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 partly rooted in the perception and practice of English neo-Palladians, who used figural pedimented fronts on secular urban buildings, something Palladio himself never did--he seems to always have distinguished figural churches from every other building type, which always remained "fabric." Palladio, in fact, 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, 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 (like Serlio's). The architect that emerges from this kind of interpretation can serve as a vital model for recovering classicism in the urban realm, because he was able to reconcile classical articulation with site-responsive form.
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 critical 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 up of emphasis toward the center, rather than an all-at-once 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:
Palazzo Barbarano, now home to the Palladio museum, negotiates a corner site with a unique folded corner articulation, essentially creating a reading of two equivalent but distinct "fronts."
The Loggia del Capitaniato actually creates two unique and distinct fronts, the colossal order addressing the much larger basilica across the way, the Serliana addressing the ancient cardo.