PALLADIO: THE RENAISSANCE ARCHITECT
Before Leonardo Da Vinci expressed his theories about the harmonies of geometry and mathematics through the Vitruvian Man illustration, not a single architect had thought about using the two in relation to each other the way Palladio did. The legacy of Andrea Palladio lay in his ability to translate Leonardo’s theories into real physical buildings. What Palladio demonstrated is that the Vitruvian Man theory can be put to practise to introduce a new language of architecture; one which is strong, perfect and beautiful. As an expression of modern architecture, he revealed a new way of thinking which changed the fabric of the built environment. The power of daylight had an overwhelming effect on the mood of the Church of the Redentore. The sense of space was changed through the design of an imaginary circle touching each corner of the Palladian Villa La Rotunda, and the addition of the visual pleasures of statues and frescoes on the walls and ceilings of country palaces, narrowed the gap between art and architecture, and work and play.
Today, the Palladian style is found in abundance scattered all over the countryside of Vicenza. It stands proud on the hills that separate the agricultural plains from the Alps. Most of Palladio’s villas were built between 1550 and 1580, by rich landowners who had to leave their city palazzos each year to run their lands. The principle of Palladio’s design was one inherited from the architecture of the old canal palaces of Venice. They were built to serve the dual purpose of housing agricultural production units in the large estates owned by Venetian aristocrats, while at the same time entertaining a grandiose lifestyle. Palladio’s ideas came at a time when the government decided to pump heavy investment into agriculture, to free Venice and Veneto from dependence on grain imported from the Ottoman Empire. The Renaissance mindset of Palladio redefined the rules of medieval European architecture and signalled the birth of modernism. No one has ever emphasised that quiet like Palladio. Palladio was straightforward.
His architecture was a direct response to the ideals explored by Leonardo Da Vinci, and the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. You see the simple ratios adopted from the human body applied to projecting porticos with pediments and iconic columns. You also see the beauty of nature drawn realistically on colourful frescoes, plastered all over the walls and ceilings of palaces. And you see the superimposition of two varied architectural expressions, with the dual function of building use coming together to sustain the demands of an agricultural facility. Equally, the house is designed to host the lavish lifestyle of a grand palace in the countryside. The different wings of the villa are connected by colonnaded porticos, where the master of the house would tour his estate without being disturbed by the weather. The rhythm of the arcades, reminiscent of the architecture of Greek stoas and Roman civil buildings, also make it possible to blend the appearance of the two distinct structures. To seal the pollution of smell and sound, the industrial warehouses were pushed to the far edges of the site and kept secluded in the back.
Palladio applied the same organisational principles to the interiors of all his villas. On the ground floor of the corps de logis, which is the main part of the palace, lay the domestic service areas including kitchens, cellars and servant quarters, while the private apartments are located on the first floor or the piano nobile. As a rule, for the sake of clever design, Palladio set strict alignment guidelines for the openings of doors and windows. His philosophy states: solids must align with solids, and spaces must align with spaces. This simple, harmonious principle of alignment is also applied inside, where the doors leading from one room to the other in the private apartments are aligned in a straight line, setting a continuous sightline from one end of the floor to the other. This illustrated Palladio’s attention to environmental design by creating a directional flow for conventional currents. His strict symphony of symmetry is even maintained among the richness of the Italian Renaissance frescoes, painted all over the walls and ceilings. If one end of the room displayed a painting of the lady of the manor, the other end must counter-balance that with a grand image of the master of the house.
However, the level of strictness exercised through symmetry did not deter Palladio from employing the amusements of the art of ‘trompe l’oeil’ in the murals he commissioned. As a tradition going back to ancient Rome, it judged a painter’s skills by the ability to fool visitors with optical illusions, which tricked the eye into believing that a certain space is much deeper than what it really is. The ‘trompe l’oeil’ technique required a mastery of light and shadow to produce elements in a painting depicting imaginary three-dimensional windows, doors or hallways. Beyond the simplicity of geometry, Palladio’s architecture intended to capture drama and intensity, guiding the eye to always focus on the detail, for it is here the sophisticated style of architecture unravels the delicate textures of beauty. The overall mood of his distinctive style is perfectly interpreted through geometry, practicality and elegance. Collectively, Palladio understood that these elements had a powerful emotional impact on humans.
And so the saying goes: architecture went from serving religion to becoming a religion. Palladio became one of the most influential architects in history, and Palladianism became one of the most imitated architectural styles in the world. He was the first to find a solution for standardising buildings and was also the first to publish his own plans, with ratios that made it possible to understand and replicate them. Many of the architects copying the work of Palladio had never even seen a Palladian building before, but they did have a copy of his teachings, summarised in four manuscripts titled: The Four Books of Architecture or I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura. Apart from the pragmatism of his architecture, Palladio also spent time researching the cheapest ways to build. Far from the lavishness of expensive marble used excessively in classic Roman architecture, his villas were all constructed using bricks covered by a rich layer of plaster.
But the portico with the pediment and the imposing columns became the iconic symbol of power. Protruding forward, it was originally designed by Palladio as an observation platform, providing the owner of the house with the ability to survey his land. In modern architecture this raised the profile of important buildings, giving them the distinctive look and feel of a temple. Hence, it marked the monumental revival of classicism and the rebirth of ancient Roman architecture, especially after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Centuries later, everywhere you go from Europe to America, the architectural landscape is transformed by buildings designed to replicate and enforce the principles of Palladianism.