Monday, July 9, 2018


Andrea Palladio

Should you ever find yourself in Venice...

don’t hesitate to leave. A day trip to nearby Vicenza could be the perfect antidote to the languid, effervescent beauty of la Serenissima and the swirling flocks of tourists and pigeons milling about St Mark's Square. After all, tiny Vicenza’s austere classical architecture offers a refreshing relief from Venice's relentless picturesqueness and effortlessly re-calibrates one's visual standards with a healthy dose of Palladian monumentality.

Vicenza photographed by Salvorio Bortolamei

Grandiose facades line Vicenza's empty, echoing streets, heralds of the heroic moment that was the Renaissance, when beauty was a cherished ideal based on classical mathematics and Humanist proportions which found their meaning in the exaltation of ideal man. The concerns of today’s architecture—rigidly ideological, relentlessly conceptual and highly arbitrary in its worship of individuality—would have elicited astonishment in the age of Palladio. Beauty was not an idiosyncrasy found in the eye of the beholder but rather was a concrete, non-negotiable principle. For such a small city, Vicenza is brimming with palazzi whose introspective grandeur defies both style and fashion; their nobility and aloofness both demands our respect and commands our attention. 

The Villa Rotonda
The Villa Rotonda's Rotonda
Of course the city’s most famous structure, the Villa Rotonda (also called the Villa Valmarana after its current owners), is neither a palazzo nor does it sit in the old town. Instead, the Rotonda overlooks Vicenza from a distant hilltop, commanding picture-perfect views across the city. Built between 1566 and 1571 for the apostolic prelate Paolo Almeri, the villa is Andrea Palladio’s masterpiece, perfection in stone, and it would announce and even define modernity for centuries to come. A cold star immovably fixed in the firmament of architectural history, the Villa Rotonda has instructed, inspired and challenged architects for nearly half a millennium. Like Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, it has become an icon and an unrivaled example of what erudition, talent, taste and money can, with the rare spark of genius, achieve.

The Teatro Olimpico's stage screen

The teatro's ampitheater-inspired seating
Overshadowed by the blinding fame of the Villa Rotonda, another of Palladio's masterpieces leads a more quiet existence in the old town of Vicenza. Near to the Palazzo Chiericati and hidden behind the thick walls of medieval fortifications, the Teatro Olimpico is a breathtaking discovery. Commissioned for the town in 1580 by the Olympic academy, a body of the leading citizens (Palladio was a founding member), the teatro was the first indoor theater to be erected since Roman times and consequently is also the oldest extant modern theater in the world. It was inaugurated to great acclaim on the 3rd March 1585 with a performance of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Palladio died the year construction began and so if fell upon his protege, Vincenzo Scamozzi, to oversee the theater's construction.

The theater's plan

 In a brilliant gesture, Palladio turned the awkwardly shaped lot of the old fortress into the structure's greatest asset. Inspired by the hemispherical plan of Antique theaters, he planned the seating about an elegant half-oval facing the stage. The rings of seats rise just like in any open-air amphitheater, while the stage is defined by a triumphant architectural screen recalling the grandeur of ancient Rome. The elaborate, sophisticated stage wall, enriched with numerous sculptures and busts and made of wood painted in trompe l'oeil to resemble stucco and marble, was only finished after Palladio’s death and so must be considered Scamozzi’s masterpiece. To him we also must attribute the three forced-perspective archways piercing the stage wall, an optical trick which gives the shallow stage depth and drama and overcomes the constraints of the actual space. In reference to Antiquity, the ceiling was painted to imitate open sky, inspiring countless thousands of cloud- and putti-bedecked imitators.

Vincenzo Scamozzi

Though overshadowed by its famous English contemporary, the Globe, the teatro is the true progenitor of all modern theaters and so it is that court theaters across Europe, from Gripsholm to the Hermitage, derive from this unique creation. However, this apogee of architectural and decorative accomplishment so seemingly effortlessly displayed in Vicenza would never be reached again. There the illusion is perfect, art and artifice prevail over reality and nothing is more magical than to attend a performance of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea in such a perfect setting.