If you know an architect, you can count on them being familiar with the concealed Italian gem of a city named Vicenza. Most unassuming, it is overshadowed by Verona to its west, and Bologna to its east. Its UNESCO World Heritage listing can be attributed to the world altering talents of one man – Andrea Palladio (1508-80), the father of the school of architecture that bears his name. His works, based on classical Roman architecture, are the foundation of the urban landscape and the twenty-four UNESCO listed villas in the surrounding area.
It is his buildings that supply the unified magnificence that forms the city today. It isn’t called la città del Palladio (“the city of Palladio”) for no reason.
The tour of Palladio’s significant works starts with his last work, the Olympic Theater (Teatro Olimpico). Begun in 1580, the theater was completed by a fellow architect, Vincenzo Scamozzi after Palladio’s death that year. Constructed exclusively in wood and stucco, it was modeled on theatres of antiquity. The stage features niches, columns, and statues in trompe-l’oeil fashion depicting an idealized city of Thebes. They were designed by Scamozzi for the theater’s first presentation, Oedipus Rex, and have been preserved in homage to Palladio.
Church of Santa Corona
A short distance from Teatro Olimpico is the Church of Santa Corona. Begun in 1261, this Dominican church contains a relic from Christ’s crown of thorns, offered by Louis IX, King of France, to the Bishop of Vicenza, Bartolomeo da Breganze. It is filled with masterpieces of art, including Giovanni Bellini’s Renaissance classic, “The Baptism of Christ” and the “Adoration of the Magi” by Paolo Veronese. Also noteworthy are the “Madonna of the Stars”, by Lorenzo Veneziano and Marcello Fogolino, “Magdalen and Saints” by Bartolomeo Montagna and “Virgin, Child and Saints” by Giambattista Pittoni.
Palazzo Leoni Montanari
Across the street from the Church of Santa Corona is a former palace with a small museum that’s often overlooked. It’s a palatial riot of Baroque, with cherub-cluttered ceilings jumbled like a preschool in heaven. A quick stroll shows off Venetian paintings and a floor of Russian icons.
Piazza dei Signori
From the Church of Santa Corona area, a short walk up Vicenza’s main drag, Corso Andrea Palladio then a brief left down Contrà Santa Barbara, bring you to the Piazza dei Signori. This is Vicenza’s equivalent of Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, and serves the same “drawing room” function observed by Napoleon. In the early 1400’s, the Venetians added columns bearing the Lion of St Mark and the Redeemer. Today, the piazza is dominated by one of Palladio’s signature designs, the imposing Basilica Palladiana. Its 270-foot-tall tower looming overhead, the Basilica’s green copper roof, resembling an upturned boat, overshadows the square. It was young Palladio’s proposal — to redo Vicenza’s run-down Gothic City Hall in a Neo-Greek style. — that established him as Vicenza’s favorite architect. Today, after a recent restoration, it is possible to enjoy cocktails on that roof. What better way to watch day succumb to night as the city below comes to life?
After visiting the highlights of Palladio’s efforts in the city, now it’s time to turn our attention to the other half of what garnered UNESCO’s attention – the villas in the surroundings.
Villa la Rotonda
Villa la Rotonda will be familiar at once to Americans as the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Started by Palladio in 1566, it was finished by his pupil, Scamozzi. Topped with a dome, built on a square plan and with columned entrances on each side, is one of the most famous works by Palladio. It was built to look as if it popped out of the grassy slope. Palladio, who designed several country villas, had a knack for using the natural setting for dramatic effect. The residence is private – still in the hands of the family that commissioned it. A few times each year it opens for viewing. Check with the city’s tourist information center.
Villa Valmarana ai Nani
A short five-minute walk from la Rotonda lies the 17th-century “Villa of the Dwarves”, designed by Palladio. Here Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo painted remarkable frescoes full of spirit and life. The elegant main house, the Palazzina features panoramic views and 18th-century murals by Tiepolo senior. The guest house’s frescos, with their themes of 18th century Veneto life, were done by the son, Giandomenico.
Palladio’s Vicenza Today
It is impossible to overstate Palladio’s influence on Vicenza today. This isn’t a city to be consumed, checked off a list. It is an experience to be savored, to be enjoyed in every detail, to uncover street by street. And it is Palladio’s works that are the basis of the city’s integration of architecture with urban design. But while his architecture is everlasting, his real influence is in creating a sense of place. There is a congruity to the center of the city that wouldn’t exist without running into one of his works with every corner turned.
While visiting his masterpieces is educational, and inspiring, the true joy of Vicenza is in experiencing what the Italians call “il dolce far niente” – the sweet art of nothingness. In Vicenza, as in all of Italy, there is a pace that leaves time for the enjoyment of treasured friends, passionately prepared food, and bountiful drink. There is something enchanting relaxing with a nice bitter based cocktail such as a Negroni, a bowl of warm fried olives, and a backdrop of an architectural masterpiece like the Basilica. Stay there long enough, and the backdrop fades, and the food and conversation move to the front. But the reality that world treasures are always in the landscape, conscious or not, makes this a singular experience you deserve to try for yourself.