Vicenza: If you want to break away from the crowds that make Venice a poster child for the term “overtourism” and you love architecture, there is one place you must go: nearby Vicenza, a showcase for the work of the renowned Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
Palladio, who lived from 1508 to 1580, drew inspiration from the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, transforming these models into masterpieces that influenced everything from English country houses to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The most famous of his works, the transcendent hilltop mansion called the Villa Rotonda, is a short taxi, bus or bike ride from Vicenza’s compact, largely car-free town center, where the main street bears Palladio’s name.
The town centre itself is stocked with impressive Palladio buildings, including numerous town palaces, or palazzi, one of which houses an excellent and engaging museum devoted entirely to the architect.
In the surrounding countryside are Palladio’s villas, where the architect combined opulent living quarters and working farm buildings into coherent complexes that married nature with culture, rusticity and urbanity.
Located about 40 miles west of Venice, with a population of about 112,000, Vicenza (pronounced vi-CHEN-zah) is an ideal day trip. I took a red, sleek-nosed Italo train from Venice’s Santa Lucia station. (Round-trip fare was just under €38 euros, or roughly NZ$65. The trip, one-way, took 39 minutes.)
Vicenza once was part of the far-flung Venetian empire, a status still signalled by a pair of towering classical columns that frame an entry to its main square. One is topped by the ubiquitous symbol of Venice, the winged lion.
But Palladio’s buildings gave Vicenza a distinct identity. They were classical, weighty and vigorously three dimensional – and, thus, recognisably different from the delicate, highly decorated Gothic facades that line Venice’s canals.
Along Vicenza’s main square, for example, is an imposing public building, the Palladian Basilica, that the architect redesigned in the mid-16th century after a portion of the original Gothic exterior collapsed. Palladio, then just 38 years old and a relative unknown, wrapped the building in a two-level stack of exterior passageways, or loggias. Their arched openings and white marble possess the sculptural power and depth of Roman architecture. And God is in the details.
Like an accordion, the rectangular openings on either side of each arch vary in width, an “elastic” solution that accommodates the original building’s uneven dimensions.A good place to take it all in is a small adjacent plaza named for Palladio and adorned with a statue of the bearded architect as well as likenesses of architectural tools and bits of classical decoration. The town centre offers numerous other opportunities to see Palladio’s genius.
Assorted palazzi reveal the skill with which the architect manipulated the classical orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – to make individual statements for each of his wealthy clients. Palladio also designed the dome of Vicenza’s cathedral and an elegant entryway on one of its sides.
Plaques at each site associated with the architect, written in English as well as Italian, enable visitors to take free, self-led tours. Guided tours are also available for a fee.
Among the must-sees in the town centre are Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico (admission: €11), which claims to be the world’s first indoor theatre. It features a dazzling interior space whose curved seating tiers, frescoes, statuary and robust, classically inspired architecture evoke ancient Roman amphitheaters. The theatre, still in use today, was completed after Palladio’s death.
Another mandatory stop is the Palladio Museum (€8), which occupies one of the architect’s town palaces, the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto. The museum expertly tells the story of Palladio’s life and work.
He was born in nearby Padua and worked as a stonecutter before moving to Vicenza in 1524. Many of his clients were noble families, enriched by a booming silk trade.
Seizing on the importance of disseminating knowledge through the printed page, Palladio published his famous treatise, The Four Books on Architecture, in 1570. According to the museum, it’s not known where, or from what causes, he died.
As visitors pass through the museum, they are treated to large-scale architectural models of Palladio’s buildings; projected images of smart (and smartly dressed) architectural historians discussing his work; and beautiful, high-ceilinged rooms, some adorned with frescoes.
Exhibits show how Palladio relied on form and proportions rather than lavish materials and elaborate decoration to create some of his majestic buildings. For example, he reintroduced a special plaster compound, called marmorino, that coated low-cost materials such as wood and brick to make them resemble stone. Through a clear case, we see triangular bricks, arranged like wedges of cheese, which reveal how Palladio built freestanding columns out of the inexpensive material rather than costly marble.
No visit is complete without a stop at the Villa Rotonda, which was commissioned in 1566 by former papal assistant Paolo Almerico and sits about a mile and a half southeast of Vicenza’s train station.
A dome inscribed in a cube with four identical projecting temple fronts, the landmark is the iconic Palladian villa and a symbol of the Renaissance – a work of geometric order that is the architectural equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
The villa’s elaborate interior is only open to the public for tours on Wednesday and Saturday (exterior only: €5; exterior and interior: €10), but the exterior and its grounds alone justify a visit. (Private tours can also be arranged.)
The building itself is surprisingly austere – magnificent but not opulent; grand but not grandiose. The sculptures atop its temple fronts and on the sides of its porches are the chief decorative flourishes.
You approach from the bottom of a slope, able to see only one facade. Then, as you ascend the hill, the house can be viewed in the round – a perfect sculptural object, perfectly placed for the arcing sun to bring its surfaces to life.
On a hot summer day, insects chirp in the background while fields and hills unfurl in the distance.
Benches allow for a peaceful spot to admire the building. Its porches provide elevated vantage points from which to view the countryside.
This is an ideal building for an idyllic site – a contemplative retreat from the bustle and business of the city. It’s also a model whose influence would extend far into the future.
The 17th century English architect Inigo Jones, famous for his symmetrical, well-proportioned country houses, would follow its example, as would Thomas Jefferson, who built Monticello in 1772 and his “academical village” at the University of Virginia in the early 19th century.
You can see more of Palladio’s work back in Venice, where two of his great religious structures – the Church of the Redentore and the church for the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore – occupy the spectacular waterfront.
The bell tower of the latter contains an elevator that leads you to an outdoor observation deck with stunning views of Venice and its watery environs.
It’s another way, besides a trip to Palladio’s Vicenza, to escape Venice’s thick crowds.