Palladio: Teatro Olimpico and Palazzo Chiericati

Teatro Olimpico Vicenza
photo: dvdbramhall

Teatro Olimpico

Teatro Olimpico Entrance Vicenza
photo: Neil

Teatro Olimpico courtyard

Teatro Olimpico courtyard Vicenza
photo: Bradley Griffin

As we enter the Teatro Olimpico through the courtyard and head into the auditorium via the first hall, we stand in the oldest and still preserved covered theatre of Europe. It is made after a design of Palladio from 1579. His student Scamozzi completed it after Palladio’s death. Fortunately, that was in time for the planned opening ceremony on March 3rd 1585 of a piece by the Greek Sophocles, titled: ‘Oedipus Rex.’ Palladio based the design of his theatre on the go-to book, On architecture, by Roman architect Vitruvius from the 1st century BC. Vitruvius advises to design a good theatre as follows:

The layout of the theatre itself must be designed in the following way. The compass is placed and a circle is drawn in the centre of a place that is as large as the circumference of the lower-most part. In that circle, four equally-sized triangles are drawn that touch the circumference in equal distances. (This is what astrologists use in their figure of the twelve zodiacs for making calculations based on the musical harmony of starts). Of these triangles, one take the side closest to the theatre wall; the line with which it cuts off a circle segment determines the front of the theatre building. Parallel to this, a line is drawn through the centre that separates the stage from the orchestra.’ Cited and translated from Vitruvius, Handboek voor bouwkunde, Athenaeum -Polak &Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1997, p. 150.

Later studies by archeologists uncovered that Palladio wrongly interpreted the texts of Vitruvius about the theatre (click here for the layout of the Teatro Olimpico and a cross-section). The decor pieces were not supposed to be at the back of the stage (proscenium), but next to it. So in this regard, the Olimpico is not fully classic. Still, this theatre was not based on Vitruvius’ book alone, but also on the classic ruins in Verona, Rome, but especially the Grega theatre (Berga) in Vicenza that Palladio studied. The skene, as in, the space directly behind the stage that served as a decor, is constructed out of wood and plaster.

Teatro Olimpico skene      Engraving skene      Isometric view of Teatro Olimpico

Teatro Olimpico skene Vicenza
photos: Bradley Griffin and Dider Descouens

Skene street perspective       Zoom in      Cavea

Palladio’s design of the skene is a decor that due to its clever use of perspective creates a lot of depth and variation. If we sit in the theatre and look at the stage with the skene, I will use some A3-papers to demonstrate how Palladio placed the decor in such a limited amount of space, how the sky is attached and the location of the stairs that allowed the actors to reach the stage.

Teatro Olimpico Skene street perspective Vicenza
photos: Bradley Griffin and zoom: ZioWoody


Teatro Olimpico view on Palazzo Chiericati Vicenza
photo: Bradley Griffin

Teatro Olimpico view on Palazzo Chiericati

As we walk out of the Teatro Olimpico, we can already see the Palazzo Chiericati.

The Palazzo Chiericati

 Palazzo Chiericati Vicenza
photo: Dider Descouens

Girolamo Chiericati commissioned Palladio to construct a beautiful palace. To do this, Chiericati first had to apply for a permit in which he wrote the following (a liberal translation):

‘I was advised by architects and many upstanding citizens of our city to erect a portico along the full length of the facade at the square, the Isolate. For the comfort of my own family, but equally for the comfort and beauty of our city. I have pondered on this, indeed in light of the extra costs associated with this type of portico. Nevertheless, given the amazing comfort and the amazing honor bestowed on me and the public it would be a rewarding endeavour for me if permission is granted [for construction] from this beautiful city.’

Palazzo Chiericati portico Vicenza


Palladio used a typical Venetian palazzo, with a trichotomy in the facade as a starting point with the layout rotated 180 degrees. The central part is slightly stepped up to create a central axis at the entrance. At the same time, there is a horizontal axis for people walking along the palazzo. Palladio uses a very wide front side as opposed to the depth of the house. The central part of the palace is used for circulation inside the house. The hall to reach the side chambers. The back to reach the stairs leading up, the hall itself looks like a square.

The palazzo Chiericati is based on two traditions:

  • medieval rows of houses with arcades like in Padua, along a street. Palladio previously did this with his Casa Civena.
  • the classic tradition traced back to the Stoa of the Greek, placing a colonnade along a square. Palladio used this for the Basilica palladiana (Sansovino at the Library) and Michelangelo for his palazzi at the Campidoglio).

Facade Palazzo Chiericati      Elevation      Facade (xilografica) 1903

Palazzo Chiericati facade Vicenza
photo: Jorbasa Fotografie

In both cases, there exists a conflict between the private and public terrain. One must be able to walk alongside and underneath it, but simultaneously there must be an entrance to enter the palazzo. The axis in the central hall crosses the main axis. Each room also has two axes that cross in the middle. The two side chambers directly behind the facade hide the entire depth of the building. The axes end at a window or a hearth. The rooms are also proportioned in relation to each other. Palladio does not just apply his proportion doctrine to the layout, but to each room and how they relate to each other. When we arrive, I will use an A3 paper to demonstrate what we already, albeit briefly, covered in the class, namely the typical palladian proportionality doctrine. Palladio strongly preferred the harmonic average. You will see how he used it for this palazzo, even with an inescapable consequence. The question I shall pose you as we stand in front of the Chiericati is as follows: why does Palladio deviate from his harmonic average for the large central chamber?

The Jewel of Vicenza

The Museo Civico is now housed in the palazzo. The paintings from the Cappella Chiesa di San Bartolomeo can be seen here. The Gioiello di Vicenza (Jewel of Vizenza) was an old silver model of the city of Vicenza from the 16th century made as an ex voto. It is attributed to Andrea Palladio. It has melted under Napoleon Bonaparte. A faithful reconstruction was made in silver in 2012-2013.

Barteolomeo Montagna ‘Madonna child John the Baptist and Onuphrius the Great’

Palazzo Chiericati museum
photo: Claudio Gonzati

The paintings that originally hung in the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo can now be seen in this museum.

Palazzo Chiricati: Cima da Conegliano 'Throning Madonna  James and Hieronymus'

Cima da Conegliano ‘Throning Madonna James and Hieronymus’

There are also works by Barteolomeo Montagna (Madonna with child under the pergola with John the Baptist and Onufrius the Great) and Hans Memling (triptych by Jan Crabbe). The original triptych is spread over three museums. The outer side panels are in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. The inner side panels (Kneeling male donor with Saint William of Maleval, and female kneeling donor with Saint Anna) in the Morgan Library & Museum New York. The center panel hangs here. From September 2016 to January 20017, the triptych as a whole could be seen again at the Morgan Library & Museum.

We continue our way to the Piazzale Torquato Fraccon and the Arco delle Scalette. Here we go up the stairs, on the way to the Villa Capra “La Rotonda”

The Arco delle Scalette       Stairs

The Arco delle Scalette Vicenza

Continuation Vicenza Palladio: Villa Capra “La Rotonda”