Andrea Palladio, 500 years of architecture

The life, architecture and heritage of Andrea Palladio are the three topics of an important exhibition in the city of Vicenza (in the Italian region of Veneto): Palladio 500 years. The exhibit will move to London in February 2009 and then, in May, to the USA.

Rita El Asmar

In the history of architecture, the figure of Andrea Palladio occupies a pre-eminent position: he belongs to that restricted circle of elites whose mere name is enough to define the features of an entire epoch.

The popular efficacy of his Treatise, the depth of the analysis of his classical lesson and the capability of re-elaborating it, making himself interpreter of the spirit, have turned his activity period into an exemplary epoch that has had strong consequences on the way of doing and thinking architecture, similar to the great turning point determined by the extraordinary intuitions of Le Corbusier.


ANDREA DI PIETRO DELLA GONDOLA (1508-1580), apprentice in a stone-cutter’s shop in the city of Vicenza, was initiated into architecture by the humanist Giangiorgio Trissino, who introduced him in the cultural circles of the time. His formation proceeds along the two parallel lines of theoretical investigation, sharpened by comparison with such intellectuals as Daniele Barbaro, and of direct experience. It unfolds on the one hand in the indefatigable activity of tracing Roman ruins – which affords him privileged access to forms of antiquity – and on the other in the design and construction of new buildings, in which he transfers and re-elaborates the knowledge that he acquires along the way.

The prestigious company he frequents bring him numerous assignments. His clients belong to the powerful Venetian oligarchy, and in his architecture they satisfy the need for representation and décor. Through these, this potent class seals its control on the State from the ground up, at a time in which the economy of the Venetian Republic requires an alternative to sea trade. But relationships with clients never degenerate into patron-and-client, and do not dissuade him from his primary intent: every task entrusted to him is an opportunity to integrate his research with experimentation on the “factory” – a real-scale model – of the reliability of those norms that he was elaborating and that would find their expression in the “Four Books on Architecture”.


PALLADIO’S RESEARCH STARTS FROM TRACING FRAGMENTS OF ROMAN RUINS THAT, THROUGH SKETCH, HE TRIES TO RETURN TO THEIR ORIGINAL FORM AND CONTEXT. This rebuilding effort leads him to establish that “the true beauty and charm of antiquity” is not determined only by stylistic details but also by the ensemble of proportions. For this reason, in his treatise, that collects thoughts matured in the course of thirty years of activity, he proposes models that allow to build according to proportional relationships of correspondence of the parts to the whole and of the whole to its parts. The ideal of beauty proposed is hence part of the cosmic Platonic-style vision of the harmony of the universe, adopted by the main theorists of the Renaissance and absorbed by Palladio through Barbaro’s critical edition of Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture, which the architect illustrated.


THE FAME AND SUCCESS OF PALLADIO’S WORKS ARE TIED TO THE STRENGTH OF HIS IDEAS as well as to the efficacy with which he was able to express them in his treatise. The possibility of restituting antiquity through a series of harmonic relationships and to inflect it in a multitude of variations close to the local tastes and sensitivity, have certainly allowed to export the Palladian system, as demonstrated by its diffusion in all of Europe and its influx on American architecture. However, the diffusion of knowledge of his way of doing architecture in an epoch where very few could see his works first-hand, is certainly thanks to his treatise. By exploiting to the fullest the potential of the most innovative instrument of the times, he elaborates a deeply coherent oeuvre where text is closely tied to images. And these report concrete examples of architecture, represented schematically and also in detail in a universally understandable language (drawing, elevation, section), complete with measurements.


THE LIFE, ARCHITECTURE AND HERITAGE OF ANDREA PALLADIO are the three central themes of the exhibition called “Palladio 500 anni” (Palladio 500 years): a series of local, national and international initiatives that the Committee for the celebration of the 500 years of the birth of the famous architect is organizing and promoting.

The inauguration of the exhibition, produced by the CISA (Centro Internazionale Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio – Andrea Palladio International Center of Architectural Studies), the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Institute of British Architects of London, and catered to by Guido Beltramini and Howard Burns, will be in Vicenza in the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto on September 20, 2008. It will then move to London in February 2009 and will conclude in the USA three months later, in May.

Among the approximately 300 works on show will also be autographed sketches by Palladio, architectural drawings by a choice of great masters that have preceded and followed him, paintings, sculptures, books and manuscripts coming from over 50 European and American museums, to which will be added thirty architectural models, half of which purposely built for the exhibition.

The cultural context of the times will be further delved into by the concurrent exhibition activities proposed by the cities of Bassano del Grappa and Verona: the former will develop the theme of bridges, while the latter will focus on the themes of the city’s ancient monuments studied by Palladio and by the artists, painters and sculptors who worked with him, beginning with Veronese.

In Italy, and above all in the region of Veneto, the anniversary has allowed to focus attention on the delicate problem of the recovery and valorization of the immense artistic heritage comprised of the palazzi and the historical-artistic complexes built by Andrea Palladio. These constitute his most significant bequest. Thanks to the action of the interested municipalities, the renovation of the Palazzo Chiericati, the Basilica Palladiana and the Teatro Olimpico of Vicenza and of the Bassano and Torri di Quartesolo Bridges will be performed with a unitary logic, in the prospect of an overall qualification and valorization.

The Palladian year will also constitute the occasion to deepen and diffuse themes with research projects, exhibitions, tours and visits to the buildings of Palladio in the region of Veneto.

On the research and training front, the plurannual activity promoted by the CISA for the diffusion of knowledge about Palladio and his works, will find its fulfillment in the on-line publication of an innovative data bank that will make text and graphic documents related to Palladio’s life and works available to experts and fans. It constitutes an indispensable instrument to orient research in the meander of unjustifiable voids that still exists in the realm, as was revealed by the recent initiative of the IUAV University of Venice. In collaboration with the Fondazione Venezia Nuova, it has started a research project that aims at rebuilding Palladio’s activity in Venice through the “database” of all the churches build by him there. As of today, no complete and updated database exists, despite the importance that such documentation carries in the realm of conservation and renovation, not to mention of personal study.


THE “PALLADIO WRITER” PROJECT WILL REACH COMPLETION. Bearing witness to the many-sidedness of the author and to his deep ties with classical culture, the project involves the publication of all of Andrea Palladio’s literary works, from The Four Books on Architecture to the illustrated edition of Julius Caesar’s “De bello Gallico”. On this topic, it is worth mentioning the recent news of the identification by Beltramini, the director of CISA, of a work that remained unedited following the author’s death in 1580, and whose traces were lost. The master’s autograph notes, which escaped attention in the past, have today allowed to identify the draft of the Stories of Polibius in the 500-year edition of 43 prints with hand-written legends on the back, preserved at the British Library of London. “As every busy man,” comments Beltramini, “Palladio asked an assistant to compile the legends, and then reviewed the drafts. And where the assistant made a mistake, Palladio corrected him in his unmistakable calligraphy […]”.

The precious information that can be deduced from the retrieved document confirm that studies on Palladio are anything but finished, above all for what concerns the lesser known aspects of his work, which the excellence of the builder has contributed to conceal and that experts’ appraisal will have to thoroughly examine. •

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