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Design History: Palladian Architecture

‘Design History’ is our new blog series – sharing research staff at EWD have undertaken to inform our own projects and for the enjoyment of the world around us. We feel passionately that only by understanding our design heritage, can we successfully design for today. We have condensed our internal reports here and hope you find them enjoyable and informative.


Palladianism is an architectural style named after the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was a Venetian architect whose research in architecture and composition was inspired by the ancient Roman and Greek Architecture and focused on the principles of proportion, symmetry, and the correct use of the Classical orders as shown in the writings of the 1st-century-BC architect and theorist Vitruvius. His influence was magnified by a series of important publications, not least his Four Books of Architecture (I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura), published in 1550, a Bible for all the Architects of the Renaissance. Palladio offered a new solution to the Renaissance problem of placing a classical facade in front of a basilican cross-section. He combined two temple fronts: a tall one consisting of four Corinthian columns on pedestals that support a pediment at the end of the nave, superimposed over a wide one, with smaller Corinthian pilasters, that matches the sloping aisle roofs.

Indigo Jones (1573-1652) and Early Palladianism in England:

The Palladian influence was brought to Jacobean England in the early seventeenth century by the Architect Inigo Jones, Surveyor-General under James I. Jones made several trips to Italy, acquired a copy of the Four Books of Architecture, and collected original drawings by Palladio.

His architecture is combining the elements of Palladio's architecture with others from other Renaissance architects, including Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) and Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), and contemporary French practice, thus creating a style known as Anglo-Palladianism. Jones’s interpretation brought a revolutionary discipline and decorum to English architecture. His use of temple fronts (a pediment supported by columns or pilasters) and the Venetian window became hallmarks of Palladian design. Jones’s influence lasted throughout the 17th century (albeit with different interpretations and manifestations) and underlay the development of a type of house (usually square or rectangular) that was symmetrical and well-proportioned without necessarily using classical features.

Palladian Classicism - Colen Campbell (1676-1729), Richard Boyle - Lord Burlington (1694-1753) and William Kent (1686-1748):

In the early 18th century Palladianism was established as an aesthetic norm in England. A new generation of architects, particularly Colen Campbell and Lord Burlington, encouraged a re-appraisal of Palladio and Jones and set about reviving their architecture. A process aided by the first complete translation of the Four Books of Architecture into English from 1716 and the first volume of Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715), a folio of 100 engravings of contemporary “classical” buildings in Britain (two more volumes followed in 1717 and 1725), the designs of which had enormous influence in England.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), for example, who next to Jones was the most successful English architect of the 17th century, in his blueprint for the Trinity College Library in Cambridge (1676), adapted Palladio's cloister of the Venetian convent of S. Maria della Carità (1560–1570).

Another leading figure of the Palladian Architecture was the Earl of Burlington (Richard Boyle), whose own projects – especially Chiswick House – helped set a trend and made him the foremost patron of the arts during the mid-18th century.

Chiswick House, London

This particularly English Palladianism came to dominate eighteenth-century elite architecture, a trend helped by the aristocratic love of the Classics. It is in the design of the country house estates of a new class of wealthy merchants and landed nobility that Palladian principles are most evident today.

Burlington could not have achieved all he did without his collaboration with the architect and garden designer, William Kent (1686-1748), who is also credited with having invented the English landscape garden. Their architecture was also never purely Palladian, it owed much to other designers, and especially to Inigo Jones. The English garden, French Jardin Anglais, originated as a revolt against the architectural garden, which relied on rectilinear patterns, sculpture, and the unnatural shaping of trees. The revolutionary character of the English garden lay in the fact that, whereas gardens had formerly asserted man’s control over nature, in the new style, man’s work was regarded as most successful when it was indistinguishable from nature’s. In the architectural garden, the eye had been directed along with artificial, linear vistas that implied man’s continued control of the surrounding countryside, but in the English garden a more natural, irregular formality was achieved in landscapes consisting of expanses of grass, clumps of trees, and irregularly shaped bodies of water.

The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Gardens by William Kent


Palladianism is arguably less a style than an operating system. Palladio's architecture books also have the particular quality of demonstrating how the reader can make the principles they expound fruitful in his own projects. Even subconsciously, it guides architects today and it can be seen as an 'approach to architecture and planning', a philosophy of design. Characterised by Classical forms, symmetry, and strict proportion, the exteriors of Palladian buildings were often austere. Inside, however, elaborate decoration, gilding, and ornamentation created an opulent environment.

Main design characteristics of Palladianism can be listed as follows:

  • Highly symmetrical: this means that when a line is drawn down the middle of a plan or an elevation, each side is a mirror image of the other. Symmetry and balance are implemented looking at the Greek and Roman Architecture.

  • Palladian Window or Serliana: It was used in Palladio’s works very often especially early in his career. Some historians claim that this type of window was invented before Palladio, but he was the one to make it really popular. Palladian window consists of three lights: one in the middle, the biggest one, has the semi-circular arch over and two side lights which are separated by pilasters (sometimes little columns are used instead of them). Palladian windows were very often used in Venice that is why they are sometimes called “Venetian windows”.

  • Temple front: often used in private and public buildings. Villa Barbaro, Maser (1557-58) was the first example of a temple front used extensively on a domestic building. This was Palladio's most famous residential design. In the villa known as La Rotonda, the central domed space radiates out to the 4 porticoes and to the elegantly proportioned rooms in the corner. It is a powerful yet simple scheme, one that would be copied many times.

  • Plain exteriors based on rules of proportion.

  • Interiors richly decorated: Doors, windows, and fireplaces were all surrounded by richly decorated classical architraves, columns, and pediments. While many ceilings were coved and coffered, others include pictorial scenes in plaster. Floor and wall treatment: stone walls were again preferred, crowned by correctly proportioned stone cornices. The external appearance of the building was now considered so important that some rooms were unlit rather than spoil a façade with unwanted windows. Walls now had plaster panels and decorative plaques, although many were covered in silk damask. Colour pine panelling was usually painted in brown, grey, olive green or off-white and mouldings were picked out in gilt. Walls were similarly painted in muted tones like white, stone, drab, or olive, as well as in brighter colours like pea green, sky blue, straw, yellow and deep green. Chocolate brown was often used on woodwork. Printed fabrics came in reds, browns, purples and black, and silk and velvets in green, blue, and gold. Imported calicoes (a type of cotton cloth) from India were in strong colours - crimson to shell-pink, deep violet to pale lavender, indigo blue, lemon yellow, and sage green.

  • Soft furnishing, accessories, and ornaments: metal, gilt, wood and glass, chandeliers all in use; candelabras and wall sconces also used; heavily architectural overmantel with broken pediment containing painting; sash with shutters; curtains and upholstery made to match walls.

  • Furniture: heavy carved gilt pieces for staterooms upholstered in damasks and velvets; early Georgian mahogany pieces in smaller rooms; architectural bookcases, bureau, chest of drawers, and drop-leaf dining table appears.


Palladio developed a new building type for the villa architecture: the main building (villa) is framed by two wings or arms (braccia) and the principal axis is emphasized by a portico borrowed from temple architecture. In this way, Palladio appeared to meet congenially the growing need of the Venetian upper class for representative buildings in rural areas. His Villa La Rotonda, begun in 1565, was soon seen as the embodiment of the ideal of architectural perfection.

Villa Almerico Capra, known as La Rotonda, Vicenza, Italy, 1570

The strong influence of Palladio’s ideas can be seen in Inigo Jones’ projects for the Royal family: the Queen’s House at Greenwich, Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Queen’s Chapel in St James, London.

Banqueting House, Whitehall, London by Inigo Jones

Campbell, the first important practitioner of the new and more literal English Palladianism, built Houghton Hallin Norfolk (1722). The house has a rectangular main block which consists of a rustic basement at ground level, with a piano nobile, bedroom floor and attics above. There are also two lower flanking wings joined to the main block by colonnades. To the south of the house there is a detached quadrangular stable block.

The exterior is both grand and restrained, constructed of fine-grained, silver-white stone. In line with Palladian conventions, the interiors are much more colourful, exuberant and opulent than the exteriors.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk, 1722

Houghton Hall interiors

The Palladio's lesson in Jefferson's Architecture had a profound influence on American public architecture. Palladianism was transformed once and for all into a state architecture of monumental proportions. So many buildings in the United States, including iconic constructions like the White House and the Capitol Building, reflect the influence of Palladio (and the later 18th-century Anglo-Palladian movement) that in 2010 the United States Congress passed a concurrent resolution honouring the 500th anniversary of Palladio’s birth, recognizing “his tremendous influence” on American architecture and cultural heritage.

The White House, Washington D.C., USA

Research by Ursula Basta, Architectural Designer.



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