Vicenza City of Palladian Beauties
November 2, 2014
The historic centre of Vicenza is for all intents and purposes an open-air museum dominated by the works and design philosophy of the architect Andrea Palladio. A total of 26 buildings, known to have been designed or reconstructed by Palladio, make up this UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is a pleasant stroll from the train station to the centro storico. We pass a large park with children at play and people sitting on the park benches enjoying the fall sunshine. We continue along the wide avenue until we reach the gates of another park. Its fountain and flowers is drawing me in. But it is already early afternoon and so we opt instead to enter the centro storico.
We walk through the arched gates of a medieval stone wall and tower.
Right away we find ourselves on a cobble stone street. The buildings behind us are all joined and form a continuation of the stone wall and tower.
Palladio’s philosophy included designing buildings that fit in with the existing structure and architectural style. And so the palazzi or town houses he designed in Vicenza in the early 1500s had to be integrated into what would have been a medieval city. His aim was to create continuous street facades combining the Veneto Gothic style (picture Venice) with what today is referred to as Palladian classicism. I felt this immediately even though I had not yet read this description of Vicenza’s architectural style.
There is an understated elegance about the historic centre of Vicenza that you feel and see immediately. It is a graceful and timeless beauty – a cohesiveness that is calming. It is a Saturday afternoon and the streets are filled with people enjoying the day, doing their grocery shopping, window-shopping. There is no hectic rushing about. Two women stand outside a store window and discuss the leather details of a wool dress, people stand about in groups of three and four with their canine friends sitting patiently while their owners chat, the bars are filled with people lingering over their apertivos, all part of a relaxed Saturday afternoon.
We are at the beginning of Corso Palladio which will take us through the historic centre. The Palazzo Capra catches your eye right away with its series of arches and tall windows. The facade is thought to be one of the first Palladian works. Unfortunately the original plant of the building was altered in the 1700’s. Today it is the home of the COIN department store and those arches frame windows displaying their clothing and housewares.
As always, I am amazed at how these buildings that are 500 years old are still alive and in use today. There are also two huge bookstores here and I buy an art book with pictures and descriptions of Palladio’s work. It is in Italian written in a style that hints of artistic snobbishness (a valid snobbishness), and uses very long sentences with multisyllabic words. I enjoy the pictures but I need a lot of help to understand the nuances of the story of Palladio’s work. I am sharing my interpretation of what I read of the descriptions and the story so it may not all be totally accurate!
To our right in Piazza Castello stands another example of Palladio architecture.
Both sides of the Corso are lined with beautifully detailed buildings.
We continue along the Corso Palladio with its fashionable stores.
A beautiful pair of black polished leather boots cost 500 Euros and I cannot help thinking that it is what I paid for a washer and dryer last year! Gelateria, high-end jewellery stores, food stores fill all the lower level spaces and in fact there are no empty retail spaces so it all feels very prosperous.
I look up at the windows of a stunning coral colored Venetian building, the color standing out even more with the angle of the afternoon sun. A man walks by and he looks up probably wondering what I could possibly be looking at as for him this is just a normal part of what he sees everyday.
We pass a delicatessan with huge plates of baccala, Veneto prosciutto and cheeses. Vicenza is known for it’s baccalà alla vicentina, not made from salted cod (as elsewhere in Italy), but from stockfish (dried, unsalted cod), mixed with oil and milk, accompanied by polenta. I was lucky enough to enjoy this baccala at my cousin’s home.
All around a feast for the eyes and senses.
This is what I understood about the life of Andrea Palladio. Palladio came from a humble background. He was born in Padua where he apprenticed and worked as a stonemason. While part of a crew that was working on the renovation of a country villa near Vicenza, the owner of the villa, Giangiorgio Trissino, recognized Palladio’s unique talents. Trissino was not only a local nobleman, but also a writer, a humanist, a diplomat. Trissino was very interested in moving away from the medieval architecture and in general the medieval way of thinking. He sent Palladio to Rome to study the surviving monuments of classical Rome and of the works of Vitruvius. Like Michaelangelo, Palladio also became passionate about the Roman art and architecture and incorporated his interpretation of their design philosophy into his own work.
With Trissino’s, support Palladio began designing villas for the local nobility and also won “competitions” to create public spaces for Vicenza. He went on to become one of the most noted architects of the Renaissance period.
In Ottawa, Palladian windows for the two-story open concept living spaces have recently been a trendy selling feature. How many people knew the origin of Palladian windows and how many people thought about how useless those two-story empty living spaces are, let alone how much it costs to heat those spaces? It is all a contradiction, I think, of the design philosophy of Palladio. And it is an example of the North American volume construction of identical row upon row of tract houses – nothing thought through for the esthetic value, livability, sense of community or how practical the designs are for the climate or lifestyle of the people who live there today let alone 50 years from now. What will be left of those tract houses 50 years from now? Let alone 500 years from now? .
Some more pictures and descriptions follow below:
Across the street from the deli is the Casa Cogollo (1559) a small but elegant house that posed some design challenges for Palladio. It has an interesting design and political story.
The Maggior Consiglio (town council) forced the notary Pietro Cogollo to remodel the façade of his 15th century house as a contribution to the “decorum of the city”, making this a condition of granting his request for Vicentine citizenship.
Palladio faced the constraints posed by a narrow space and the impossibility of opening windows at the centre of the piano nobile because of an existing fireplace and its flue. Palladio’s solution to these physical constraints were to emphasise the façade’s central axis, by designing a structure with a ground floor arch flanked by engaged columns, and on the upper storey a tabernacle frame for a fresco.
Just at the end of Corso Palladio, is the most spectacular civilian residence designed by Palladio. It is located along the bank of the river Baccilonie. Palladio’s vision was a design that would represent a town palace and a country villa at the same time. Today it is the home of the Vicenza Town Museum.
We continue on to the Piazza de Signori, the main square of Vicenza.
The Loggia was raised to celebrate the victory in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), in which a coalition of Christian powers – among which the Republic of Venice – defeated the Ottoman Empire.
In the mid 1500’s Palladio was commissioned to dramatically restore the palace by incorporating the already existing building. The most notable feature of the edifice is the loggia, which shows one of the first examples of what came to be known as the Palladian window.
The building was originally constructed in the 1400’s and was known as the Palazzo della Ragione. However, two years after its completion, one corner collapsed. In the following decades, the Vicentine government called in many architects to propose a reconstruction plan. Finally, in 1546 the Council of One Hundred chose a young local architect, Palladio, to reconstruct the building. Interestingly drawings by Palladio, from his original proposal of 1546 to the final construction, have been preserved. Palladio added a new outer shell of marble classical forms, a loggia and a portico. He also dubbed the building a basilica, after the ancient Roman civil structures of that name.
The Basilica was an expensive project and took a long time to complete. Palladio received for the work an income of 5 ducats a month for most of his life. In 1614—thirty years after his death—the building was completed, with the finishing of the main façade on Piazza delle Erbe.
The clock tower in the Piazza is the Torre della Bissara which was built in 1172. Today it caught the last rays of the setting sun and glowed a warm red brick color.
The palazzo del Capitaniato was designed by Palladio in 1565 and built between 1571 and 1572. It faces the Basilica Palladiana. It is extremely rare for any architect to have the opportunity to design two important buildings in the same place. Palladio chose a dramatically different approach in the design of the Capitaniato . While the Basilica was executed in white stone with little decoration (if one ignores the design of architectural elements like the frieze, keystones and statues), the Capitaniato is rich in stucco decorations.
A modern fountain blending in perfectly.