Villa Foscari, Malcontenta, Italy
RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Design for Mereworth Castle, Kent
RIBA Library Drawings Collection
The portico is perhaps the most obvious and distinctive feature to look for in a Palladian villa. Before Palladio, temple fronts had only been used on religious buildings. However, after extensive studies of ancient Roman architecture, Palladio had the confidence to apply the type to domestic architecture.
A portico is composed of a roofed area, open or partly enclosed, which forms the entrance to a building, often with detached or attached columns and a triangular pediment above. It is called ‘prostyle’ if it projects from the building, ‘in antis’ if it recedes into the building behind.
The Italian example shown here is Palladio’s Villa Foscari in Malcontenta, built before 1560. The projecting portico is extremely grand and imposing, raised high above the basement storey and reached by stairways on either side. It is a hexastyle or six-columned portico, which proved to be one of the most popular portico types, the other being the tetrastyle or four-columned portico.
The first portico in British domestic architecture was built by John Webb at the Vyne, Hampshire, where he added it on to a sixteenth-century house in 1654. Webb was a pupil and later colleague of Inigo Jones, and he went on to inherit his collection of drawings by Palladio, so he would have been familiar with his designs.
The Neo-Palladians used porticos far more than the seventeenth-century Palladians. For example, Colen Campbell fully embraced the idea of the temple front at Mereworth in Kent, designing a portico for each of the four fronts. Campbell used Palladio’s Villa Rotonda as his main source for the house. Thus, Mereworth has six-columned porticos, of the Ionic Order, just like the Villa Rotonda. Palladio's imposing porticos were transported to Britain; the effect though, in the cooler light, was much less dramatic.