Andrea Palladio and Developments in Western Architecture

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Andrea Palladio and Developments in Western Architecture


At the height of his popularity and influence in 1570, Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) published his masterpiece, a treatise titled I Quattro Libri Dell' Architettura (Four Books of Architecture). The book solidified his standing as one of the greatest architects in history. Quattro Libri allowed Palladio's contemporaries and future generations of architects to examine his philosophies on the design of houses, bridges, civic and public buildings, and ancient temples. Quattro Libri is widely regarded as the finest architectural textbook ever produced.


Palladio's spiritual mentor was ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose work Ten Books on Architecture,was the first attempt to outline the theoretical principles of the field. Although Vitruvius's efforts gave architecture an intellectual footing it lacked prior to his study, he still was unable to cover the discipline completely. Nevertheless, Vitruvius still supplied the best blueprint to date and his work was regarded as the exemplary text for hundreds of years.

Vitruvius's influence was so great that Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) imitated his style in his own De Re Aedificatoria, even though he was critical of the Roman master. Alberti incorporated numerous literary sources into his work, including Plato (427?-347 b.c.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), to create a sociology of architecture.

The advent of mass printing allowed both authors to gain wider audiences. Alberti was first published in 1485, while publishers reprinted Vitruvius's treatise a year later. Architectural books increased dramatically in the sixteenth century and were translated into Italian, thus expanding readership and the use of the works as teaching tools. Translators were also able to illustrate the books with woodcuts. In 1522 an Italian version of Vitruvius appeared with more than 100 illustrations.

Another important architect and author, Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), published a multivolume handbook beginning in 1537. His five books on architecture were the first to deal with the subject visually as well as in theory. Serlio's treatise served as a blueprint for Palladio's later publications. Palladio relied heavily on drawings in his own work and paired them with logical, concise narrative descriptions of his theories.


In his late twenties and trained as a stonemason, Palladio met Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), Vicenza's leading intellectual and humanist. Trissino was rebuilding a villa in nearby Cricoli in classical ancient Roman style and set up an academy there to provide young aristocrats with a traditional education. Palladio worked on the renovation project and his natural design skills led Trissino to invite him to join the academy. Trissino then directed the young man's initial forays into architecture and renamed him Palladio (he was born Andrea di Pietro della Gondola), a frequent occurrence in humanist study.

Palladio's focused architectural education was unusual in this period; most students were steered toward a general course of study. Under Trissino's guidance, Palladio adopted his mentor's ideas regarding symmetrical layout, with a large central room and flanking towers. During his studies, Palladio copied Serlio's woodcuts and drawings of Roman monuments. Humanistic architecture study centered on the writings and remains of classical antiquity.

Architecture historians are not sure why Palladio was drawn to publication, but it seemed to be on his mind from the start of his career. Many of his early villa and palace drawings look as if he intended them to be published. Palladio's career as an author seems to stem from his early trips to Rome in the 1540s. He acquired many blueprints for ancient buildings and added them to his own expanding portfolio.

Architects in the sixteenth century, like Serlio, commented on the difficulty and high cost associated with studying ancient buildings. Thus, publishing was a way to preserve their work. In the dedication of the first two books of Quattro Libri, Palladio echoes this sentiment. Also, in 1555, writer Anton Francesco Doni discussed Palladio's prodigious output, saying, "The man came into the world to put architecture to rights. His book has no title, but from its contents it could be described as a guide to good architecture."

With his publication of Quattro Libri, Palladio drew upon the various strands of architectural writing, but then improved on them by presenting them in a more concise and fluent narrative. In addition, Palladio's own intensely productive building career, spanning more than two decades, contributed to the book's success. He aspired to publish a complete guide to architecture that encompassed everything from the foundation to the roof. Evidence exists suggesting that Palladio hoped to publish more than four volumes and planned them to be the first in a series of books, along the lines of his spiritual mentor Vitruvius.

Quattro Libri, in essence, became Palladio's summary of his lifelong study of classical architecture. The first two books outline Palladio's principles of building materials and his designs for town and country villas. The third volume illustrates his thinking about bridges, town planning, and basilicas, which were oblong public halls. The final book deals with the reconstruction of ancient Roman temples.

Quattro Libri secured Palladio's great importance in architectural history. The treatise popularized classical design and his own innovative style. It served as a veritable blueprint for design worldwide, reaching its zenith in the eighteenth century. In the eyes of many scholars, the work stands as the clearest and best-organized textbook on architecture ever produced.

Palladio's treatise revealed the link between humanistic education and architecture, and by doing so changed the way architecture was perceived. His status as an international bestseller spread his theories far beyond his native Italy, and inspired the label Palladianism, considered the search for classical beauty in architecture.

Palladianism spread beyond the grand architect's death in 1580. Palladio's most brilliant pupil, Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616), continued his mentor's work as the founder of Neoclassicism. Because of his stature as Palladio's student, Scamozzi received a jumpstart on his career, which then took off even further after Palladio's death. Although Scamozzi did attempt to distance himself somewhat from Palladio, the master's influence spread.

Palladio stayed in the public's eye through subsequent editions of Quattro Libri, published in multiple languages. An important Palladian revival began in Venice in the early 1700s. Architects there returned to the classical work of Palladio in reaction to the ornate style of the late Baroque period. The earliest Palladians were Domenico Rossi and Andrea Tirali. The most prominent neo-Palladian was Tommaso Temanza, who provided an intellectual basis to the movement.

England faced a similar resistance to the excessiveness of the Baroque era. English tourists discovered Venice and a market developed for mementos from Italy. English consul Joseph Smith funneled drawings, paintings, and sculptures from Venice to England. Soon, the artists Smith patronized visited England and were subsidized by English nobles.

The greatest proponent of Palladianism in England was Inigo Jones (1573-1652). He visited Vicenza and the aging Scamozzi in 1614. Although Scamozzi was secretive and irritable, Jones obtained original drawings by Palladio. Up to that time, most architectural works from Italy were poorly translated or unavailable all together. Sir Henry Wotton, England's ambassador in Venice, also collected original drawings from Palladio and Scamozzi. Jones's collection supplemented, and in some ways, surpassed the woodcuts in the Quattro Libri.

Under Jones, Palladio's drawings gained a wider audience in the English-speaking world. He passed them among leading architects of the day, which continued for more than a century, providing a constant source of information and inspiration. Later, increasingly impressive translations of Palladio's Quattro Libri appeared in English and French.

In young America, Palladio's influence could be found in the aristocratic circles of plantation Virginia. Because the region's weather mimicked that of northern Italy, Palladio's villa was an ideal model for plantation owners to endure the hot humid summers. In fact, many Virginia plantation homes were so closely imitated that Palladio and later Palladians seemed to simply provide a pattern book.

Peter Harrison, a native of England but transplanted to Rhode Island, was the first true Palladian in America. He designed the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, and King's Chapel in Boston based on Palladian principles. Harrison died in 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but another, more famous person—Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)—emerged to grasp the Palladian mantle in America.

Jefferson's intellectual curiosity and humanist education almost destined him to adopt Palladianism. Jefferson's lifelong interest in architecture began as he started to build his own home, the famous Monticello (from Italian, meaning Little Mountain), overlooking Charlottesville, Virginia. Around the same time, Jefferson headed a committee charged with designing the new state capitol of Richmond. In this role he also trumpeted architecture in the classical style of antiquity.

In 1816, giving advice to a friend in the process of building a house, Jefferson declared Palladio, "the Bible. You should get it and stick close to it." As president, the prominent Virginian also implemented aspects of Palladianism in the design of the Capitol and along Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps Jefferson's greatest display of the use of Palladian principles lies in his design of the University of Virginia. Interestingly, Jefferson's use of Palladianism reflected the humanist political theories of the day and his dedication to republican principles.


Further Reading

Boucher, Bruce. Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Times. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Constant, Caroline. The Palladio Guide. London: Architectural Press, 1987.

Holberton, Paul. Palladio's Villas: Life in the Renaissance Countryside. London: John Murray, 1990.

Tavernor, Robert. Palladio and Palladianism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Wundram, Manfred, and Thomas Pape. Andrea Palladio, 1508-1580: Architect Between the Renaissance and Baroque. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1993.