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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda

The world's most influential building by the world's most influential architect. If not, what? If not, who?

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Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 1

Here it sits, perched on its hilltop. Perhaps "perched" is too flighty a word for a building with such a heavy historical load to carry. The view, in any case, is from the southeast. The building's entrance is on the far side, the northwest. It is said that the architect, Andrea Palladio, rotated the building 45 degrees from cardinal axiality so that the north-facing windows got a bit of sunlight.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 2

The entrance, about a half-hour's walk south of the walled town of Vicenza.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 3

Once inside the gate, the approach is through this incised slot, aligned along the northwest-southeast axis. The approach is dramatic, but has nothing to do with Palladio. It was added, as was the dome, after Palladio's death and was the work of his student and successor, Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 4

Palladio's client was Monsignor Paolo Almerico, a prelate and Refendario apostolico for Pius IV. He was the man, that is, who sorted through the petitions that came to the Vatican. Almerico eventually retired to Vicenza, his home town, and commissioned Palladio to build a place to entertain, be sociable, enjoy the surroundings, and perhaps stroke a substantial ego. Work began in 1565 or a year or two later. Palladio died in 1580, but work continued and except for the dome was finished by 1589, when Almerico died. His son, Virginio (yes, the son of a clergyman) inherited the property and sold it almost immediately, in 1591, to Odorico Capra, from whom it passed to Marius Capra, who ordered the Latin inscription that begins on the architrave here and continues counterclockwise on the architraves on the other three sides.

When Inigo Jones visited about 1600, the dome was still missing. He saw instead a roof of flat planks with a central opening covered with a net "to keep out the flies." The original plan, shown in Palladio's famous Four Books of Architecture had called for a hemispherical dome; the shallower one was cheaper and probably adopted to save money.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 5

The four virtually identical facades lead to short corridors that intersect under the 50-foot high rotunda, so the building, unlike the Pantheon, is cruciform and square on all sides. The main floor has few rooms, only the rotunda, the hallways, and, at corner, one large and one small room. The attic, renovated now to be habitable by the owners, was intended as a storage space; the basement floor had utility rooms.

And the four porticos? One might praise them as a vehicle to allow the owner to look in every direction from a position of security and power. One might also (as Witold Rybczynski has written in The Perfect House) find them "slightly preposterous," "baffling," "mysterious, enigmatic, and a little mysterious." Why not go farther and find them reminiscent of Angkor's Bayon, that building with sinister faces looking in every direction and never blinking? Take your pick; it's a free country.

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Here's the northwest facade, the one you see as you approach the building. The statues on the parapets, here as on the other facades, are by Lorenzo Rubini, and were placed before 1578; those up high on the acroteria came later, in 1606, and were by Giovanni Battista Albanese.

Goethe (yes, that Goethe) came by in September, 1786, and noted that the porticoes and stairs covered more square feet than the house proper. He was impressed but realized that the villa was more a space than a house.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 7

The southeast face. Try telling them apart! Old photographs show that the columns are of plastered brick, not stone. (See those in Camillo Semenzato's The Rotonda of Andrea Palladio, 1968. Despite the building's importance, it has had tough times. Baedeker in 1906 called it "dilapidated." Its restoration began slowly after Andrea di Valmarana bought the building in 1912.)

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 8

The other side of the southeast portico, which gets the most sunshine. An easily overlooked detail is the complicated molding at the top of the columns. It runs around the entire building like a ribbon on a present.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 9

The molding is interrupted by the inscription, clear in the bright sunshine. The complete inscription, spread over the four architraves, reads: Marcus Capra Gabrielis filius Qui aedes has Arctissimo primogeniturae gradui subjecit Una cum omnibus Censibus agris vallibus et collibus Citra via magnam Memoriae perpetuae mandans haec Dum sustinet ac abstinet. It's hard to read on the other facades; the version quoted here comes from Goethe, who on his visit in 1786 found it legible and thought it worth recording. The Latin is tricky, however, and seems to suggest that Marcus is bequeathing the building to his and his descendants' first born along with the fields, valleys and hills on this side of the great road and urging that the property be remembered forever, through thick and thin.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 10

Here's the southwest portico.

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The view has changed over four centuries and originally probably looked into an orchard designed so that the trees, though close to the house, did not block the view.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 12

This entrance seems to invite nature into the house or at least make people in the house feel that nature was very close. It makes you wonder if Frank Lloyd Wright dropped by before designing Fallingwater.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 13

The abutments are cyclopean. Some have compared them to the paws of the Sphinx, who was, after all, not of a kindly disposition.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 14

The third bit of the inscription.

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Under the northeast portico there a window looking through the building, which, from this angle, looks almost small. The dome, like the one in the Pantheon, originally had an oculus or opening at the top. Rain poured through it and then through a grate in the floor below. It fell from the grate into the hole seen here, dry since the oculus was closed.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 16

You'll have to look elsewhere for pictures of the inside of this building, because photography by the unwashed is strictly forbidden. Here's a glimpse, however. The balustrade, surprisingly, is wood and accessible only from a mezzanine between the main floor and the attic. (It's reached by four rightly wound spiral staircases flanking the rotunda and in the spaces between the four corridors.) The murals, added in the 1580s, have had few admirers, except for tourists worshipful of everything attached to a famous monument. Those in the dome are the work of Alessandro Maganza, a Vicenza painter working in the style of Veronese. (The image here is of Public Happiness, dressed in gold damask with a red cloak and with an elbow resting on a lion.) The paintings in the cylinder below are by Louis (or Ludovico) Dorigny, a French painter working in Venice. The lower ones in particular are said to be insensitive to Palladio's esthetic; the figure here is Diana, in white with a purple cloak.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 17

Each of the four big corner rooms has a fireplace, but each fireplace is different. This one, at the southeast corner, is of red Veronese marble. Like the other fireplaces it carries an immense plaster sculpture by Ottaviano Ridolfi. This one shows Minerva and Mars, possibly with Jupiter above. Interesting, that so many pagan figures should appear in the house of a prelate.

How does one clean the plaster if the fireplace starts to smoke? Only the servants know.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 18

Same room, with a plaster soprapporte.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 19

View through to the next corner room, with sunshine pouring in from the door to the southeast portico.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 20

Fireplace in the southwest room.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 21

The view from the southeast window, looking over the same field shown from its far end in the first photograph of this set. Palladio wrote that the house "enjoys the most lovely views on all sides, some screened, others more distant, and others reaching the horizon." Those are the Cilli Berici or Berici Hills in the distance.

Italy: Vicenza: Villa Rotonda picture 22

Goethe wrote that "perhaps architecture has never taken luxury further." Maybe he meant that a great deal of money was spent in the most elegant way on what amounted to a beach house.

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