Trips to Famous Buildings – Palladio’s La Rotunda


Arguably the most famous of all of Palladio’s villas, the domed villa built in the town of Vicenza, Italy is one of the most admired, copied, and studied buildings in all of architecture. It is so famous that it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The timeline of the villa’s construction is somewhat unclear as records don’t survive today, but it is generally attributed to around the 1560s. Palladio’s masterpiece was not finished in his lifetime and work on the villa went on long after Palladio’s death in 1580. The rooms in the attic floor were not built out until 1725-40 while the fresco’s below the dome’s balustrade weren’t undertaken until 1680 decorated by Ludovico Doriginy over a period of 7 years. The villa’s owners changed over time as well. The villa was originally commissioned by Count Paolo Almerico, but he was forced to sell it due to bankruptcy. In 1591 Count Capra purchased the villa and had a dedication plaque installed over the North Portico with his name Marvis Capra Gabrielis F added to reflect his new ownership of the building. Today the villa is open to the public as a museum. Here is a link to the museum’s website if you plan on seeing it in person.

Using Palladio’s drawings from his 4 books of Architecture, I recreated the villa in my computer. The task involved first modeling the different orders of columns with their respective entablatures precisely and then laying them out to form the 4 porches. Palladio specified a double height (2 x 9′)= 18′ Ionic order for the portico using Eustyle intercolumniation (which works out to 5 dentals between each column). The Eustyle spacing creates a separation of 2.25 diameters between the Ionic columns with a slightly larger 3 diameter spacing for the 2 center columns, giving you a 6′ entry door (2′ dia x 3dia = 6′) and hallway into the dome room from each portico.

Plans and Section taken from Palladio's 4 books of architecture
Plans and Section taken from Palladio’s 4 books of architecture

The building itself is a perfect square 60′ on each side with 4 porticoes and a dome both 30′ in diameter (exactly half the width of the building). The ground floor plan is completely symmetrical with 4 larger rooms on the North & South sides and 4 smaller rooms facing East/West along with the 4 central halls leading to the rotunda. There are also 4 cramped stairwells accessing the upper floor. There are a couple of interesting exceptions however to this plan’s extreme symmetry. The east elevation departs from the other sides as it has 4 windows in a half story at the height of the ionic capitals. You can see these here on this section.

Section detailing ceiling heights and interior finishes
Section detailing ceiling heights and interior finishes

What the purpose of this half floor was we can only speculate, perhaps serving as bedrooms that would get first light with the rising sun. The number of fireplaces is also noteworthy as they are decidedly unsymmetrical. There are a total of 5 chimneys protruding from the roof, 2 on the North side, 2 on the South and one lone fireplace on the west elevation. The North/South fireplaces align perfectly with the large 4 rooms on the first floor (each fireplace is placed between the 2 windows on the long side of each room. The odd 5th fireplace doesn’t appear on Palladio’s drawings and must have been a change/addition or serviced the attic story. There were several change orders made to the design as it went from drawing to completed building. Palladio’s drawings in his books show a spherical dome, while what was built was less steep and more stepped, perhaps to save money or ease construction. Dome construction was a uncertain and risky undertaking in the Renaissance and it is likely that the villa’s builders probably erred on the side of caution to avoid potential collapse.

To get a 3D view of the villa and better understand my descriptions, download this virtual model done in Sketchup of La Rotunda. It is extremely well done and quite accurate, created by Enrico D. Sketchup Model

Also included is an image gallery of photos taken inside and outside the villa.

Image Gallery

As a side project, I decided to gut Palladio’s villa and try to carve out a more modern floor plan out of the existing shell of the building, preserving the exterior walls, windows and doors and porticoes. My digital version of the villa with plans and renderings will be featured in a later post.

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