Palladio’s immediate predecessors were Jacopo Sansovino and Michele Sanmicheli, both of whom were active in Venice and the Veneto, though neither were native to the area. Both contributed to elements in the evolution of villa design that was to find its culmination in Palladio’s synthesis. Sansovino’s Villa Garzoni, though a masterpiece of design, was considered too grandiose, too palatial, for its purpose as a country seat.8 Sanmicheli’s villas, such as Villa Soranza, served a better integration of residential and agricultural life. The main building was a simple, symmetrical structure with a cubic form and recessed portico; and the farming functions contained within the outlying arcaded barchesse extended outward. If anything, Sanmicheli’s design tended to the austere.
If Palladio’s synthesis of the needs of the villa was the most successful, it may have been due to his ability to fully absorb both of the major influences in his life. Palladio, born Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, was a stonecarver until plucked from obscurity at the age of thirty by Count Giangiorgio Trissino. Trissino was a prominent Humanist intellectual in Vicenza who was an amateur architect with an interest in theory. It was he who decided to educate Palladio and gave him his name (derived from Greek goddess of wisdom Pallas Athena). Since it was too late for Palladio to attempt a complete classical education, he studied only those subjects related to his discipline: architecture, engineering, ancient topography, and military science.9 "He became, in substance, a part-Humanist in the Trissino circle…an early precursor of the modern expert with a penetrating knowledge of the practice and the literature in one discipline, and a casual acquaintance with some others."10
Palladio’s other influence was the farmer-scholar Alvise Cornaro of Padua. The complete opposite of Trissino, Cornaro’s interests lay with the practical aspects of architecture and shunned Humanist theories. Cornaro’s treatise on architecture was primarily concerned with things like structure, maintenance, economy, and convenience. He even suggested that in the interests of frugality, traditional ornamentation could be eliminated from the façade – with Palladio being “the only architect of the time who accepted the challenge.”11 Cornaro’s treatise probably inspired a good deal of the text of the Quattro Libri which, being very much a pattern book or how-to book, generally avoided any abstruse theorizing.
This is not to say that Palladio’s architecture was
devoid of any theoretical qualities; on the contrary, his architecture – built
and drawn – is proof enough that he was greatly preoccupied with issues
of typology, iconography, and the “plasticity” of classical syntax.
That he reworked his designs for publication even after the buildings were
completed shows that he was interested in a systematic organization of his
principles. Indeed, the persistence of Palladian motifs through history is
due in part to the fact that his architecture is primarily an abstract and
diagrammatic idea – that can be transmitted in graphic form – and
subsequently adapted to many different locations and cultures, and transformed
according to different sets of values. “The success of Palladio’s
book was in fact made possible by the abstractness of his style; a designer
who thinks in terms of proportions in the plane can communicate the essence
of his concepts in line.”12