PALLADIO'S VILLAS; A slightly surreal journey
It's fitting that one starts in Venice, in that city slick with surface illusion. It sets the elegant if slightly surreal stage for the journey: an architectural odyssey in quest of Andrea Palladio, the great 16th-century architect who knowingly called his creations "theaters" and their settings "dramas."Skip to next paragraph
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Standing with my back to Il Rendetore, one of two major Palladian churches anchored on the Adriatic waters, I watched its classical facade shimmer on the surface before me. Istrian stone floating on water; its image doubling and dissolving with each boat wake. The entire trip would have this edge, this play of surfaces, about it.
In this distance, I heard the low-geared sputter of a vaporetto reversing its engines. Its next stop was the quay on which I stood waiting. As the boat lunged toward me I shot a final look at Il Rendetore. And, once aboard, a final look at Venice itself: at its light charging and silhouetting the city with quicksilver.
It wasn't Venice or the Palladian churches that crown it that I had come to see. The journey, no less serpentine than the waterways I would soon follow, was inland, in the Veneto, the province north of Venice. For a week I would traverse its terraced landscape: the low-lying hills cut deeply by orchards and farmhouses. Scattered throughout were the object of my search: the famous Palladian villas, those magnificent monuments to Venetian aristocratic life and, more specifically, to the genius of their creator, Andrea palladio.
From Venice one travels an hour by car to Vicenza, a city centered at the heart of "the garden of Venice," the rich agricultural area perimetered by Verona, Padova, and Treviso. It is here that the 16th-century Venetian nobility , shifting its commerce from sea to agriculture, committed its fortunes to land, thus erecting villas tailored to the needs of the gentleman farmer. While reflecting the aristocratic status of its owner, the villa served its practical considerations of husbandry and harvests first. The classical architectural format, therefore, was a central living block, often preceded by a pedimented portico modeled on a Roman temple, from which low-flanking wings, designed for farm storage, extended.
Of the 3,000 villas that once dotted the Veneto, 294 remain, 20 of which were designed by Palladio. While in various stages of disrepair, the elegant string of palladian villas still provide us with one of the most interesting journeys within Italy. While showcasing 16th-century life, in particular the splendors of Venetian art, the villas illuminate the purity of Palladio's style, the harmony of line and elegance of form that hallmark his work. To see his villas, the very crystallization of his influence, is to understand why he is the most imitated architect in history.
From these classical villas sprang the architectural phenomenon known as Palladianism. Cutting across cultures, fanning from Italy to England to America to Russia, Palladianism inspired Jefferson's Monticello and Lord Burlington's Chiswick House to cite but two famous examples. Supplemented by "I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura," his seminal treatise published in 1570, palladio's innovations -- the elegant facades symmetrically arranged around a central columnar portico -- soon echoed off every church, college, and civic building in the Western world.
The pervasiveness of Palladio's influence ruled into symmetry by centuries of farming, are all consciously played upon to define and extend the villa's perspective.