Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) has inspired, influenced, transfixed and transfigured Western architecture more than any other architect. One of his villas, the exquisite Villa Cornaro near Padua, is considered one of the ten most important and influential buildings in the world.
I’ve been an admirer of Palladio since my first visit to Venice—and encountering the sight of the shimmering white façade of San Giorgio Maggiore basilica reflected in the waters of the bacino in the late afternoon sun.
Palladio’s transcendent villas and ecclesiastical buildings were constructed during the High Renaissance in his native Veneto. Some were commissioned as summer houses by Venetian nobles, others were contracted as city palazzi by ambitious businessmen. Wealthy landowners in rich agricultural properties around Vicenza and Bassano del Grappa puffed themselves up by siting their villas in positions of honor on their land.
Palladio also designed two of the most ravishing churches in Venice. San Giorgio Maggiore floats in majesty on San Giorgio island. The Redentore on Giudecca was built as an appeasement and offering against the plague that had decimated the Venetian population in 1575.
The balance, harmony, symmetrical proportions and timeless elegance of classical Greek and Roman architecture (his ideals were the Pantheon and the Acropolis, for example) are clearly visible in his most famous villas, La Rotonda, Villa Foscari, Villa Emo, Villa Barbaro, and Villa Cornaro. These villas, in turn influenced Thomas Jefferson and Monticello and the greatest English country houses (Chatsworth, Blenhein Palace).
When in Venice recently, I took a day trip to Piombino Dese to view Villa Cornaro, considered one of Palladio’s masterworks. It is the spring and autumn residence of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Gable of Atlanta, the sixth family to occupy the villa in its 453-year history.
The first surprise at the Villa Cornaro is that it is in a small town, and is visible just beyond a tall brick fence. Most villas (like Villa Rotunda or Villa Barbaro) stand in a groomed and verdant landscape. Villa Cornaro is a townhouse.
As the Gables generously gave a tour, the history of the villa unfolded. It was constructed in 1552-1554 as a retreat for Giorgio Cornaro, a Venetian noble.
It was at the Villa Cornaro that Palladio first introduced the two-story projecting loggia/portico motif, which signaled a new view of residences for function, interaction with the landscape, and for entertaining and pleasure. This dramatic projecting portico motif was a device that later influenced Georgian, Adam, Soane-ian, and Colonial American architecture (and subsequently banks, office buildings, and villas and mansions around the world.)
Villa Cornaro remained in the Cornaro family for more than 253 years. (Among the family pantheon was Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus.) After passing through the hands of three families, the villa was used as a parochial kindergarten in the fifties and sixties, until it was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Rush of Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple restored the villa over two decades.
The very congenial Gables revel in the beauty of their villa. (Their book on their experiences in the Veneto, Palladian Days, was published in 2005 by Knopf.)
Back in Venice, I made my usual pilgrimage to the Cirpriani for lunch (the sight of super-luxe jeweler Attilio Codognato swimming laps in the hotel pool is one of my favorite Venice sights). Taking the Cipriani launch across the bacino is a timeless experience, but the most remarkable part of the trip soon looms into view.
The portico on the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore, unlike the Villa Cornaro, is an illusion, created with a series of graphic pilasters and columns which come into brilliant view as the launch chops across the water, passing the Punta della Dogana and offering views of the Redentore over to the right and the hidden entrance of the Cini Foundation to the left.
Photographs of Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese, and San Giorgio Maggiore church in Venice, were shot in May 2009, by Diane Dorrans Saeks.