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