Even among Italian cities, Vicenza is special. Not just a handful of spectacular buildings, but a whole town of them, many of them designed by one man: Andrea Palladio. As we walked down the main street – called, naturally, Corso Palladio – past palaces designed by Palladio and his disciples in the 16th century, I started to get a sense of déjà vu.
Lots of the buildings look familiar. In fact, this should not be surprising, because Palladio’s designs have influenced architecture everywhere in the western world. Not just in Italy, but in London, across Europe and even in Washington, DC, you can see buildings with the perfect proportions and classical facades envisaged by Palladio.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The whole of the city centre is a World Heritage Site, recognising the importance of Palladio’s work. The city is regarded as a harmonious whole, incorporating Palladio’s ideas on urban design as well as his buildings. There are twenty-three buildings designed by him in the centre, and many more that were influenced by him. The UNESCO inscription also includes sixteen villas in the surrounding countryside.
We didn’t have time to visit everything. We managed to fit in the Piazza dei Signori, where the wide open space allowed us to marvel at the facades of the Basilica Palladiana and the Loggia del Capitaniato. But mostly we enjoyed just wandering the streets, admiring the buildings and peering down passageways. Then we escaped down a back street, dictionaries at the ready (there is little English spoken here), for a long and leisurely lunch.
The Teatro Olimpico
The Teatro Olimpico, completed from Palladio’s designs after his death, was the highlight of the day. The uninspiring exterior (it was built inside an existing fortress) only serves to heighten the splendour of the inside. I had never seen anything like it: the whole auditorium was designed to resemble a Roman theatre, and inside you will see auditorium style seating and statues everywhere. But the real stroke of genius is the tromp l’oeil stage scenery, with seven passages built into it. Each passage resembles a classical street, cleverly painted to appear to stretch into the distance, allowing actors to emerge from shops and houses and onto the stage.
The Teatro Olimpico is still used for a variety of concerts and musical events.
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There was so much to see that I had to come back another day to see La Rotonda, a little way out of Vicenza. It was worth the wait: La Rotonda (sometimes also known as “Villa Capra”) is one of the most perfect Palladian designs, with four way symmetry and a huge circular dome in the roof. Both inside and out were built in accordance with precise mathematical calculations, and the grounds, with their long lines of statues, are in perfect harmony with the house and the landscape.
Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside the house, so I couldn’t capture the frescoes or the dome, but I made up for it in the grounds. As Palladio himself said, “The site is one of the most pleasant and delightful that can be found.” What more could you ask for?
Visiting Vicenza: A Few Practicalities
- Vicenza is easily accessible by train from Milan, Verona and Venice. However, you may prefer to rent a car if you want to visit the countryside villas as well.
- The interior of La Rotonda is only open on Wednesdays, although the grounds can be visited on other days – check the website for details.
- English is not as widely spoken in Vicenza as in the major Italian cities. However, you will be able to speak English with staff at Tourist Information and in the ticket offices.
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