- Palladio - The Most Imitated Architect in History [Biography]
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Andrea di Pietro della Gondola (Palladio)

In 1522, a very frightened young boy of thirteen was apprenticed to the local stonecutter in the town of Padua in the Venetian Republic area of what is now Italy, where he was born. His name was Andrea di Pietro della Gondola. A year and a half later, somewhat less frightened perhaps, the boy broke his contract and fled to the neighbouring town of Vicenza where he became an assistant in another workshop of stonecutters and masons. It was there he worked until he was thirty, when he was hired by one of the leading scholars of the day, Giorgio Trissino, to supervise the construction of additions to his villa. It was a bit of good fortune both for the young stonecutter, Trissino, and moreover, the entire course of Western architecture. With access to Trissino's library containing the then newly discovered writings of the Roman architect, Vitruvius, as well as those of the Early Renaissance architect, Leon Battista Alberti; not to mention the wide circle of wealthy and influential friends Trissino introduced him to, the common stonecutter became an uncommon architect. Trissino gave him one more thing too...his name...a nickname really--Palladio.

Andrea Palladio was a most fortunate man in other ways too. His sponsorship by Trissino enabled him to travel to nearby Venice, then Rome, where he met all the architectural giants of his day, Bramante, Sansovino, even the great Michelangelo; and studied their works, along with the Greco-Roman ruins of the Eternal City. His first published book was, in fact, a guide to these ruins, reflecting perhaps his own difficulty in finding them himself. However Palladio was fortunate more than in merely meeting and knowing the right people. He was lucky to live when he did. For the first time in thirty years, the entire Italian peninsula was at peace. The broad, fertile area on the mainland west of Venice which had been under the city-state's control for several generations now became a prosperous agricultural community with vast tracts of lands owned by the wealthy nobility of Venice. During the growing season they needed to be in the countryside (which they decided was also healthier and more pleasant than living in the cities) in order to supervise their workers. And, they needed suitable places of abode in which to live in the manner to which they'd become accustomed in town.

That's where Palladio came in. It wouldn't do merely to build fortress-like urban palazzos in the countryside. A new type of house, a country villa was needed. It had to be dignified, attractive, practical, and inasmuch as they were merely summer homes, built with an eye towards economy as well. Palladio was to design and build some thirty of these country homes in and around the Veneto area (eighteen of which are still standing). Each was designed in the classic Greco-Roman style that we've since come to call Renaissance. Each featured a central cubic structure of classic Greek proportions, with accompanying portico, and flanking loggias connecting it to identical "wings" housing stables or other agricultural needs. All was perfectly symmetrical with an internal harmony and balance which has only in this century come to be fully understood.

Each of Palladio's villas became more daring, culminating, just before his death, with his most famous, the Villa Almerico ora Valmarana, more familiarly known as the "Villa Rotonda." It perches high on a hill, a square structure with a low dome borrowed in design from Rome's famous Pantheon, and four identical porticos extending well out from the main structure giving it a sort of Greek cross design and offering magnificent views of the estate's fields and meadows. Designed solely as a country house, the villa contains no heating system, no fireplaces, and no chimneys to break the perfect symmetry of Palladio's rooflines or clutter up the view of his graceful dome. And although the Villa Rotonda is built of stone and concrete, most of Palladio's Italian villas were brick, covered with stucco to save money. Along the same line, some decorative parts were even made of wood, covered with a straw lath, and then stuccoed. Other decorative items were moulded terra cotta rather than cut stone. It's a good thing Palladio didn't know about Styrofoam.

If Palladio's fame rested only upon the pleasing classical contours of a dozen or two country homes, and the innovative fašades of several Venetian churches, he would rightfully deserve an honoured place amongst the great architects of history. But far more important than what he built was what he wrote. In fact, beyond merely joining the great architects in history, Palladio might easily be credited with training most of them. In 1570, he published the first of what were to be four great books essentially on "How to be an Architect." Entitled I Quattro Libri dell' Architecttura (The Four Books of Architecture), these massive volumes were the first modern textbooks on architecture; and are still in print today, required reading for many architectural students now as they have been for four hundred years. They influenced the English Adam brothers, Thomas Jefferson, Latrobe, Bullfinch, even Sullivan and Wright. Their detailed illustrations could be said to have spawned the entire Classical Revival period in the 1800s both here and in Europe. But though amateurs and professionals could copy his innovative adaptations of classic Greek and Roman styles, and even improve on the economies of construction he introduced, they seldom have been able to capture the proportional harmonies of his interiors. Even his students never understood the mathematically based formulas he used to design his rooms; which goes a long way in defining the difference between the architecture of Palladio and Palladian architecture.

contributed by Lane, Jim

20 August 2000

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