What Is: Palladian Style, More than a Villa in the Veneto?

Villa Capra, 'La Rotunda' by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy
Villa Capra, 'La Rotunda' by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy

Grand English tourist Richard Boyle (1694 – 1753) 3rd Earl of Burlington, 4th Earl of Cork and  5th Baron Clifford arrived home at London in 1715, just in time for his 21st birthday Not long after he learned about the publication of Vitruvius Britannicus, the first volume of what would become the opus of Scottish architect Colen Campbell (1676-1729).

This new work expounded theories laid down by sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580). Colen Campbell was a man on a mission, concerned with the serious professional treatment of architecture.

In his book he presented beautiful illustrations of classically inspired buildings in Britain from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, such as Inigo Jones superb Banqueting House at Whitehall.

Campbell also included his own designs for Wanstead House for banker Richard Child, which was later demolished.

Execution of Charles I L_tcm4-559504King Charles 1 had literally lost his head outside the Banqueting House whose architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), had worked during both the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Jones had been one of the first English tourists to brave the very dangerous journey from England to Italy in the early part of the seventeenth century bringing back with him new ideas about classicism.

Within 50 years of Palladio’s death Jones had met his pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi, and also visited many of Palladio’s villas in the Veneto. Jones had returned to England after Elizabeth 1 had died but died himself before the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne.

This meant that his influence on architectural style in England remained pending throughout the tumultuous years of Cromwell and the Commonwealth. But now as fate would have it they would come to attention, once more as the young Earl of Burlington started looking at his works.

Richard Boyle re-examined Jones’s Banqueting House and his other architectural achievements, such as the splendid and austere Queen’s House at Greenwich, which were both precursors of what would become a new eighteenth century movement in domestic architecture, one that would become known as the ‘Palladian style’.

Villa Capra BESTA bright young man of the new age Richard Boyle, who was to become known in his lifetime as the Apollo of the Arts, was so determined to address Colen Campbell’s new ideas and ideals for himself he set off again in 1719, returning to Italy with the specific intention of studying Palladio’s villas in the Veneto first hand.

He now saw himself as the principal patron of a new and important architectural style in England and this second journey would have a profound impact on its evolution for over a century. As well it would have a direct flow on effect into America, through the achievements of Thomas Jefferson when he built his dream home Monticello at Charlottesville VA.

In Italy during the sixteenth century Andrea Palladio in turn had been an avid student of the architectural treatise of first century Roman architect Vitruvius. In his own time Vitruvius had been inspired by ancient Greek classical precedents.

The treatise of Roman architect, engineer and writer Marcus Pollio Vitruvius (c80-70BCE – 15 BCE) was the only document of its type to have survived intact from antiquity. This important work for posterity had been re-discovered by Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) a century before in a search of monastery libraries.

Designed to be a retreat from the pressures and profanities of city life Palladio provided villas in the countryside of the Veneto for his wealthy merchant clients. The Villa La Malcontenta (pictured) was built on the River Brenta in easy distance of the city by boat (the roads were appalling).

It was mainly used for parties or recreation, the perfect country house. Its piano nobile, or noble first floor was raised high up above the river so that it would not be inundated when during floods.

La Rotunda, the Villa Capra by Andrea Palladio, Veneto Italy

It is easy to understand why the young Earl from England was so captivated by Palladio’s Villa Almerico-Capra known as La Rotunda (pictured) in the Veneto. It was so different to anything he had encountered before. It impressed all that saw it, and still does today.

Its classic purity and simple lines are balanced by harmonious proportion. It delights the eye perfectly sited on its small hill looking out, thanks to its four equal prospects, on the surrounding landscape. It was perfectly positioned to see and be seen and became a role model for anyone in pursuit of the perfect house.

When the Villa Almerico-Capra was built its design was based on a square plan with four identical facades, each of which has a projecting portico. Ionic order columns held up each pedimented portico.

La Rotonda refers to a central circular hall inside the villa surmounted by a dome. To describe the villa as a ‘rotonda’ is technically incorrect because it’s not circular like a natural sphere.

Instead it is the intersection of a square, a man made shape, with a cross. Each portico has steps leading up to the ‘piano nobile’ or noble first floor. It opens via a small cabinet or corridor into the circular domed central hall.

The villa does in fact fit cleverly into a circle, which in this case an imaginary sphere that touches each corner of the building and is centred on each of its porticos.

This and all other rooms were proportioned with absolute mathematical precision according to Andrea Palladio’s own rules of architecture which he published in his Quattro Libri dell’Architettura.  Each room in the villa receives some sun because the design was rotated 45 degrees from each cardinal point of the compass.

While he was in Italy on this second journey Richard Boyle acquired many of Andrea Palladio’s original drawings of Roman antiquity, including his interpretation of ‘man ‘as the measure of all things’.

Today Michelangelo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man is perhaps the most well known. Vitruvius had believed that without symmetry and proportion there could be no principles in the design of any building if there was no precise harmonic relation between its components with the whole, as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.

During the first century Vitruvius had reasoned that if ‘nature’ designed the human body so that all of its parts were duly proportioned to his frame as a whole then the buildings human beings inhabited needed to have the same considerations.

He set out a formula for establishing proportions for a perfect house so that people occupying it would feel completely at ease within themselves.

Palladio had spent a great deal of time re-interpreting Vitruvius’ ancient measurements exploring many different ratios to achieve the pleasing proportions that became so evident in all of his buildings and integral to the classical heritage.

The principles he based his ideal numbers on were taken from the human anatomy: the finger, palm, foot and cubit (forearm). They were then all apportioned to form the ‘perfect number’, which was fixed at ten.

The finger (digitus), palm (palmus) foot (pes) and cubit (cubitus the length of the forearm) are all dominated by two perfect numbers 6 and 10.

Bo Derek, the perfect 10

We have 10 fingers on our hand. 4 fingers make a palm. 4 palms make a foot. the length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body, while the forearm is one quarter or a fourth. And, our face is a one tenth part of our whole height.

So, it’s no surprise when we understand why the bountiful beauty Bo Derek was depicted running along a beach in the 1979 movie 10 giving the sexual revolution of the 20th century a huge boost. Her body measurements were those of a perfect 10.  But we digress.

10 and 6 became the primary numbers, which when combined made the most perfect of all numbers in classic architectural proportion 16. Palladio and his followers applied these principles to the proportions of the buildings and rooms they were designing.

For the youthful 3rd Earl of Burlington this was all amazing stuff and greatly influenced by all he had seen he hastened back to England again taking with him those who would assist his personal quest and cause.

Italian sculptor Giovanni Battista Guelfi, who was to produce much of his garden statuary; Pietro Castrucci a violinist who had played in Handel’s orchestra and could entertain his friends and William Kent, a young painter and designer whose ideas and enthusiasms dovetailed perfectly with his own. A soul mate.

As well as his co-travellers he also brought back 878 pieces of luggage containing numerous treasures to furnish the perfect house he wanted to build.

These included paintings, statues, objects of virtu, bas-reliefs, a marble table, porphyry vases and twelve miniatures, not to mention the set of silver dessert baskets from Paris, many books and we must not forget, his fourteen pairs of gloves!

When he arrived home Burlington financed the publication of Colen Campbell’s second volume of Vitruvius Britannicus, as well as Andrea Palladio’s guidebook The Antiquities of Rome, which ensured Boyle would have a profound influence on the future of design in England.  Grand Tourists embarking for Rome studied it avidly and took it with them.

Richard Boyle enthusiastically set out to establish a minimum standard of excellence in all matters pertaining to building, one that would persist throughout the eighteenth century. He moved in a small illustrious circle of friends all of whom would build or renovate their country houses over the course of the next thirty years.

He was successful because Palladio’s architecture had combined classical authority, dignity and comfort and the formula worked well in England. He set his own Chiswick Villa in gardens designed by William Kent, who became the father and one of the founders of the English landscape style. Capability Brown, who has since been seen as its master,  was at first a pupil of Kent.

Chiswick Villa’s main function was to provide a setting for Burlington’s diversions and amusements. In its day it was set way out in the countryside a days journey from the city and sites. It abounded in classical references taking its form from La Rotunda dispensing with its four identical facades in favour of one.

The columns of the portico were copied from those adorning the ancient Temple of Castor and Pollux at Naples, which Burlington had seen and Palladio had drawn and published in his I Quattro Libri dell’architettura. The steps and loggia had fat stone balusters and weighty urns in the manner of other rural villas of sixteenth century Italy.

And, the entrance gate piers were classically swagged using applied ornament. Its interiors were based on the those of a Roman Temple interior and while it may have been fun to have been in albeit for a short time, entertaining one’s friends, at the end of the day the building was not really designed for any sort of comfort or convenience, rather posing and pleasure.

It was a sophisticated, elegant and graceful folly for friends having fun.

If the idea of a landscape echoing seventeenth century French artist Claude Lorraine’s paintings of classical antiquity could be re-created in England William Kent and his noblemen friends were in the position to do so. They placed architecture in a landscape in the Greek idyll manner and with respect and care.

In English garden historian Alan Gore’s words, Kent ‘leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden. He felt the delicious contrast of hill and valley changing imperceptibly into each other, tasted the beauty of the gentle swell or concave scoop and remarked how loose groves crowned an easy eminence with happy ornament’.

At Chiswick Villa Kent adapted old and new Italy to a small English site. Every walk terminated with some little building… another little villa. He created a setting for the classical rotunda, designed by Burlington, fronting onto a sunken amphitheatre where an ancient Egyptian obelisk also presided over a circular pool of water.

Around it he placed orange trees in tubs, an orangerié in a classical setting  There was a grotto at the end of the Grand Canal and he introduced a more naturalistic note in the lawn between the villa and the lake, at the end of which he also built a cascade.

The poet Alexander Pope, who encouraged him, acknowledged the originality of Burlington’s designs at Chiswick. In his view Burlington was the first owner of importance to ‘consult the genius of the place’ and respect its natural contours.

The obelisk was an interesting inclusion and it was because Boyle and Kent had seen one at Paris, admired its form and thought it belonged to French history. A correction in style and taste would have to wait until Napoleon went to Egypt in the early nineteenth century and revealed the truth about its origins.

During the eighteenth century in Europe the word villa passed from Latin into Italian and was absorbed into English. Designer William Kent became a crucial intermediary between the older traditions of, largely Italianate forms of gardens, and the emergence of one that from that time forward would be viewed as entirely English.

Poet Alexander Pope’s description of William Kent would have us believe he was ‘a wild Goth…from a country, which has never been… and …held no part of Christendom. Certainly the Earl of Burlington was content with his own perfect Palladian villa and remained William Kent’s patron for life.

The importance of Palladio’s La rotunda and its influence on English architecture can be seen clearly when looking at Colin Campbell’s Mereworth Castle in Kent, built in 1722 for John Fane.

It was a close adaptation of the Villa Almerico-Capra although slightly bigger than Palladio’s original and many at the time preferred Chiswick House and Mereworth in Kent to the real thing.

In 1753 William Lee visited Vicenza and reported that ‘I saw the Rotunda from whence Lord Westmorland’s house in Kent is taken and the hint of Lord Burlington’s at Chiswick. The copies are different from the original and in external beauty exceed it’

Two of of the most commonly used Palladian architectural elements in England are the Diocletian window, a three light semi circular number, which had been borrowed from the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian on the Dalmatian coast and the Venetian window, used by both Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones.

It was also a three light number, its central section, crowned with a Roman arch. They both became a frequent feature of homes all over England in the 1720’s and 1730’s replaced only in the 1740’s with rectangular small planed glass windows, which became a general rule in the expansion of metropolitan houses.

The variety and quality of the designs of Andrea Palladio confirm his flexibility and unique contribution to the ongoing classical language of architecture. His work transcends style boundaries and provides the viewer with an emotional experience reminding us of the power and authority of buildings of quality.

It is both optimistic and timeless in its approach, providing both intellectual and visual enjoyment. And, over time the Palladian style has become much more than just a villa in the Veneto.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2012

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