Villa Rotunda: Perfect Renaissance Building

An inspiration for the design of the White House in Washington, D.C., and Lord Burlington's villa in Chiswick, the Villa Rotunda is an icon of world architecture.

Andrea Palladio, one of the finest architects of the Renaissance period, designed the Villa Rotunda as a villa suburbana, a retreat for a wealthy patron from the heat and noise of the city. Begun in 1566, and finished after Palladio’s death by his disciple Vincenzo Scamozzi, the Villa Rotunda or Villa Almerico-Capra embodies the most important principles of Renaissance architecture.

The villa is perfectly symmetrical, the facades each endowed with a classical portico approached by a flight of steps. On the main floor of the structure, each of the perimeter rooms is carefully proportioned to complement the overall symmetry of the building. These rooms surround a central, circular room capped by a dome. Palladio worked with room dimensions that are mathematically related one to the other to produce an edifice that meets Renaissance ideas of perfection in form.

Like other classically-inspired buildings of the time, the villa’s parts were generated from a modular system of proportion related to the dimensions of individual columns. The columns in turn are ultimately indebted to the scale of the human form. Harmony and symmetry are twin goals in the Renaissance architect’s effort to create a unity of architecture.

Commodity, Durability and Beauty

Vitruvius, the first century Roman architect, engineer and writer who recorded buildings of antiquity for posterity, was an inspiration for Palladio and his contemporaries. Vitruvius stated that every building had to meet three goals: to be utilitarian (or commodious), well built and beautiful in form.

The Villa Rotunda was designed as a second home away from the city, not as a farm estate. The bottom storey served as a pedestal for the building and would have been used for cooking, storage and cleaning. The piano nobile, or second storey, was intended for habitation by the owner. The upper or third storey contained apartments for servants and storage space for grain.

Steel Eiler Rasmussen, writing about Palladio’s villa design in Experiencing Architecture, notes that the disposition of rooms around a large, airy hall was in keeping with Venetian architecture. Palladio himself, however, stressed the realization of a classical structure based on ancient models, rather than the creation of a utilitarian house.

In his treatise on architecture, Palladio stated, “But the most beautiful and most regular forms, from which the others derive, are the circle and quadrangle; and therefore Vitruvius speaks only of these two…” (Il Quattro Libri, IV, 2). It is the circle, square and rectangle, all related proportionally, that form the genesis of the Villa Rotunda.

Perfect Harmony in Architecture

In De Architectura (The Ten Books on Architecture), Vitruvius maintained that beauty resulted from a beautiful form and the relationships between the parts of a building and the whole. Visitors to the Villa Rotunda will attest to Palladio’s success in achieving this goal. Reflecting on the effect of this careful relation of parts in Palladio’s villas, Rasmussen notes, “You receive an impression of a noble, firmly integrated composition in which each room presents an ideal form within a greater whole.”

Palladio’s architecture has inspired generations of designers, including Le Corbusier. Le Modulor, the system of measurements developed by Le Corbusier for residential design, is a modern-day example of using simple mathematical ratios to produce harmony in a building. The Villa Rotunda remains the perfect 10 and an icon of Renaissance villa architecture.