Palladio: notes on the mathematics of beauty

Andrea Palladio needs no introduction. He is one of the most famous architects in the world, although in 1500, the year of his birth, perhaps no one would have said so.

The first person to notice his talent as an artist was humanist poet and scholar Gian Giorgio Trissino, who took him under his protection. Trissino also gave him the name by which he became known, Palladio, an allusion to the Greek goddess of wisdom Pallas Athene. Trissino’s influence turned Palladio into a man of science and culture, but the turning point came in Rome, where the Venetian architect went to study the ancient monuments of the Roman Empire and the work of Vitruvius, who was critical in his education.

The result of his studies in different fields is one of the most widely recognised works: “I quattro libri dell’architettura” (The Fours Books of Architecture), published in 1570. Who knows if at that time Palladio realised he was writing a treatise that would have inspired architects and urban planners all over the world. Certainly, his ability to communicate his knowledge gave him wide recognition, in fact, in the same year he became the chief architect of the Serenissima (as it was called the Republic of Venice).

It was in his homeland that Palladio expressed the best of his works. While the Venetian Republic invested in the hinterlands, Palladio was appointed director for the creation of no less than 28 suburban villas, known as Palladian villas of the Veneto, and other four thousand villas built in the Palladian style in the most beautiful landscapes of the Veneto.
Many of these villas have become UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are admired from all over the world. What makes them special is the balance and elegance of the proportions, the pleasant grandeur and careful symmetry, the harmony of the forms and the care for the ornamental details, the external colours and the frescoes that embellish the interiors of the noble villas.

What allowed Palladio to export his style outside his homeland was the wide spread of his plans and designs, which reached England, where they completely changed the way of understanding architecture. His works and books written in the 1570s, where he illustrated architecture with simple, clear lines, showed how the classical style could be replicated in any context. This is why neo-Palladian works can be found in Scotland, Russia, Australia, India and the United States, where the most famous building inspired to the Palladian style is the White House.

What makes Palladio’s architecture so replicable is the application of mathematics to aesthetics.
This is exemplified in the “Villa La Rotonda”, whose proportions create a timeless building that dialogues with the outdoor space, creating an impeccable balance. Palladio’s architecture is based on the balance of the structure, calculated through precise mathematical calculations, that translates into the structures that still enchant us today.
Mathematics as the foundation of proportions and harmony can be found in Palladio as well as in Le Corbusier: it is interesting to analyse two building which, while changing form in accordance with their times, match in volume and balance. This is achieved through a structural system based on mathematical relationships: compared, Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein in Garches have the same spatial composition based on precise geometric principles.