Even among Italian cities, Vicenza is special. Not just a handful of spectacular buildings, but a whole town of them, many of them designed by one man: Andrea Palladio. Today Palladio’s Vicenza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tribute to his creations and his architectural legacy.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
As I walked down the main street – called, naturally, Corso Palladio – past palaces designed by the architect and his disciples in the 16th century, I started to get a sense of déjà vu. Lots of the buildings look familiar. In fact, this should not be surprising, because Palladio’s designs have influenced architecture everywhere in the western world. Not just in Italy, but in London, across Europe and even in Washington, DC, you can see buildings with the symmetry, columns and classical proportions envisaged by Palladio.
The whole of the city centre is a World Heritage Site, recognising the importance of Palladio’s work. The city is regarded as a harmonious whole, incorporating Palladio’s ideas on urban design as well as his buildings. There are twenty-three buildings designed by him in the centre, and many more that were influenced by him. The UNESCO inscription also includes sixteen villas in the surrounding countryside.
Piazza Dei Signori And The Basilica Palladiana
At the centre of the city the wide open space of the Piazza dei Signori allows you to marvel at the facades of the Basilica Palladiana and the Loggia del Capitaniato. The Basilica Palladiana was originally a 15th century palazzo in the Gothic style, but Palladio was commissioned to redesign it. He added an entirely new facade to the building, incorporating columns, archways and what came to be known as “Palladian windows”.
In this instance the name “Basilica” does not imply a religious purpose, but refers back to classical Rome, where a basilica was simply a substantial public building. Today it houses a Jewellery Museum.
The Teatro Olimpico
The Teatro Olimpico, completed from Palladio’s designs after his death, was the highlight of my exploration of Palladio’s Vicenza. The uninspiring exterior (it was built inside an existing fortress) only serves to heighten the splendour of the inside. I had never seen anything like it: the whole auditorium was designed to resemble a Roman theatre, and inside you will see auditorium style seating and statues everywhere. But the real stroke of genius is the tromp l’oeil stage scenery, with seven passages built into it. Each passage resembles a classical street, cleverly painted to appear to stretch into the distance, allowing actors to emerge from shops and houses and onto the stage.
The Teatro Olimpico is still used occasionally for concerts and musical events.
There was so much to see that I came back another day to see La Rotonda, a little way from the historic centre. It was worth the wait: La Rotonda (sometimes also known as “Villa Capra”) is one of the most perfect Palladian designs, with four way symmetry and a huge circular dome in the roof. Both inside and out were built in accordance with precise mathematical calculations, and the grounds, with their long lines of statues, are in perfect harmony with the house and the landscape.
Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside the house, so I couldn’t capture the frescoes or the dome, but I made up for it in the grounds. As Palladio himself said, “The site is one of the most pleasant and delightful that can be found.” What more could you ask for?
Exploring Palladio’s Vicenza: A Few Practicalities
- You can explore the historic centre and La Rotonda on foot. However, you may prefer to rent a car if you want to visit the countryside villas as well.
- The interior of La Rotonda is only open on Wednesdays, although the grounds can be visited on other days – check the website for details.
- When visiting La Rotonda you may also like to explore the nearby Monte Berico.
- If you want to know more about the principles behind Palladio’s designs, he wrote them all down in his 4 Books Of Architecture.
- Vicenza is full of museums and churches – read about the Top Things To Do In Vicenza.
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