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la rotonda

Architect: Andrea Palladio

Date: 1567

Location: Vicenza, Veneto, Italy

Style: High Renaissance

brief summary

Villa Almerico Capra Valmarana, most commonly known as La Rotonda or Villa Almerico Capra, was built in the late 16th century during the end of the Renaissance. Designed by Andrea Palladio, this is his most regarded villa, which is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as are his remaining ones in the Vincenza area, in Italy. La Rotonda, along with the other architectural feats of Palladio, are greatly significant to the development of architecture in the Western world.

general description

Villa Almerico Capra, or La Rotonda (as its most commonly known as) is considered to be Palladio’s masterpiece and is located in the suburbs of Vicenza (northern Italy). La Rotonda is set apart from the other of Palladio’s villas because of its unique and innovative design, which adopts a centralized plan. Also known as Villa Capra, the villa’s correct name is Villa Almerico Capra Valmarana, named after the Capra brothers who completed it from 1592 onwards.

La Rotonda is considered to be the best example of all of Palladio’s Villas, “the Palladian Villa par excellence’’ as it is generally regarded. Overall, there are 19 surviving Palladian Villas: all of them located in the Veneto area, surrounding the Vicenza area are all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which La Rotonda is the most significant. The Villa is one of the most recognizable buildings of the Renaissance, and is widely considered as a rare architectural masterpiece of its time. It is further regarded as Palladio’s most significant legacies to the world. In general, Palladio’s Architecture is thought to be of greater influence to the Western world than all of the other Renaissance architects combined. 

Detail of one of the sides (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Quinok)

Commissioned by a retired priest, Paolo Almerico, who decided to return to Vicenza after spending his career in the Vatican Court. After having sold his palazzo in town, and wanting to be immersed in the countryside, in nature. The ecclesiastical/spiritual views of Almerico deeply allowed Palladio to adopt a new and innovative perspective for the Villa. Instead of accommodating the usual agricultural purposes as the other villas, this villa would be designed for exclusive leisurely purposes, which led Palladio to classify it rather as a Palazzo.

The renaissance is widely considered to be ‘the most creative period in architecture’s history’, beginning with the innovations of Brunelleschi, all the way to Bramante, Alberti, Michelangelo and Palladio himself. The most transversal characteristic of Renaissance architecture is defined by the influence of Classicism, in an era of rediscovery of Ancient Antiquity remains in Italy. In the late Renaissance, both Michelangelo, Giulio Romano and Palladio paved the way to a new style of architecture, which would later evolve to Mannerism. Some examples include the Villa Lante al Gianicolo (1520-1521) by Romano, in Rome, La Sagrestia Nuova (1520-1524; 1530-1534; finished by Vasari and Ammannati in 1555) by Michelangelo, in the Medici Chapel of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, in Florence, and Villa Piovene (1539) by Palladio, in Vicenza. La Rotonda itself, is then a testament of a time of transition in the history of architecture.

Villa Lante al Gianicolo (1520-1521) by Romano, in Rome (CC BY-SA 3.0, Tomisti)

Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, La Sagrestia Nuova (1520-1524; 1530-1534; finished by Vasari and Ammannati in 1555) by Michelangelo, in the Medici Chapel of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, in Florence

Villa Piovene (1539) by Palladio, in Vicenza (CC BY-SA 3.0, Hans A. Rosbach, Marcok)

The construction began in 1567, however, neither Palladio nor the owner saw the end result, as a second architect, after the death of Palladio (1580) was assigned to assist its completion by the new owners. The last owner of the villa was Mario di Valmarana, a former professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, who wished to have it preserved for the future.

aesthetic/architectural analysis

The Villas were ‘country houses’ and retreats, created by Palladio for wealthy Venetian merchants or bankers, who wanted to escape the busy city life. The typology responded to both agricultural needs of production and to social needs, acting as a luxury statement. Palladio created an archetype that could be adapted to each specific site and need, classicizing the rural architecture of the time. The differences between them emerge as variations of the standardized type. All of the 19 surviving Palladian Villas are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Villa Barbaro (1554 – 1560) (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Hans A. Rosbach)

Villa Foscari (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Hans A. Rosbach)

La Rotonda is located in Monte Berico, a hill that opens up in all directions, with Vicenza on the horizon, at a distance. This landscape is believed to have been ‘love at first sight’ for Palladio, having inspired him to create it as a stage from which to appreciate the spectacle of nature. The villa is placed on top of the hill on a trapezoidal platform, allowing for scenic encounters. The villa and the hill become a sort of stage from which to appreciate the landscape. Another notorious feature, is that due to its repeating facade design, the villa can always be seen from a favourable angle, as one walks around it and interacts with both the setting and the architecture. 

One of the facades, from the garden (CC BY-SA 2.5, by Stefan Bauer)

Landscape and Setting of the Villa (CC BY-SA 4.0, Zairon)

Architecturally the structure is composed of various parts. The floorplan is centralized and symmetrical, clearly denoting one central area (centralized circular hall), around which smaller rooms develop, all contained within a square floor plan (has a dimension side of 11.80 meters). Its cube-like structure has four equal facades facing the four directions, defining four identical wings with individual porticos; each portico projects and a pediment adorned with sculptures of ancient goddesses; each is composed of six ionic columns. The porticoes open up to a small narrow corridor that leads to the centralized circular space. The central space possesses a large dome (a symbol of grandeur and monumentality), surrounded by a balcony. The Dome was used for monumentality and to create feelings of grandeur; the name of the villa is derived from the dome and from the central space is denoted. The internal spaces are organized in two floors plus a basement. The main floor is where most of the social functions occur, distributed by the central space and the numerous secondary rooms. This central space distributes to all the other adjacent spaces that also connect amongst themselves through an outward peripheral circulation. As the central space is also round, Palladio creates the intersection of the square with the circle, creating metaphorical and metaphysical associations.  The interiors possess various frescoes in the main areas designed by the painters Alessandro and Giovanni Battista Maganza and Anselmo Canera; although Palladio didn’t approve of the designs and preferred the spaces to be left unpainted, the designs were developed according to the wishes of the owner. The materials are mostly stucco covered brick and stone (used for fine details: such as bases and capitals of columns and frames of windows).

Plan of La Rotonda in “I Quattri Libri” (1570)

Section of La Rotonda in “I Quattri Libri” (1570)

Interior Room (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Dogears)

Interior Frescos, Dome (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Hans A. Rosbach)

La Rotonda is mostly uniform and proportional; its proportions were designed and calculated according to the principles defined by Palladio which create an integrated creation between all parts. Palladio followed a system of proportions derived from the classical approach, which was inspired by ratios as defined by Alberti and Vitruvius. The underlying harmony principle was in fact present in many different levels including harmony between all dimensions, harmony between forms, and harmony between architecture and landscape.

Portrait of Vitruvius (1823 or 1847) by Jacopo Bernardi

Portrait of Leon Battista Alberti (18th century)

La Rotonda has various unique characteristics: the cube structure is maybe the most notorious of all. The new concept of the villa as a ‘detached’ entity, which is free-standing in the landscape, is another significant innovation. In order to optimize sunlight in the interiors, the form is rotated 45 degrees from each cardinal point, greatly increasing sun exposure in its interiors. The most innovative approach is the idea that the villa acts as a monument, imposing its presence and commemorating an unknown event. The combination of all elements was new specially for domestic architecture; no previous Villa uses the dome, or the other dramatic elements such as the four porticoes and respective staircases.

3D model (view from above)

3D model

The villa was greatly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, which is the most notorious centralized plan in history. Naturally, it is also greatly inspired by other architectural elements that use centralized plans, such as can be found in the church Todi (Madonna della Consolazione) or in Montepulciano (Madonna di San Biagio), and by sacred spaces, such as the interiors of these churches. In fact, the central plan refers to numerous references including Alberti, Bramante, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo who all had preference for this approach, mostly due to neo-platonic associations. Palladio may have also been inspired by the Tempietto by Bramante, which he is known to have studied on numerous occasions, including it in his architecture treatise and considering it a masterpiece. Other references can be made to the mausoleum of Romulus, and the temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli (featured in a drawing made by Palladio, that predates the design of La Rotonda).

Pantheon (113–125 AD) in Rome

Montepulciano (Madonna di San Biagio) CC BY-SA 3.0, by Josep Renalias

Tempietto (1502-1509) by Bramante, in Rome

Mausoleum of Romulus Elevation

Temple of Hercules Victor, in Tivoli

Palladio
By J.S.. Ackerman (1996)

History of Modern Architecture
By L. Benevolo (1977)

The Four Books of Architecture
By A. Palladio (1965)

The Villas of Palladio
By K. Williams and G. Giaconi (2003)

Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism
By R. Wittkower  (1971)

Palladio
By G. Smienk and J. Niemeijer (2011)

The Palladio Guide
By C. Constant (1993)

Italian Renaissance Architecture
By Andrea Palladio (2018)

Italian Renaissance Architecture
By Marco Bussagli (2012)

De Architectura
By Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (2008)

Classical Architecture: A Complete Handbook
By Robert Adam (1990)

Renaissance Thought
By Robert D. Black (2001)

reference images

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