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Mario di Valmarana
Mario di Valmarana, professor of architecture at U.Va. since 1973, just retired from teaching. He started two study-abroad programs for architecture students, which include visiting his family home in Vicenza, Italy.

Valmarana's legacy to the University: Showing architecture students the real Palladio in Italy

By Jane Ford

When he designed his treasured Rotunda and its now famous Lawn, Thomas Jefferson studied the laws of architecture set down by 16th-century Italian architect Andreas Palladio. He did not copy Palladio exactly, but instead used his laws of proportion, light, color, form and movement as design tools in creating the University of Virginia.

In addition to learning about the Academical Village, students in the School of Architecture learn about Palladio first-hand when they visit the school's Venice and Vicenza programs, both designed by architecture professor Mario di Valmarana. The Vicenza program, the University's first official international study program, was started in 1975. The Venice program followed four years later.

Graduate students attending the Venice program study the local architecture. Photos courtesy of the Architecture School

Valmarana, a native of Venice, came to U.Va. 27 years ago for what began as a three-month appointment. He has been here ever since, discovering and sharing Palladio's influence on America and modern architecture.

Although Valmarana retired in January, he will remain with the programs -- linking aspiring architects in Charlottesville to the Palladio of Renaissance Italy -- and will help the school with finding additional support for the programs as well as other future needs.

"Over many years, Mario made an enormous contribution to our program, to our graduates and to our faculty," said Karen Van Lengen, dean of the Architecture School. "Not only did he introduce the great legacy of Italian architecture through the formation of the Veneto programs abroad, he also introduced us to a special life and a legacy going all the way back to Palladio."

Valmarana has generously shared his family home, the Villa Capra-La Rotunda in Vicenza, designed by Palladio and built in 1560, with the students over the years. He also has enthusiastically shared with them his interest in Palladio and his passion for his native region of Italy, known as the Veneto.

Valmarana gives students a tour of the Academical Village.

"Mario's childhood home, La Rotunda, remains one of the icons in the history of Western architecure. Through Mario's memories and personal experiences of this villa and landscape, he inspired his students to strive, as Palladio had once done, for meaning and clarity," Van Lengen said. "He showed us the enormous potential of architecture. Architecture that speaks to its time and place in cultural history."

For 24 years Valmarana has co-taught the programs he calls "extensions of the University in another realm," in which students studying architectural design, history, planning and landscape immerse themselves in the culture, art and architecture of the Veneto. Valmarana says they provide a transformational experience for many of his students. There is no comparable library or slide collection. They absorb "the physical, moral and spiritual experience of living in the city," he said. "The community is such a vital part of the experience."

"The effect of professor Valmarana's method was to ensure that we understood that architecture will not survive in a cultural void. In many ways those lessons about the interdependence of art, culture and architecture remain with me most strongly today," said Jeff Bushman, a Charlottesville architect who was a student in the Venice program in the early 1980s.

Valmarana remembers that in 1975, the Vicenza program's first year, "practically the entire school signed up. Unfortunately, the limit is 27 -- the number of beds in the third-floor dormitory at the Convitto Neri where the students live. "The students are up at 7 a.m. and on the bus by 8 a.m. discovering Palladian villas as well as architecture created by modern Italian architects like Carlo Scarpa, whose work continues the tradition of Italian craftsmanship and attention to detail," Valmarana said. The program continues to be popular with 42 undergraduate students vying for those 27 beds this coming summer.

The Venice program, designed for graduate students, was originally the final semester-long course. Students had their graduation ceremony in Venice instead of walking down the Lawn. It has become a two-month segment of a fall semester design studio. Students live in apartments in various parts of the city, immersed in the culture and everyday life. They study with two U.Va. professors and local art and architecture experts. The students are led on a journey of discovery through conferences, lectures, tours and dinners in the homes of local Venetians. Upon returning to Charlottesville, they complete a design project based on concepts and ideas formulated in Venice.

In 1997, the Venice program was one of three courses nationally to receive an Education Honors award by the American Institute of Architects.

Although Valmarana spent his childhood summers at La Rotunda, it was only when he came to the University of Virginia and saw the Palladian influence in America that he began to view the teachings of Palladio with a different eye. Educated as a modernist at the Dott Architecture Graduate School in Venice and at Columbia University, Valmarana discovered that modernism uses hidden laws of proportion, light, color, form and movement set down by Palladio and the great masters of the past.

A leader in architectural preservation, Valmarana directed the preservation program in the School of Architecture from its inception in 1983 until 1994. In 1978, he and students worked to stabilize the ruins of the Jefferson-designed estate of Gov. James Barbour in Barboursville, Va., which burned Christmas Eve 1884. Other conservation efforts include Bremo in Fluvanna County and urban conservation and preservation of the town of Gloucester, Va.

He says he will continue to study and preserve La Rotunda, his family's home for more than two centuries. Even though he has been surrounded by the work of Palladio since childhood, Valmarana continues to see them with a fresh eye -- "Every time you look, you discover something new."


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