Palladio’s achievement was in being able to consistently find the right balance between the multiple and often conflicting needs of the villa. On the one hand, it must serve as a residence with the typical comforts expected by its patrons; on the other hand, it must incorporate agricultural functions such as barns for animals and storage for grain and equipment. It must express the grandeur of the upper class, but could not be too showy or bombastic, nor too expensive to build; it should be based on the ancient Roman villa, yet there was little knowledge about their form at the time; it must be specific enough to respond to the particularities of each situation, but be derived from general principles that could have wide application.
Just what these principles are have been subject to much debate. In general, Palladio appropriated a limited set of forms that were already in existence (such as the Greek temple front, loggias and porticos, barchessa, colonnades and arcades) and could be combined in a great number of variations while still maintaining a coherent image across the individual villas. While both the villas as built and the way they are presented in the Quattro Libri strongly imply a systematic methodology underlying the designs as a whole, there has been a wide variety of speculation on the exact mechanisms of that method. Harmonic proportions, ideal geometries, virtual movements, and computational algorthims have all been used to “explain” Palladio’s generative strategy.
Whatever the animating force, it usually resulted in the following characteristics:
1. It has a purified cubic form.
The massing of the villa can be easily read from the exterior; that is, the buildings can be viewed conceptually as articulated blocks. For example, the temple front portico is either projected out of or recessed volumetrically into, or is applied as a thin layer upon, the main volume of the building. Also, there is a minimal use of ornamentation on the exterior. Decorations such as stringcourses and mouldings are simplified or even nonexistent, as in the case of Villa Godi. This achieves two things: first, the syntactic manipulations of the architectural elements are presented in great clarity; second, the absence of labor-intensive ornamentation makes it more economical to build. The buildings themselves are overwhelmingly constructed of brick and stucco. This is a significant example of Palladio’s ability to fuse conceptual and practical concerns.
2. It is frontally oriented.
While the overall massing may be volumetric, the villas are meant to be understood from a frontal position. The uniqueness of each villa’s organization is always registered on the front façade, less so on the side and rear elevations. For example, the variations in the division, proportion, and position of the temple front, or the configuration of windows and the relationship of mass to void, are optimized for a stationary, frontally, and centrally positioned viewer. (This is in contrast to Neoclassical buildings, which are generally understood from the oblique, since the front-to-side relationships are important) Likewise, the villas generally have a left-right bilateral symmetry in plan, but have an unequal layering of spaces from front to back.
3. It contains a hierarchal gradient of spaces.
In the main residential building, a large central hall usually serves as the focus of the composition. Major spaces tend to be grouped near the hall and diminish into smaller secondary spaces as one progresses away from the center. This progression is proportionally regulated by the dimensions of the rooms. For example, the width of one room will be the same dimension as the length of the next adjacent room, and so forth. Gasket-like service spaces such as stairwells are inserted between rooms and serve as transitions, and are used to facilitate the proportional gradation of rooms. Hierarchy also governs the other functional spaces. Attic spaces within the residential block were utilized to store grain, while barchesse that flanked the main building and defined an exterior courtyard housed animals and farming implements.
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