Design for a votive church, possibly Il Redentore, Venice
Artist: Andrea Palladio, 1577
Architect: Andrea Palladio
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collection
Palladio’s works in Venice belong entirely to the last phase of his career. In the 1550s he had applied for the prestigious position of 'proto' to the Salt Office, that is, the architect responsible for public buildings in the city. However his application was turned down and a more conservative architect appointed. In spite of the fame of his palaces in Vicenza, those he designed for Venice were never built. His monumental scheme for the new Rialto bridge was also unsuccessful and a more practical, single-span design by Antonio Da Ponte was eventually adopted.
It appears that Venice, with its strong cultural identity and enduring architectural traditions, resisted the changes and innovations envisaged in Palladio’s projects. Even with the support of the powerful Marc’Antonio Barbaro, his proposal for a complete rebuilding of the Doge’s Palace after the serious fire of 1577 was rejected and the old Gothic structure, which had a highly symbolic value to Venetians, was restored.
By contrast, Palladio’s groundbreaking church projects in the city were not only mostly executed but proved to be hugely influential in the history of Venetian architecture. He understood the complex requirements of these religious commissions and his buildings responded to these needs by combining the Renaissance ideal of a centralized structure, which also reflected the local tradition of the Greek cross, with the axial plan required by the Christian liturgy. The most revolutionary feature of his churches, however, was the design of the façade, based on a classical temple front and inspired by his own drawings of elevations of Roman temples. The use of the giant order, never before used in a Venetian church, made a huge impression and had a profound impact on the development of religious architecture in the city.
His two major churches in Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore, also superbly exploit their lagoon setting. It would be difficult indeed to imagine that Palladio was not inspired by this magnificent, unique environment and its openness. Unusually for churches in Venice, they can both be seen from a distance, across a stretch of water that reflects and amplifies the whiteness of their simple yet monumental facades in Istrian stone. The example of Mauro Codussi’s San Michele in Isola, built a century earlier, was an obvious precursor.