Andrea Palladio, “the architect of architects”, grew up in a town in the grip of a building boom.
© English Heritage Photo Library
The year after he was born in Padua in 1508 (with the given name of Andrea di Pietro della Gondola), Padua was invaded by Germans and then sacked by Venetians.
Afterwards, a huge construction programme increased the number of buildings by almost half and replaced wooden ones with stone. The young man would have seen masons, architects, sculptors and labourers toiling all around him.
At 13, like Michelangelo, he was apprenticed to a stone-cutter. But at 16 he moved to Venice, where he later adopted the name Andrea Palladio. His developing interest was in the rhythms, forms and symmetry of ancient Rome.
His own buildings made these even more formulaic and regular, with elegant façades in which columns, well-proportioned openings for light and rooms of clear geometric forms create order and wonder, matched by the grace, height and proportion of their interior spaces.
Palladio wrote and illustrated four books on architecture - the Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura - to explain these principles. His drawings were so fine that they worked as detailed plans and elevations for later architects.
During his busy career, Palladio designed churches, monasteries, basilicas and villas in Vicenza and also Venice, many of which, robustly constructed, stand today.
In Venice, the stunning Il Redentore church, and San Giorgio Maggiore, are his. The beauty and clarity of his drawings, as well as the power of his buildings, won many fans. Inigo Jones, architect of the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, and the Queen’s House at Greenwich, owned and used his books.
And then came the English
In England in the 1720s, Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, amateur architect and owner of 17th century Chiswick House, decided to make a Roman-style addition to the existing mansion.
He drew extensively on the work of Palladio, both from drawings collected on his own Italian tours and from the Quattro Libri, to create the symmetrical jewel that stands today.
The addition, now called Chiswick House, did not have its own kitchens but was used as a stunning entertaining space for the main house (which no longer stands). The relatively small building holds light-drenched spaces that soar majestically, as well as more intimate rooms with sumptuous carved and moulded detail on walls and ceilings.
The Blue Velvet Room’s carving, gilding and painting is astonishing. Many details at Chiswick House can be traced, via Palladio, back to Rome.
Of marble halls
Smaller and more intimate than Chiswick House is the home designed for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, along the Thames at Twickenham in 1724. Beautiful Henrietta was George II’s mistress when he was Prince of Wales.
Five years later, when the Prince settled money on her, the basic design of Marble Hill House was done by Colen Campbell, working for “gentleman-architect” Lord Herbert - and built in just five years. Many elements are directly drawn from Palladio.
The poet Alexander Pope, who designed the gardens for his friend Lady Howard, occasionally dined in the wonderful entrance hall with its four central pillars. The “single cube” room upstairs, at the top of a superb mahogany staircase, is based on the famous double-cube room at Wilton House in Wiltshire.
Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 31 January until 13 April, with many drawings from the unparalleled RIBA collection, models and contemporary paintings. For more information, visit www.royalacademy.org.uk.
English Heritage’s Chiswick House and Marble Hill House are both open to the public. For details, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.