Vicenza: Palladian Paradise

Palladio's Olympic Theater.
By Rick Steves

To many architects, Vicenza (vih-CHEHN-zah) is a pilgrimage site. Entire streets look like the back of a nickel. This is the city of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), the 16th-century Renaissance architect who gave us the Palladian style that is so influential in countless British country homes.

Palladio's real name was Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, but his genius was such that one of his patrons — responsible for the architect's liberal arts education — gave him the nickname Palladio, an allusion to Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and the arts.

The town's enthusiasm for its Palladian architecture is due partly to its aggressive subjugation by Venice. While little Vicenza couldn't buck Venetian rule, it could enjoy a bit of freedom in its art. Classicism was Vicenza's revenge against Venetian Gothic and Venice's ubiquitous winged lions. But as grandiose as Vicenza's Palladian facades may feel, there is little marble here. The city lacked the wealth to build with much more than painted wood and plaster.

For the casual visitor, a quick stop in Vicenza (on any day but Monday, when major sights are closed) offers plenty of Palladio — the last great artist of the Renaissance.

Sights in Vicenza

Olympic Theater (Teatro Olimpico)

Palladio's last work is one of his greatest. It was commissioned by the Olympic Academy, a society of Vicenzan scholars and intellectuals (including Palladio), for the purpose of staging performances and intellectual debates. Begun in 1580, shortly before Palladio died, the theater was actually completed by a fellow architect, Scamozzi.

The sight consists of three rooms: The first two rooms were frescoed in 1647 using Greek themes (glass cases display original 1585 oil lamps). The third is the actual theater.

Modeled after the theaters of antiquity, this theater is a wood-and-stucco festival of classical columns, statues, and an oh-wow stage bursting with perspective tricks. Behind the stage, framed by a triumphal arch, are five streets receding at different angles. The streets, depicting an idealized city of Thebes, were created for the gala opening of Oedipus Rex, the first play ever performed in the theater. Although the theater was designed to seat 800 people, more than 2,000 attended on that opening night in 1585. In homage to Palladio, the theater has kept the original stage set.

Sit in the middle to enjoy the perspective. Rather than marble, the theater is all bricks and plaster with reinforcing iron inside. (That's a blessing — if it had been made of precious marble, Napoleon would have carted it all back to Paris.) Perspective tricks were a real turn-on back then. The main street is only 40 feet deep. To accentuate the illusion during the theater's debut, dwarves and smaller-than-normal oil lamps appeared in the fake distance.

Many of the statues in niches on the stage are modeled after the people who funded the work — junior members are portrayed as Roman soldiers of antiquity, senior members as senators. Panels at the top show the labors of Hercules, in keeping with the classical antiquity theme that was all the rage in the 16th century. In contrast to the stunning stage, the audience's wooden benches are simple and crude.

When you step back outside, look up the town's main drag — named after Palladio. It's the same main street you saw in his theater.

Performances: One of the oldest indoor theaters in Europe and considered one of the world's best, the Olympic Theater is still used for performances from May through June (jazz and classical music) and from September through October (Greek tragedies and dramas).

Church of Santa Corona

A block away from the Olympic Theater, this "Church of the Holy Crown" was built in the 13th century to house a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, given to the Bishop of Vicenza by the French King Louis IX. The church has two artistic highlights: the art embellishing its high altar and a fine Bellini painting.

Study the exquisite inlaid marble and mother-of-pearl work decorating the high altar (c. 1670). As Mary appears before Vicenza, you get a realistic peek at the town's skyline (at least as artists in 1670 thought the town had looked in 1426, the year Mary supposedly visited). Walk all around the altar. Find the Last Supper, the dramatic resurrection scene, Christ (in a scene as ugly as Abu Ghraib) being forced to wear the Crown of Thorns, and the King of France giving a thorn to the local bishop (the act this church was built to commemorate). Notice also the Florentine-style inlaid wood in the choir that shows off medieval Vicenza townscapes.

Giovanni Bellini's fine painting, Baptism of Christ, is nearby, on the left (south) side of the nave. A powerful vertical line connects the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, a cup dripping with water, and John the Baptist. Three women — clothed in radiant colors and symbolizing faith, hope, and charity — look on. It's pure Renaissance style as John realistically shifts his weight to one side. The frame (c. 1500) is a festival of classic motifs and proportions; you can insert a €0.50 coin for light.

Archaeological and Natural History Museum

Located next door to the Church of Santa Corona, this museum has a ground floor featuring Roman antiquities (mosaics, statues, and artifacts excavated from Rome's Baths of Caracalla, plus swords) and a barbarian warrior skeleton complete with sword and helmet. Prehistoric scraps are upstairs.

Palazzo Leoni Montanari

Across the street from the Church of Santa Corona is a former palace with a small museum that feels 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.

Corso Andrea Palladio

From the Olympic Theater or Church of Santa Corona, stroll up Vicenza's main drag, Corso Andrea Palladio, and see why they call Vicenza "Venezia on terra firma." A steady string of Renaissance palaces and Palladian architecture is peopled by Vicenzans (considered by their neighbors to be as uppity as most of their colonnades) and punctuated by fancy gelaterie. After a few blocks, turn left, and you'll see the basilica on Piazza dei Signori.

Piazza dei Signori

Vicenza's main square has been the center of town ever since it was the site of the ancient Roman forum. The commanding Basilica Palladiana, with its 270-foot-tall, 13th-century tower, dominates the square. This was not a church, but a meeting place for local big shots. It was young Palladio's proposal — to redo Vicenza's dilapidated Gothic palace of justice in the Neo-Greek style — that established him as Vicenza's favorite architect. The rest of Palladio's career was a one-man construction boom. The basilica hosts frequent special exhibitions that sometimes involve a fee, but you can often pop in for a free look.

To reach the entrance, climb the 15th-century stairway. Halfway up is a gargoyle-like lion's mouth, representing the long arm of the Venetian Republic. (Centuries ago, people used to sneak notes into this mouth, anonymously reporting neighbors suspected of carrying communicable diseases that could bring on the plague.) You enter the huge basilica from the arcaded upper floor. The roof, shaped like an upside-down boat's hull, has a nautical feel, augmented by the porthole windows.

When you're back out on the square, look opposite the basilica to see the brick-columned Loggia del Capitaniato — home of the Venetian governor and one of Palladio's last works — giving you an easy chance to compare early Palladio (the basilica) with late Palladio (the loggia).

Also on Piazza dei Signori are two tall, 15th — century columns topped by Jesus and the winged lion (a symbol of both St. Mark and Venice). When Venice took over Vicenza in the early 1400s, these columns were added — à la St. Mark's Square — to give the city a Venetian feel.

For a pastry stop, try the recommended Sorarù shop on the square.

If you're strolling through town back to the station, finish your walk by continuing along the Corso Palladio. At Piazzale de Gasperi (where you'll find the PAM supermarket — a handy place to grab a picnic for the train ride), dip into the park called Giardino Salvi for one last Palladio-style loggia (closed to visitors but viewable from outside), and then walk five minutes down Viale Roma back to the station. Trains leave about twice an hour for Milan/Verona and Venice (less than an hour away).

Market Days: Vicenza hosts a Tuesday market on Piazza dei Signori, and a larger Thursday market on Piazza dei Signori, Piazza Duomo, Piazza del Castello, and Viale Roma (both usually wind up around 13:00).

Villas on the Outskirts of Vicenza

Vicenza is surrounded by dreamy Venetian villas. As Venice's commercial empire receded in the 1500s (when trade began to pick up along the Atlantic seaboard and dwindle in the Mediterranean), it redirected its economic agenda to terra firma — dominating the Veneto region. During the 16th century, Venice consolidated and incorporated Veneto into its economy. Rather than seagoing trade (Venice's forte), this area was busy with agribusiness — and that meant a need for lavish country villas. The region's many splendid villas were multifunctional. They served as business headquarters, a suitable place to host VIP guests, warehouse facilities, and the family home of the farmer. The standard Palladian villa had three floors: kitchen and cellar in the cool basement; fancy ground-level piano nobile — the "noble floor" — where aristocrats lived and hosted friends among marvelous frescoes; and an upstairs, with rooms for the extended family and for storing goods. The most famous villa here, Villa la Rotonda, is an exception. It was the home not of a wealthy farmer, but of a retired church official.

The following two villas are worth a visit for architecture buffs (even with limited time). Both houses are furnished with period pieces and come with good English descriptions. Pick up the free English brochure on Palladio's villas from the TI if you plan to visit.

Villa la Rotonda

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello was inspired by Palladio's Rotonda (a.k.a. Villa Almerico Capra). Started by Palladio in 1566, it was finished by his pupil, Scamozzi. The white, gently domed building with grand colonnaded entries was built to look as if it popped out of the grassy slope. Palladio, who designed a number of country villas, had a knack for using the natural setting for dramatic effect. This private — but sometimes open for tours — residence is on the edge of Vicenza.

Villa Valmarana ai Nani

The 17th-century "Villa of the Dwarves" is just up the street from Villa la Rotonda. This makes a convenient stop if you want to see a villa interior. The elegant Neoclassical estate features panoramic views and 18th-century murals by Tiepolo.

The villa's name comes from the local legend of an ancient manor house owned by a nobleman whose daughter was born a dwarf. Her father surrounded her with dwarf servants so she wouldn't realize she was small. One day as she was looking out the window, she saw a handsome prince ride by on his horse. Realizing she was a dwarf, she killed herself in anguish. Her servants — so saddened by her death that they turned to stone — now line the wall of the villa like petrified sentries.

The rooms in the main house include frescoes with scenes from the Trojan War, classical myths, and Italian lyrical poems. The frescoes in the guest house (foresteria) are nearly all by Tiepolo's son, Giandomenico, whose themes highlight 18th-century gentrified culture — the idealized tranquility of peasants, the exotic fashion and styles of the Chinese from a Western perspective, and scenes from Carnevale.