Academia Chiron
Academia Chiron

Palladio and the Urban Theater

Rehabilitating His Modern Reputation


The documents concerning Palladio’s basilica in Vicenza give no indication that the architect ever thought about an overall arrangement of the building[s] ringing the Piazza dei Signori and the Piazza delle Erbe….[N]either the height of its loggias nor its horizontal articulation is in harmony with the earlier buildings around the basilica.


The building, which is conceived as autonomous, imposes its own esthetic norms on the environment and therefore does not need to be integrated with it.

—Wolfgang Lotz, “Reflections on Palladio as Town Planner,” Studies in Italian Renaissance Architecture, MIT Press, 1977, p. 187


Palladio has been seen even in some traditionalist circles as disinterested in, if not hostile to, the urban environment. This assessment is in fact rooted in the perception and practice of English neo-Palladians, who for example used pedimented fronts on secular urban buildings, something Palladio himself never did; rather, he evinced over the course of his long career a constant, profound, and nuanced approach to context in all of his urban buildings. This drawing documents several of his buildings in Vicenza (clicking on it takes you to the Research page and a larger, complete version of it), and implicitly Vicenza itself, making an argument for reevaluating Palladio as an urbanist, and proposing a “model Vicenza” of the mind with which he operated, one rooted in his understanding of the urban realm as a tragic stage. The architect that emerges from this understanding can serve as a vital model for recovering classicism in the urban realm.


The Palazzo Valmarana is perhaps the architect's most enigmatic façade, but when one actually reads what he said about the patron and their motivtations for building it (For their own glory and the convenience and ornament of their homeland,…) its role as a crtical component of the tragic stage is self-evident; as for its terminal aposeiopesis, that is a clear response to its neighbors and its inevitably oblique vista, which demands a building of emphasis toward the center rather than a reading of ABCBA.


Basilicas must be built on squares, as was the practice with those mentioned above, both of which were on the Roman Forum and oriented toward the warmest region of the sky so that businessmen and litigants could go to them and spend time there comfortably in the winter….Their width must be no less than a third nor more than a half their own length, provided that the nature of the site is not inconvenient and does not force a change in the dimensions of the layout.

—Book III, Chapter XIX On Ancient Basilicas


Modern basilicas differ differ from antique ones in this respect: ancient ones were set at ground level, or as we would say “had their feet firmly on the ground,” while ours stand on vaults in which are arranged shops for the various trades and businesses of the city.

—Book III, Chapter XX On Contemporary Basilicas and the Designs of the one in Vicenza


Palladio's Basilica is one of his most recognizable buildings, and perhaps least understood. These points should be made about its context and conception:

  1. the upper hall straddles, as did its fifteenth century predecessor, the ancient Roman cardo which still passes through the center of the ground floor
  2. the famously flexible arcuated Serliana system (the "Palladian motif") is specifically necessitated by the condition at the southwest corner, where the building approaches as near as possible without touching an existing building, effectively determining the dimension of the Basilica's outer bays
  3. but the arcuated Serliana is also evocative of the image of a triumphal arch, and this makes perfect sense as a response to the building's position on the cardo
  4. Palladio is thus [pace Lotz] a profoundly urban architect, responsive to complex existing conditions, alive to the history of a site, rigorous in his use of the classical language, and alway cognizant of its meaning

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