the Rotunda, Villa Barbaro is situated in the Italian countryside, away from the business of the city.

Villa Barbaro
Villa Barbaro

Looking at the plan, Villa Barbaro is comprised of a main central area and two wings. It has no halls, rather a collection of rooms, connected so that so that one may walk through them all. It is expansive, thus having the ability to accommodate a variety of functions and guests. There is a large back courtyard with an apse-shaped nymphaeum. The nymphaeum, which utilizes a natural spring is described in Palladio’s words as:

“…a fountain with an abundance of stucco and painted ornament is cut into the hill behind the house. This fountain forms a little lake that serves as a fishpond; having left this spot, the water runs to the kitchen and then, having irrigated the gardens to the right and left of the road which gently ascends and leads to the building, forms two fishponds with their horse troughs on the public road; from there it goes off to water the orchard, which is very large and full of superb fruit and various wild plants.” (Howard 29).

The addition of a nymphaeum is clever as it is convenient; it also speaks to Palladio’s skill in implementing a natural spring into his structure. It was also a common feature in Roman buildings, not just the nymphaeum itself but the inclusion of natural springs as a water source. It is in the nymphaeum that Palladio also was welcoming to collaboration. The variety of stuccoes that fill the nymphaeum have been attributed to Marc ‘Antonio Barbaro (Howard 29).

The exterior of Villa Barbaro also is abundant with classical implementations. The main entry to the villa is a portico façade with four columns and a stuccoed roof. Palladio cleverly shaded the columns in order to create the illusion that the portico is free-standing. The absence of the loggia on the structure though does suggest that he originally intended to include a free-standing portico (Howard 33-35). The strong Roman temple façade is accented to either side by the wings, branching out to either side with rounded arches leading into the porch that runs the length of the structure. The two end pavilions are dominated by huge sundials on their facades. It is thought that the inclusion of the sundials was an idea proposed by Daniele Barbaro, as he wrote a treatise on them (Howard 35).

The interior of the villa, as mentioned when the plan was discussed, has a variety of different sized rooms, including ones of formality on the piano nobile in the central block of the villa. The rooms are unique in that Palladio designed them to follow musical harmonic ratios, which sounds like a ridiculously complex undertaking (Howard 37). The precision that went into the dimensions of these rooms give way to a theory that Palladio may have objected to some or all of the wall frescoes, done by painter Paolo Veronese. Some frescoes have illusionistic landscape views and voids that clash with Palladio’s original intentions for the interior. Although it is uncertain that Palladio and Veronese disagreed on their ideas of the interior decoration, it is known that Palladio neglected to mention Veronese in his description of the villa in his book Quattro libri (Howard 37). It is easy to believe as it is to dispute. If Palladio was so precise on the dimensions of the interior, indeed it may have been upsetting to let a painter have artistic liberty with the walls. However, it is also odd to imagine Palladio’s unaccepting attitude towards Veronese when he was so inclined to allow Marc’Antonio and Daniele Barbaro include their personal touches to the villa, as well as his past of adopting other architects ideas. We may never know for sure.

Although perhaps not as blatantly Roman in influence as the Villa Rotunda – and this could be due to Palladio’s collaboration with the Barbaro brothers - Villa Barbaro still exhibits ties to Palladio’s architectural inspirations – antiquity and nature. It is exquisite and unique, and leaves no wonders as to why it is one of Palladio’s most famous villas.

So we’ve seen two of Andrea Palladio’s most famous villas and briefly touched on others. It is easy to understand how he is exceptional in his field not just as an architect but as a devoted studier to Rome and all of the classical ruins and structures it has to offer. By relying on the ancient texts of Vitruvius, his own intensive study and sketches, and allowing the input of other architects around him, Palladio was able to create true marvels of the Renaissance, both reviving and re-envisioning the villa and what it meant. He created places of leisure and peacefulness that were connected to nature and to the classical past. It is no wonder that Palladio left behind a legacy in the architectural world that many follow and continue to follow to this day.

Sources

Howard, Deborah. Venice Disputed: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Venetian Architecture 1550-1600. New Haven: Yale UP. 2011. 24+

Palladio, Andrea, Vaughan Hart, and Peter Hicks. Palladio's Rome: A Translation of Andrea Palladio's Two Guidebooks to Rome. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print. Xxix.

Tavernor, Robert. Palladio and Palladianism. Thames and Hudson, London. 1991. Print. 11+

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