Reframing the Present: The Renaissance Architecture of Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), as painted by El Greco in 1575. Palladio's writings represent the apogee of Renaissance architectural thought.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), as painted by El Greco in 1575. Palladio’s writings represent the apogee of Renaissance architectural thought.

In 1452, the Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) completed his De re aedificatoria, the first theoretical treatment of architecture since Vitruvius wrote his De architectura in 15 BC. This classical text served as the main inspiration for Alberti’s treatise, which in turn sparked a proliferation of architectural studies over the course of the Renaissance.

The apogee of these studies was Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books on Architecture). In 1570, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) had been active as an architect in the north Italian Veneto for over three decades. It was then that he first published his treatise on architecture. The copy that belongs to the Burns Library is from a later edition of 1581, published in Venice by Bartholomeo Carampello. This volume is tall and wide but relatively thin. Its binding, which is in fair condition, possibly dates from the eighteenth century and combines a leather spine with composition board covers.

Palladio’s treatise built on the theories and practices that had been honed by classical Greeks and Romans. This body of knowledge was preserved only through Vitruvius, the only classical architect whose writings survived into the modern age. More recently, Vitruvius had been revived and championed by architects of the early Italian Renaissance, especially Leon Battista Alberti. This historical understanding helps situate I quattro libri in a discourse with thinkers from both the ancient and the more recent past, and it consequently allows for a better understanding of Palladio’s architectural achievements.

Title page to the fourth book of Palladio's I quattro libri dell’architettura.

Title page to the fourth book of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura, NA 2515 .P25 1581 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Queen Virtue rules at the top, recalling a heroic Roman past.

I quattro libri thus joined a conversation that Renaissance architects had been sharing with the classical past for well over a century. In the dedication, Palladio relates, “I have seen with my own eyes and measured with my own hands the fragments of many ancient buildings [in Rome], which … provide, even as stupendous ruins, clear and powerful proof of the virtù and greatness of the Romans.” This concept of virtù that Palladio employs was, like his architecture, a revival of classical precedent. In this case, Palladio’s reference to the Latin virtus connotes the character traits—such as valor, excellence, and virility—which had been most valued in ancient Roman society.

By favoring a Roman style, Palladio rejected the Gothic architecture that had had a noticeable presence in the Veneto region where he worked. By doing so, he sought to contribute to Italy’s systematic purge of ostensibly foreign and barbarous influences—an effort that extended beyond the arts and into the realm of politics. Given that Palladio’s life coincided with the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and their aftermath, which saw the near complete subjugation of the peninsula by the foreign Habsburg dynasty, this tinge of xenophobia in his writing is perhaps understandable.

Column illustration from I quattro libri

Column illustration from I quattro libri. Palladio made the column his basic design element, using it to establish the proportions of exterior facades and interior rooms.

By couching his theories in the same philosophical musings that had so interested Vitruvius and other Renaissance architects, Palladio associated I quattro libri with the architecture of classical Rome and the early Italian Renaissance. He did not root his proportional guidelines, however, in the same grandiose abstractions that earlier theorists had borrowed from ideals of human anatomy or musical theory. Instead, he made the diameter of a building’s columns the heart of his design schemes. From this single measurement, he extrapolated ratios to govern a structure’s composition. Instead of regarding the column as merely an ornament whose properties derived from a building’s dimensions, as had been common practice throughout the Renaissance, Palladio flipped this formula on its head, making the totality of his structures derive from their columns’ dimensions.

I quattro libri - Villa Almerico Capra

Palladio included his design for the Villa Almerico Capra in I quattro libri. It’s plan hearkened back to classical motifs and rejected Gothic influence.

A strict reading of Palladio’s rules results in column diameter determining not only column height, the spacing of columns, and the size of the structures that the columns support, but also the placing of junctures between internal and external walls, which in turn determines the sizes of internal rooms. Thus by adapting a largely ignored principle from Vitruvius (using only small spaces between external columns) to a Renaissance-era practice of construction (aligning the placing of internal walls with the spacing of external columns), Palladio created an intricate system of relationships that dictated the forms that his buildings could take—all based on the size of a column’s diameter. Moreover, he applied these relationships rigorously. They may be seen, among other projects, in the Palazzo Chiericati (1550) and the villas Cornaro (1553), Badoer (1556), Foscari (1559), Emo (1564), and Almerico Capra (1567.)

Palladio's Villa Almerico Capra.

Palladio’s Villa Almerico Capra (also known as the Villa Rotunda) captures many of the revived classical elements that gave the Renaissance its name.

Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura arguably signaled the apogee of Renaissance architectural writing, the final and most sophisticated publication in a genre introduced by Alberti in the 1450s. As was the case with so many other intellectuals during the Renaissance, Palladio’s ideas did not interact solely with his near contemporaries but also with the thinkers of the classical world. Renaissance humanists like Palladio saw in the classical world a way of reframing their present reality according to a naturalism and rationale that contrasted sharply with the medieval era they desired to oppose. Such was Palladio’s aim in articulating his complex, highly refined style of architecture and basing it, at least in part, on Vitruvian principles.

If you would like to peruse this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or

  • John Sullivan, BC ’15 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books: History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014.

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