Palladian architecture

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A villa with a superimposed portico, from Book IV of Palladio's , in a modestly priced English translation published in London, 1736.
A villa with a superimposed portico, from Book IV of Palladio's I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, in a modestly priced English translation published in London, 1736.

Palladian architecture is a European style of architecture derived from the designs of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (15081580). The term "Palladian" normally refers to buildings in a style inspired by Palladio's own work; what is recognised as Palladian architecture today is an evolution of Palladio's original concepts. This evolution of Palladianism as a style began in the 17th century and continued to develop until the end of the 18th century. Palladianism became popular briefly in Britain during the mid-17th century, returned in the early 18th century and then spread to North America, most notably in the buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. However, to understand Palladian architecture as it later evolved, one must first understand the architecture of Palladio himself.


Palladio's architecture

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True Palladianism in Villa Godi by Palladio from the Quattro Libri dell'Architettura. The extending wings are agricultural buildings and most definitely not part of the villa.

Buildings by Palladio himself are rare, and all are in Italy. They include Villa Capra and Villa Badoer, as well as many churches in the Veneto. In both his architectural treatises and the buildings Palladio designed and built, he followed the principles defined by the Roman architect Vitruvius and his 15th-century disciple Leone Battista Alberti who adhered to principles of classical Roman architecture, as opposed to the rich ornamental style of the Renaissance.

Palladio always designed his villas with reference to their setting. If on a hill, such as Villa Capra, all facades were designed to be of equal value, in order for the occupants to have fine views in all directions; porticos on all sides were for the owners to fully appreciate the countryside while protected from the blazing sun, and were used rather in the way of the American porch today. Palladio sometimes used a loggia as an alternative to the portico. This can most simply be described as a recessed portico, or an internal single storey room, with pierced walls open to the elements. Occasionally a loggia would be placed at second floor level over the top of a loggia below, creating what was known as a double loggia. Loggias were sometimes given significance in a facade by being surmounted by a pediment. Villa Godi (illustrated left) has as its focal point a loggia rather than a portico, plus loggias terminating each end of the main building.

Palladio would often model his villa elevations on Roman temple facades. The temple influence, often in a cruciform design, later became a trademark of his work. Palladian villas are usually on just three floors: a rusticated basement or ground floor, containing the service and minor rooms; above this, the piano nobile accessed through a portico reached by flight of external steps, containing the principal reception and bedrooms; and above this, a low mezzanine floor with secondary bedrooms and accommodation. The proportions of each room within the villa were calculated on simple mathematical ratios like 3:4 and 4:5, and the different rooms within the house were interrelated by these ratios. Earlier architects had used these formulas for balancing a single symmetrical facade: Palladio's designs related to the whole, usually square, villa.

Palladio gave deep consideration to the dual purpose of his villas. As both farmhouses and palatial weekend retreats for wealthy merchant owners, these symmetrical temple-like houses often have equally symmetrical, but low, wings sweeping away from them to accommodate horses, farm animals, and agricultural stores. The wings, sometimes detached and connected to the villa by collonades, were designed not only to be functional but also to complement and accentuate the villa. They were, however, in no way intended to be part of the main house, and it is in the design and use of these wings that Palladio's followers have most altered his original concepts.

The Palladian window

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The Palladian, or Serlian, arch or window. Detail of drawing from Quattro Libri dell'Architettura.

One of the features of Palladio's work, almost a trademark in his early career, is the misnamed Palladian window. Mentioned by Sebastiano Serlio (14751554) in his seven-volume architectural book Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva expounding the ideals of Vitruvius and Roman architecture, this arched window is flanked by two lower rectangular openings, a motif that first appeared in the triumphal arches of ancient Rome. Palladio used the motif extensively, most notably in the arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione (illustrated right) in Vicenza. It is also a feature of his entrances to both Villa Godi and Villa Forni-Cerato. It is perhaps this extensive use of the motif in the Veneto which has given the window its alternative name of the Venetian window; it is also known as a Serlian window. Whatever the name or the origin, this form of window has probably become one of the most enduring features of Palladio's work seen in the later architectural styles, evolved from Palladianism.

The spread of Palladianism

In 1570 Palladio published his book I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, inspiring architects across Europe. During the 17th century, many architects studying in Italy learned of Palladio's work. Foreign architects then returned home and adapted Palladio's style to suit various climates, topographies and personal tastes of their clients. Isolated forms of Palladianism throughout the world were brought about in this way. However, the Palladian style reached the zenith of its popularity in the 18th century, primarily in England, Ireland and later North America.

English Palladianism

 was the designer of the Queen's House, Greenwich, begun in 1616, the first English Palladian house.
Inigo Jones was the designer of the Queen's House, Greenwich, begun in 1616, the first English Palladian house.

One of these students was the English architect Inigo Jones, who is directly responsible for importing the Palladian influence to England. The "Palladianism" of Jones and his contemporaries and later followers is a style very much of facades only, and the mathematical formulae dictating layout were not strictly applied. A handful of great country houses in England built between 1640 and circa 1680, such as Wilton House, are in this Palladian style, following the great success of Jones' Palladian designs for the Queen's House at Greenwich and the Banqueting House at Whitehall, the uncompleted royal palace in London of King Charles I. However, the Palladian designs advocated by Inigo Jones were too closely associated with the court of Charles I to survive the turmoil of the civil war. Following the Stuart restoration Jones's Palladian was eclipsed by the baroque designs of such architects as William Talman and Sir John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and even Jones' pupil John Webb.

English Palladian revival (neo-Palladian)

The baroque style, popular in Europe, was never truly to the English taste; and it was quickly superseded when, in the first quarter of the 18th century, four books were published in Britain which highlighted the simplicity and purity of classical architecture. These were:

  1. Vitruvius Britannicus published by Colen Campbell, 1715 (of which supplemental volumes appeared through the century)
  2. Palladio's Four Books of Architecture published by Giacomo Leoni, 1715
  3. Leone Battista Alberti's De Re Aedificatoria, published by Giacomo Leoni, 1726
  4. The Designs of Inigo Jones... with Some Additional Designs, published by William Kent, 2 vols., 1727 (A further volume, Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent was published in 1744 by the architect John Vardy, an associate of Kent.)

The most popular of these among the wealthy patrons of the day was the four volume Vitruvius Britannicus by Colen Campbell. Campbell was both an architect and a publisher. The book was basically a book of design containing architectural prints of British buildings, which had been inspired by the great architects from Vitruvius to Palladio; at first mainly those of Inigo Jones, but the later tomes contained drawings and plans by Campbell and other 18th-century architects. These four books greatly contributed to Palladian revival architecture becoming established in 18th-century Britain; and their three authors became the most fashionable and sought after architects of the era. Due to his book Vitruvius Britannicus', Colen Campbell was chosen as the architect for banker Henry Hoare I's Stourhead house (illustration below), a masterpiece that became the inspiration for dozens of similar houses across England.

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Palladian revival: Stourhead House, South facade, was designed by Colen Campbell and completed in 1720. The design is based on Palladio's Villa Emo.
At the forefront of the new school of design was the aristocratic "architect earl," Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who saw baroque as a symbol of foreign absolutism. In 1729, Burlington, with William Kent, designed Chiswick House. This House was a reinterpretation of Palladio's Villa Capra, but purified of 16th-century elements and ornament. This severe lack of ornamentation was to be a feature of the Palladian revival.
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Palladian revival:Stourhead House, East facade, based on Palladio's Villa Emo. Both images are from Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus.

In 1734 William Kent and Lord Burlington designed one of England's finest palladian revival houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk. The main block of this house followed Palladio's dictates quite closely, but Palladio's low (often detached) wings of farm buildings were elevated in significance. Kent attached them to the design, banished the farm animals, and elevated the wings to almost the same importance as the house itself. Often these wings were adorned with porticos and pediments, often resembling, as at the much later Kedleston Hall, small country houses in their own right. It was the development of the flanking wings that was to cause English Palladianism to evolve from being a pastiche of Palladio's original work.

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English Palladianism Woburn Abbey, designed by Burlington's student Henry Flitcroft in 1746. Palladio's central temple is no longer free standing, the wings are now elevated to near equal importance, and the cattle sheds terminating Palladio's design are now clearly part of the facade.
Architectural styles evolve and change to suit the requirements of each individual client. When in 1746 the Duke of Bedford decided to rebuild Woburn Abbey, he chose the Palladian style for the design, as this was now the most fashionable of the era. He selected architect Henry Flitcroft, a protegee of Burlington himself. Flitcroft's designs, while Palladian in nature, would not be recognised by Palladio himself. The central block is small, only three bays, the temple-like portico is merely suggested, it is in fact closed; two great flanking wings containing a vast suite of state rooms replace the walls or colonnades which should have connected to the farm buildings; the farm buildings terminating the structure are elevated in height to match the central block, and given Palladian windows, to ensure they are seen as of palladian design. This development of the style was to be repeated in countless houses in Britain. Often the terminating blocks would have blind porticos and pilasters themselves, competing for attention with, or complementing the central block. This was all very far removed from the designs of Palladio two hundred years earlier.

English Palladian houses were now no longer the small but exquisite weekend retreats from which their Italian counterparts were conceived, not villas but "power houses" in Sir John Summerson's term, the symbolic centers of power of the Whig "squirearchy" that ruled Britain. As the Palladian style swept Britain, all thoughts of mathematical proportion were swept away. Rather than square houses with supporting wings, these buildings had the length of the facade as their major consideration; long houses often only one room deep were deliberately deceitful in giving a false impression of size.

Irish Palladianism

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Irish Palladianism: Russborough, Ireland in 1826. Designed by the German Richard Cassels circa 1750, it is closer in design to Palladio's concepts than similar Palladian style houses in England, such as Woburn Abbey.

During the Palladian revival period in Ireland, even quite modest mansions were cast in a neo-Palladian mould. Palladian architecture in Ireland subtly differs from that in England. While adhering like in all other countries to the basic ideals of Palladio, it is often truer to those ideals. Perhaps because it was often designed by architects who had come directly from mainland Europe, and therefore were not influenced by the evolution that Palladianism was undergoing in Britain, or perhaps because Ireland was more provincial and its fashions changed at a slower pace than elsewhere. Whatever the reason, Palladianism still had to be adapted for the wetter more cold weather.

One of the most pioneering Irish architects was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1699–1733), who became one of the leading advocates of Palladianism in Ireland. A cousin of Sir John Vanbrugh, he was originally one of his pupils, but rejecting the baroque, he spent three years studying architecture in France and Italy, before returning home to Ireland. His most important Palladian work is the former Irish Houses of Parliament in Dublin. He was a prolific architect who also designed the south facade of Drumcondra House in 1727 and Cashel Palace in 1731.

One of the most notable examples of Palladianism in Ireland is the magnificent Castletown, near Dublin. Designed by the Italian architect Alessandro Galilei (1691–1737) and said to be the only Palladian house in Ireland to have been built with Palladio's mathematical ratios, it is also one of the two Irish mansions which claim to have inspired the design of the White House in Washington.

Other fine examples include Russborough, designed by Richard Cassels, an architect of German origin, who also designed the Palladian Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, and Florence Court, County Fermanagh. Irish Palladian Country houses often have robust Rococo plaster-work, frequently executed by the Lafranchini brothers, an Irish speciality, which is far more flamboyant than the interiors of their contemporaries in England. So much of Dublin was built in the 18th century that it set a Georgian stamp on the city, to the disgust of Irish nationalists; until recently Dublin was one of the few cities where fine late 18th-century housing could be seen in ruinous condition. Elsewhere in Ireland after 1922, the lead was removed from the roofs of unoccupied palladian houses for its value as scrap. Many roofless palladian houses can still be found in the depopulated Irish countryside.

North American Palladianism

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American Palladianism: The Rotunda at the University of Virginia, designed in the Palladian manner by Thomas Jefferson.

The amateur architect Thomas Jefferson (17431826) once referred to Palladio's "I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura" as his bible. Jefferson acquired an intense appreciation of Palladio's architectural concepts, and his designs for the Jefferson Monticello estate and the University of Virginia were based on drawings from Palladio's book. Realising the powerful political significance pertaining to ancient Roman buildings, Jefferson designed many of his civic buildings in the Palladian style. Monticello (remodelled between 1796 and 1808) is quite clearly based on Palladio's Villa Capra, however, with modifications, a style which is described in America today as Colonial Georgian. Jefferson's Pantheon, or Rotunda, at the University of Virginia is undeniably Palladian in concept and style.

In Virginia and Carolina, the Palladian manner is epitomized in numerous Tidewater plantation houses: Stratford Hall or Westover, or Drayton Hall near Charleston are all classic American colonial examples of a Palladian taste that was transmitted through engravings, for the benefit of masons— and patrons, too—who had no first-hand experience of European building practice. A feature of American Palladianism was the re-emergence of the great portico, which again, as in Italy, fulfilled the need of protection from the sun; the portico in various forms and size became a dominant feature of American colonial architecture. In the north European countries the Portico had become a mere symbol, often closed, or merely hinted at in the design by pilasters, and sometimes in very late examples of English Palladianism adapted to become a porte-cochere; in America, the Palladian portico regained its full glory.

The White House, designed by , who had studied Palladianism in Ireland.
The White House, designed by James Hoban, who had studied Palladianism in Ireland.

Thomas Jefferson must have gained particular pleasure as the second occupant of the White House in Washington, which was doubtless inspired by Irish Palladianism; both Castletown and Richard Cassel's Leinster House in Dublin claim to have inspired the architect James Hoban, who designed the executive mansion, built between 1792 and 1800. Hoban, born in Callan, County Kilkenny, in 1762, studied architecture in Dublin, where Leinster House (built circa 1747) was one of the finest buildings at the time. The Palladianism of the White House is interesting as it is almost an early form of neoclassicism, especially the South facade, which closely resembles James Wyatt's design for Castle Coole of 1790, also in Ireland. Ironically, the North facade lacks one of the floors from Leinster House, while the Southern facade gains a floor extra than Castle Coole, and has an external staircase more in the Palladian manner. Castle Coole is, in the words of the architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops, "A culmination of the Palladian traditions, yet strictly neoclassical in its chaste ornament and noble austerity". The same can be said of many houses in the American Palladian style.

One of the adaptions made to Palladianism in America was that the piano nobile tended to now be placed on the ground floor, rather than above a service floor, as was the tradition in Europe. This service floor, if it existed at all, was now a discreet semi-basement. This negated the need for an ornate external staircase leading to the main entrance as in the more original Palladian designs. This was also to be a feature of the neoclassical style which followed Palladianism.

Decline of Palladianism

By the 1770s, in England, such architects as Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers were in huge popular demand, but they were now drawing on a great variety of classical sources, including ancient Greece, so much so that their forms of architecture were eventually defined as neoclassical rather than Palladian. In Europe, the Palladian revival ended by the end of the 18th century. In North America, Palladianism lingered a little longer; Thomas Jefferson's floorplans and elevations owe a great deal to Palladio's Quattro Libri. The term "Palladian" today is often misused, and tends to describe a building with any classical pretensions.

External links


  • Cropplestone, Trewin (1963). World Architecture. Hamlyn.
  • Dal Lago, Adalbert (1966). Ville Antiche. Milan: Fratelli Fabbri.
  • Halliday, E. E. (1967). Cultural History of England. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Jaskson-Stops, Gervase (1990). The Country House in Perspective. Pavilion Books Ltd.
  • Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Marten Paolo,(1993). Palladio. Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, Koln
  • Watkin, David (1979). English Architecture. London: Thames and



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