Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Today I am gonna be talking about a villa, Villa Almerico-Capra also known as la Rotonda. It is such an important building to be part of the World Heritage Site “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto”.
Don’t worry: I am going to explain immediately what does it means. And then we’ll dive into the discovery of this beautiful Italian villa understanding why its unique features influenced the whole architecture.
ARTIST: Andrea Palladio
NAME Villa Almerico Capra (La Rotonda)
YEAR 1567 – 1605
First let’s see what it means “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto” with a fast geography 101. Veneto is an Italian northern region, famous for Venezia of course, but one of the main cities is Vicenza. It is where Andrea Palladio built some of his extraordinary buildings, mostly private villas.
Palladio – “Father of American Architecture”
We are during Renaissance, so almost 5 centuries ago and Palladio was one the most appreciated architects in the known world. I am not exaggerating: Palladio revolutionized architecture so much that, I don’t want to spoiler too much, in December 6th 2010 the One Hundred Eleventh Congress of the United States of America called Palladio the “Father of American Architecture”.
Crazy right? How was it possible? Well we are going to get there soon. But if you missed the United States Capitol video I highly recommend to watch it because its story combines US history, Palladio and Roman history. Here the link.
An unique Villa
So Palladio was really popular and in 1566-1567 Paolo Almerico, a prelate who returned to Vicenza after a career in the Vatican Court, asked the architect to design a place where he could retire.
Usually Palladio was asked to make villas in the countryside and so he had to combine the needs of a working farm with beautiful residencies. A difficult challenge that he was able to face thanks to his great talent since, he was not just combining those 2 needs, but also all of his creations are perfectly placed in their environments and he mixed modern and classical styles.
And that’s exactly what we have here: a villa at the top of a hill with an elegant façade that looks like a classical temple.
Actually, the façade is not one. Palladio did something unique creating a completely symmetrical building having a square plan with four façades. Each of which has a projecting portico with a pediment supported by six Ionic columns and statues of classical deities. We can appreciate the design from the floor plan which helps also to understand the need of a central element to connect with harmony the corners and that makes the building visually lighter and taller from the outside: a round dome.
The name La Rotonda refers precisely to the central circular hall with its dome.
La Rotonda’s features
But do you realize what inspired Palladio? If you watched one of the previous posts you probably immediately notice: The Pantheon of course.
If you missed it you can find the link here.
Another surprise is that when we enter into a fancy palace we usually expect a big, impressive, hall. Here instead look what Palladio did. Passing the porticos, you enter into 4 salons: all of them different from the others thanks to their unique frescoes. You can imagine the surprise since already the 4 identical facades are confusing and, every time you enter in the villa, you can be in a different salon.
And just after passing them you have the surprise of the beautiful highly decorated round hall.
Here every space is covered on marbles and vibrant trompe-l’œil frescoes that contrast with the sober exterior in a weird mix of Christianity and classical elements. But we shouldn’t be surprised since Almerico was a religious figure. So he wanted some frescoes to show his faith and Palladio mixed them with a Renaissance palace that looks like a Roman temple. The hall is surrounded by an elegant balcony and, on the top, we can admire the inside of the beautiful dome.
This is the first floor, called piano nobile, where the owner lived. Works spaces for the villa’s servants are hidden in a low level underneath this floor which is accessed via staircases hidden inside the walls of the central hall.
And talking about the rooms: they are proportioned with mathematical precision according to Palladio’s own rules of architecture which he published in I quattro libri dell’architettura. Not only: Palladio designed the villa rotated 45 degrees from each cardinal point of the compass in order for each room to have some sun.
And we shouldn’t be surprised because we learnt how the combination of science, math and nature was fundamental in the humanist values of Renaissance art. The best example is for sure the Vitruvian man.
However, Palladio combined all of these elements in a design and approach that influenced all the architects after him. In Europe, but also in the US where Thomas Jefferson designed his own residence, Monticello, clearly inspired by Palladio, as well as was James Hoban, the architect of the White House. Or William Thornton in the United States Capitol.
And the examples are many, that’s why Palladio is officially considered the “Father of American Architecture”.
Unfortunately, Palladio died in 1580 and he couldn’t see the villa completion that was finished by Vincenzo Scamozzi who was hired by the family Capra that bought the villa after Paolo Almerico died (that’s why the double name Villa Almerico-Capra).
Luckily, Scamozzi didn’t change too much of Palladio’s original project. And, just to give an idea of how much for Palladio was important to design in perfect harmony with the landscape, the villa seems to be completely symmetrical, but, actually, there are little variations in the facades, like the width of steps and the retaining walls, adopted to perfectly match the villa with the environment.
For all these reasons Palladio is considered one of the most talented and important architects ever. And I think nowadays he is still giving some good lessons, like how we should build considering both the human needs and the nature around us.