The Power of Palladio

Let this 16th century architect help you close the deal.

December 1, 2004

The name Palladio may seem obscure to your prospective buyers. After all, he lived more than four centuries ago, and the homes he built were tailored for wealthy Italian nobility. And yet, it's hard to imagine an American house that is not shaped by the Renaissance architect.

Andrea Palladio is to architecture what Julia Child is to cooking. He borrowed ideas from the past, added his own insights, and created a straightforward approach to design that builders anywhere could follow. In addition to designing some of the most beautiful and most livable homes of his time, he wrote down detailed "recipes' for home construction. Palladio's writings were translated into many languages and influenced architects for centuries.

You don't need to be a scholar to talk about Palladio, and your prospective buyers certainly don't want to listen to a lecture. The most important thing to know is that Palladio showed how to apply classical principles to private homes. Because of his work, 17th- and 18th-century homebuilders began imitating ancient buildings like the Roman Parthenon.

In England, a passion for "Palladianism' inspired the kind of elegant country manors you see on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson modeled his Virginia residence, Monticello, after buildings by Palladio. Indeed, some of America's most important buildings, such as the White House and the U.S. Capitol, were influenced by Palladio's ideas.

A dwelling does not need to be palatial in order to be Palladian. The two words aren't related, and Palladio's theories play an important role in the design of all types of buildings, including small houses you might dismiss as ordinary. To see the Renaissance architect's influence in your listings, look for these features:

  • Symmetrical Floor Plans. Like the great builders of ancient Rome, Palladio believed that beauty comes from harmony. Our homes, he wrote, should be proportioned like our bodies, with rooms balanced equally on each side of the entrance hall. You will find this type of symmetry in a Center Hall Colonial and many Georgian and Neoclassical homes.
  • Columns. Since Palladio modeled his work after the great buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, it's not surprising that he made extensive use of columns. An assortment of column styles—Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric—were used to support roofs, frame archways, and divide interior spaces. America's stately Southern mansions—those multi-columned "Gone with the Wind' houses—are grandiose examples of Palladian design. Indeed, Palladio's villas are the inspiration behind the columned porches you see on Greek Revival and Neoclassical houses.
  • Pediments. A pediment is a triangular shape resembling the gable of an ancient Grecian temple. The pediment shape is a hallmark of the Greek Revival style, but you will often see miniature pediments used on a variety of homes. Look for triangular roofs or ledges over doors, windows, and porticos.
  • Porticos. A portico is an entry porch with columns. The White House in Washington, D.C., has a grand, rounded portico, but a portico can be much smaller. Often it's simply a front stoop that is sheltered by a small pediment. Today you will find porticos at the entrance to many houses, from Colonial to Contemporary. In keeping with Palladio's love of balance, the portico is often placed at the center of the facade, with windows distributed equally on each side.
  • Rounded Arches. Wide, rounded arches are as Roman as the Coliseum. Inspired by ancient architecture, Palladio built arched doorways, windows, and wall niches. Contemporary designers are following Palladio's lead when they use arches to soften the passageways between rooms. Arched windows and doorways appear on many houses, but you will especially notice this feature on Spanish and Mediterranean style homes.
  • Palladian Windows. Named after the Renaissance master, a Palladian window combines the pleasing arched shape with a keen sense of symmetry. A tall window rounded at the top is flanked by two smaller rectangles. You'll most often see a Palladian window on the second story, directly above the front entrance. This type of window is characteristic of the Federal style, but has been widely used on other homes from Victorian to modern times. Upscale new homes sometimes have oversized floor-to-ceiling Palladian windows.

Every Home Is a Castle

Palladio's legacy is not limited to decorative flourishes. Architectural historians say that he set the standard for home designers. By drawing upon classical principles, he showed how to build efficient, economical dwellings that were as awe-inspiring as temples and palaces. In other words, Palladio promoted the idea that our homes are our castles. And, that's an idea every prospective homebuyer wants to hear.

Learn More

Bob Vila's Guide to Historic Homes: In Search of Palladio

Follow home repair guru Bob Vila as he traces Palladio's influence on home design. This six-hour program from the A&E Channel is available on video.

The Perfect House: A Journey With Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio

Written by respected architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, this highly readable book describes Palladio's villas and explains why they have inspired architects for centuries.


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