Palladio is best known for his villas, but he cut his teeth as a palace architect. Dating from throughout his career, most of his palaces were built in Vicenza, where their noble facades still distinguish the city's streets. However, examples do exist elsewhere, such as the Palazzo Antonini in Udine.
In Vicenza, the palaces were built as a means to display the wealth and learning of the city's leading families: sixteenth-century Vicenza aimed to be the new Rome. But the palaces were also the means for one-upmanship. Family politics were not only expressed in public debates and violence on the city's streets. As status symbols, a palace proclaimed a family's position, and its ambitions, to all.
For Palladio, the palaces were extremely important to the establishment of his career. He moved to Vicenza as a stone mason, not an architect. Commissions were hard to come by: the palaces proved his knowledge of craft and design. Many of his later villa commissions were for palace owners, keen to reuse Palladio's talents in their country retreat.
Palaces were the means to experiment: these were laboratories in stone, stucco and brick. Patrons, eager to out-do each other, gladly supported the architect's constant striving for perfection. And each project posed challenges, with different sites, scales and costs. Palladio's solutions were specific to each project, resulting in a wonderful variety of buildings, far richer than often thought. Few Palladian architects experienced the palaces personally, and understood this.
Thus, it is extremely difficult to categorize Palladio's palaces. Nevertheless, certain common features can be found:
- facades expressing the building's internal divisions, with a piano nobile clearly marked
- elaborately sculptured facades, with a considered use of the Orders, statues, and rustication
- carefully planned suites of rooms, often around a courtyard
The palaces became well known through the text and woodcuts of Book II of the I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura. However, as the likes of Inigo Jones soon discovered, these were often incorrect. As costly commissions, many of the palaces were unfinished, something Palladio did not show. Or sometimes Palladio improved their design, especially if dating early on in his career, when he collaborated with others.
Finally, it should be noted that Palladio's most famous building, the Villa Rotonda, could well be thought of as a palace. Certainly Palladio implies this, positioning the Rotonda with the palaces in Book II of I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura, not the villas. Palaces clearly mattered to Palladio, and the Palladian legacy.