For me, Vicenza is synonymous with Palladio.

Way back when, in architecture school, we studied the history of Western architecture from antiquity and the middle ages through the Renaissance all the way to the 20th century. One of the giants of this history was Andrea Palladio, who lived from 1508 – 1580. He was brilliant. He studied the buildings of Rome and Greece first hand (which was something new in this period). And despite his modest origins, he must have been spectacularly talented in attracting and pleasing powerful clients throughout the Veneto.

Palladio’s sober and rigorous development of ancient architectural forms for “modern” palazzi, churches and public buildings resonated with many generations of architects and patrons all the way to the 20th century. Palladio’s designs deeply inspired French, German and especially English architects in the 17th and 18th centuries. You can see Palladio’s influence in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, and in much of neo-classical Washington, D.C.

We’ve been fortunate to visit some of his churches in Venice (solidly composed on the outside, quite severe on the inside). And a couple villas near Venice on the mainland (much more relaxed and sensuous). But here is Vicenza, which hosts 23 buildings designed by Palladio. Many of which are right in the historical center of the city.

Our first stop was a place I’ve always wanted to visit: The Teatro Olimpico.

It is one of the artistic wonders of Vicenza. During the Renaissance, in fact, a theatre was not a building in itself, as it would later become, but a temporary arrangement of an outside space or an existing building; in Vicenza, these spaces were courtyards of palaces or the hall of the Palazzo della Ragione.

In 1580, at the age of 72, Palladio was commissioned to design a permanent theatre by the Accademia Olimpica, the cultural group he belonged to himself. The design is clearly inspired by the Roman theatres, as described by Vitruvius: an elliptical terraced auditorium, framed by a colonnade, with a frieze topped by statues. In front of it is the rectangular stage and a majestic proscenium with two orders of architecture, opened by three arcades and divided by half-columns inside which we find aedicules and niches with statues and panels with bas-reliefs. (source)

Another prominent architect of the era, Vincenzo Scamozzi, designed the remarkable stage sets. He set up forced-perspective “streets” that radiate from the stage. Wherever you sit in the theater, one of these city-scapes appears to extend behind the front wall, seeming much more distantly than the shallow back stage. This combination of indoor Roman theater and delightfully tricky stage sets were so successful that they haven’t been changed since their creation.

The theater is still used today. However, only in the spring and fall. There is no heating or cooling system because of the fragility of the wooden constructions.

The theater space is beautiful: the semi-circle of the audience galleries, the faux sunset sky, the ranks of sculptures of Verona big-wigs around the curve (Palladio included), and the magical 500-year-old wooden stage city scape. We sat there for quite a while.

But we wanted to stroll through the historic center of the city. The tourist office at the Teatro Olimpico provided a map with a Palladio-themed walking route. Many of the buildings on the route were palaces of important patrons. Their serious classical details stand out amid their medieval and obviously Venetian neighbors (see the pointed and scalloped arches).

As we strolled, I had another destination in mind, one of Palladio’s most famous public buildings, what is now called the Palladian Basilica. To my eye, it’s a regal diaphanous wall; like a storehouse of the Palladian openings — central arch flanked by two rectangular openings —  that would spread all over Europe and America in the following centuries.

The Palladian Basilica faces onto the Piazza dei Signori. Its name is linked to Andrea Palladio, who redesigned it, adding the famous loggias with three-part openings in white marble to the existing Gothic building. The building on which Palladio worked was the Palazzo della Ragione, built in Gothic style in the mid-fifteenth century. The upper floor is entirely taken up by an enormous hall with no intermediate supports, where the Council of the Four Hundred met. Palladio won the commission following a competition, and he worked on it for the rest of his life. It was completed posthumously in 1614. The reconstructed building was called a basilica by Palladio himself, who had been inspired by the model of the Roman basilica for civic use. (source)

We emerged into the Piazza dei Signori — which was filled with market stalls which obscured the first floors of all the buildings, including the Palladian Basilica. Like in Verona, the market was a mixture of local produce vendors, clothing sellers, and tourist stands.

We were able to visit the upper level of the loggia, and the great hall of the basilica.

We took a break for lunch at a modern open-air restaurant just off the piazza; details follow.

Fortunately for us, the market stalls were closing up as we ate lunch. They liberated the views and space of the piazza.

(By the way, isn’t it cool how the mobile market stalls automatically compact themselves into little vans?)

Now we could look around. In addition to the Palladian Basilica, we found the Loggia del Capitanio, another Palladian design heavily inspired by the ancient architecture of Rome.

Two statues atop grand columns: one from 1464 with the totem of the Venetian Republic, the winged lion of St. Mark; the other from 1640 with a statue of Christ the Redeemer to honor Vicenza.

Restaurant Julien

We’d arrived in Vicenza late in a Monday afternoon and just as the sky opened up. Most restaurants are closed on Mondays. But, fortunately, the woman at the front desk of our little hotel made a reservation for us at a restaurant right across the street. We weren’t particular about this night’s restaurant, as long as it wasn’t a long walk away in the rain. By the time we headed out for dinner, the rain had let up and the air was comfortably cool. We chose a table outside under the canopy in the nice night air. We discovered that the menu was full of international influences, not just standard pasta and meat dishes. We expected much less since this was a last minute option whose main attribute was proximity. Mike ask as we were eating our main  courses, “How many days are we staying here? I want to come back!” Alas, just this evening. So we made sure to order desserts too. 

Garibaldi Café

Just wanted a simple salad lunch in an outdoor cafe. We expected standard tourist-district options. The morning movable market in the main square meant there weren’t many cafes around. We stopped in a modern, rather elegant open air restaurant right next to the Loggia del Capitanio. The menu ranged from snacks to full Italian courses. We selected simple relatively options: green salad, focaccia with cheese and ham, tuna tartare, and less healthily and less Italian, frites. To our surprise, elegant delicious plates arrived. We even coveted the colorful Murano water glasses; we made note of them for later shipping in Murano. So far, it’s been hard to have a mediocre meal!

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