PALLADIO'S VILLAS; A slightly surreal journey

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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.

"A villa," Palladio once wrote, "is nothing other than a small city." Indeed, the classic Palladian villa: a linear or horseshoe configuration joined at the spine by a stately pavillion, connects all levels and means of rural life. Mannersly salons coexist with granaries and dovecotes. The stress is elegant functionalism. This formal simplicity is further underlined by the building's materials. Built of rough brick, the walls were then stuccoed and painted white. Thus, at little expense, one achieved an effect of sublime uniformity.

The overall impression one receives from Palladio's work is its sense of order, the harmonic relation of its parts to the whole. Both inside and out, the geometry of a villa is a fascinating system of communication. Inside, the axial alignment of doors tunnels perspective forward. One's eye shoots immediately from door to corridor to salon to window. The window, in turn, framed at the opposite end of the villa, opens out onto the echoing greenery of lawns and gardens. Everything: stone, garden, water, field, refers the eye further.

Palladio's villas are designed to challenge the eye, to test its powers of visual connection. Why the journey is particularly intriguing, therefore, is that it involves one in an ongoing perspective game. Since no two villas are alike, each time one must see afresh. Certainly the three most challenging villas, with the exception of Malcontenta which rests further south, are the Villa Emo at Fanzolo, the Villa Barbaro at Maser, and the Villa Rotunda just outside Vicenza.

If based in Vicenza, one can easily reach these villas by an hour's car ride. Paralleling the waterways that snake through the Veneto, the traveler winds his way trhough a countryside quilted with crops. If you travel in late September, as I did, the dark shine of grapes, bright with the promise of early harvest, deepens the landscape with color. Everything owes much to the fact that he was, above all, a practical working architect. Trained as a stonecutter, at 30 Palladio was transformed into an incipient architect and humanist scholar by his mentor, Count Giangiorgio Trissino. Under the latter's patronage, in 1541 Palladio made the first of several trips to Rome. There, walking amid the ruins of Greco-Roman civilization, he absorbed the lessons of antiquity while simultaneously observing those of his contemporaries, Bramante and Michelangelo.

What Palladio succeeded in doing, and what his villas so brilliantly demonstrate, was to transform these influences into a highly personal architectural vocabulary perfectly suited to the practical and aesthetic needs of his time. Combining the gravity of Rome with the sunny openness of northern Italy, Palladio creaed a series of villas between 1550-1570 that are unique in Renaissance architecture. Of increasing complexity and purity, each villa represents an elegant and unexpected solution to the demands of its natural environment.

While the settings differ considerably -- some nestled amid sloping hills, others on flat, fallow planes -- each villa relates to its space in such a way that man, the center of this microcosm, is in constant and dynamic dialogue with the natural world around him. Thus the waterways, the orchards, the fields is possessed of a leisurely beauty.

Every day, for a week, I woke in keen anticipation of this drive and what I knew waited at its end. We have all made the trip in our dreams. Now I was making it in person. For there is something surreal about these villas. To visit them is to conclude that Palladio, not Freud, furnished the imagery of our dreams. The scene is always the same: One is walking down a long path at the end of which is a villa of elegant simplicity. The gravel crunching under one's feet shatters the glassy silence. The air is sharp with the smell of lemon and verbena. The scene has about it the strangely compelling logic of dreams; the surreal edge found in Atget's photos or Brunel's films.

Fortunately, the scene and the villas themselves are very real indeed. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Villa Barbaro at Maser. Built in 1557 for Palladio's patron, Daniele Barbaro, a noted humanist scholar, the villa is the most richly decorated of all the villas. Rising halfway up an incline, poised between the hills behind it and the planes sheeting in front, the Villa Barbaro epitomizes the world of the gentleman farmer.

However commanding its setting, the villa's real attraction is its interiors, in particular the cycle of frescoes done by Veronese at the height of his career. Complimenting Palladio's subtle modulation of volume by light, Veronese's frescoes rhythmically fill space with color. Of particular note are the trompe l'oeilm portraits winking from the walls: family members peering down from a painted balcony rimming the ceiling; a dog tucked into a corner; a window that is really a wall.

By contrast, the interior of the Villa Emo at Fanzolo imposes an ideal of frankness, a quality of stoical simplicity that is characteristic of the villa as a whole. Built in 1565 for Leonardo Emo, the villa eschews all ornamentation , relying instead on the positioning and proportion of windows and room size for effect. White Zolotti frescoes fill some rooms with high Venetian color, it is the symmetry and size of the rooms themselves that catch the eye.

Here, as at the Villa Barbaro, the eye is forever drawn to the window, to the cascade of lawn and field outside. Situated on a plane, the Villa Emo relies on the vertical accent of poplar trees, which extend in long colonnades, to counterpoint an otherwise unrelieved flat stretch of land.

Of all Palladio's villas, the Villa Rotunda outside Vicenza is the most breathtaking example of landscaped architecture. Resting on a knoll, the villa commands a 360-degree arc, its symmetrical porticos pointing toward the cardinal compass points. The most supremely elegant of villas, it is easy to see why critics have called the domed work "a beacon."

Built in 1570, the Villa Rotunda was one of the only villas not intended as a farm. This accounts, in part, for its patrician ethos; its classical authority. Upon seeing it in 1786, Goethe remarked, "Architecture has never, perhaps, achieved a greater degree of luxury." And later, on Palladio himself, Goethe added, "a great man who does not wish to conform to the world, but to transform it in accordance with his own high ideals."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the town of Vicenza itself. Here Palladio set out to model a city on the humanist doctrines of his time. Vicenza in general, and Palladio's Theatro Olympico in particular, were designed as perspective boxes to illustrate the laws of classical humanism. To walk the city, the city Palladio conceived of as a scaled Rome, is to observe doctrine in stone. The city is a lesson in how we see and relate to the world around us.

The Theatro Olympico, built in 1580 to house the august Academy, is Palladio's most obvious attempt at instruction. Although the theater was completed by his protege, Scamozzi, nonetheless it clearly shows Palladio's original intention: to re-create the antique world whose values the architect lived by. Thus the elaborate proscenium, with arched central openings, re-creates the streets of Thebes. In this final work Palladio paid hommage to the classical world, to the laws and the lessons that continue through his work and our pilgrimages to it.

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