by Andrew Hind
Vicenza is a city rich in stunning historic architecture, but it all pales in comparison to the Basilica Palladiana, which looms over the Piazza dei Signori and has served as the city’s literal and figurative heart for hundreds of years.
“The building we call the Basilica began as the so-called Palace of Reason, the former seat of the civil authority,” explains Vladimiro Riva, director of Vicenza’s Tourism Promotion Consortium. “At the end of the 15th century, it was decided to gird the Gothic building with a double order of loggias that ennobled its image. These collapsed at the beginning of the 16th century, so it had to be rebuilt,” says Riva.
The contract for reconstruction was awarded to Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) in 1549, but only after decades of hard lobbying. He worked on it for the remainder of his life, and it wasn’t completed until 1614, decades after his passing. The new double order of loggias was made with white marble, supported by Tuscan and Ionic columns topped by soaring statuary, completely obscuring the original Gothic structure and resulting in the Renaissance masterpiece enjoyed today.
It was Palladio who dubbed the building a basilica, after the ancient Roman civil structures of that name. It subsequently became known as the Basilica Palladiana in his honour. Despite the impressive change in appearance, the building functioned as before: the massive hall upstairs served as a seat of government where the Council of Four Hundred met, while shops were housed on ground floor.
The 20th century wasn’t kind to the famed Basilica. Bombing by the Allies during the Second World War gutted the building, leaving a hollow shell. Though rebuilt after the war, it didn’t reclaim its prior glory—until recently.
Spurred by the Basilica being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, between 2007 and 2012 the building was the subject of a complex and extensive architectural restoration that brought back all the spectacle and awe of its Renaissance appearance. In fact, the restoration was so faithful, it was awarded the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage and became a National Monument in 2014. Subsequently, it has become a must-see for visitors to Vicenza. “On the ground floor there are historic workshops that keep alive the historic commercial vocation of the place, including the recently opened Jewel Museum, or Museo del Gioiello (www.museodelgiollo.it),” Riva says, noting that Vicenza has specialized in crafting jewelry since the Renaissance. Inside, the dazzling collection of historic and contemporary rings, necklaces and bracelets on display wow spectators. “Two marble staircases of the late 15th century are the ancient access routes to the upper floor, from which you access the hall with its characteristic inverted hull-shaped copper roof.”
There are also gallery spaces—from December 6, 2019 to April 13, 2020, the Basilica will host the exhibition Portrait of a Woman. The dream of the twenties and the gaze of Ubaldo Oppi—and the rooftop terrace offers a beautiful lookout onto the rooftops of the city and the surrounding landscape. In fair weather, order a drink from the bar and soak in the scenery while sipping away an afternoon.
The deepest history of the Basilica—and its greatest mysteries—are below ground in the archeological site of Corte de Bissari (www.museicivicivicenza.it), far from the tourists and selfie-seekers crowding the piazza. “The Piazza dei Signori was already the place of a Roman forum and medieval audience well before the Basilica was even built,” explains Riva. “You can explore this history through an archeological area located in the basement of the Basilica that dates back to the Roman era and even earlier.” From a walkway with transparent glass floor inserts, you walk along Roman roads to discover the many ancient structures that have been preserved and a selection of relics found during the excavation. All visits are by reserved guided tour. Who says you can’t go back in time? At Basilica Palladiana, you can explore many eras of Italian history in all their wonder and splendour.