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Palladian Windows  


by Lindsay Daniel

(19 images/photos below) 

**Also go to  http:/www.nbm.org/exibitions-collections/exhibitions/palladio-and-his-legacy.html to read about an exhitit on Palladio in Washington,DC Sept 2,2010-Jan 9,2011 at the National Building Museum!! 

Definition ~ the original term for a Palladian window is a serliana (or a Serlian Motif).  It is an archway or window with three openings, the central one arched and wider than the flanking openings (which were rectangular and enclosed at the top by an architrave).

Historical function ~ The Italian Renaissance architect/master builder, Andrea Palladio, 1508-1580 popularized this architectural motif.  It is so called the Serlian Motif because it was first illustrated in Serlio’s Architecttura (1537), though it probably derived from earlier sources like a triumphal arch (the Roman emperor Caesar loved those to march his armies through to celebrate his victories!).  It was much used by Palladio, and became one of the hallmarks of Palladianism in 17th & 18th centuries England.  It is more commonly known as a Venetian or Palladian window.  

Palladio could be considered the first “classicist” in modern architecture….meaning he studied the classical antiquities.  Think about it….when Palladio was practicing architecture, the Roman (or classical) buildings were antiques to him!!  …more than 1500 years old at that time!

He used this serliana detail as doorways, windows, and in a series of arches in a colonnade. 

Evolution ~  Palladio was creative with this motif in how he sometimes extended it into the third dimension.  In the loggia (porch) design for the Palazzo della Ragione, he thickened the openings by doubling the columns inward and thus forming a barrel arch effect.

This motif was copied throughout Europe and England in buildings, cabinetry, and in paintings.  Paintings were to that era as our home magazines are to us today!!  Renaissance artists painted these architectural images into their inspiring landscapes, paintings were bought by traveling gentry, and taken back to their homelands (ie. The Feast in the House of Lexi -1573- by the artist Veronese).  There, architects/master builders applied those images into their own designs of buildings and cabinetry/furniture during the era of King George II.

In 17th and 18th century England, this motif was studiously copied and along with applying Palladio’s main design principal “found in the unerring sense of proportion, symmetry, and order – all in relationship to the whole”.......this was his goal – to create a higher degree of unity which we now call holistic design.   So, this motif, his principals, and details found their way into historic architectural styles such as English Georgian and American Federal.  One of our best examples of this would be in George Washington’s Mount Vernon- north elevation.

Results ~  Just like our forefathers copying details from the likes of widely circulated builder books (The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, London, 1739) we find the same “cut and paste” techniques with magazine images going on today.  But, sadly, the further we get away from the correct originals the more destructive the outcome!!  Those older builder books had the actual proportions detailed ….home magazines today never give dimensions/proportions or knowledge on how to use, when, and where to properly apply these details.  In so many homes today you see this potentially beautiful window go from academic elegance to down right comical!!

Tip ~ To make details like this beautiful, you have to really get into the “Art of Architecture”.  You will have to steal from better resources!  Dig back further in time for more correct sources like George did.  Even in the high end home magazines and neighborhoods I see way too many details that are atrocities.  My Library section of this website has some great books for research. Study from buildings that are historically designated.   Hire an architect by the hour (one that specializes in historic details) for a consult meeting just to review your details/scale/proportions.  Remember – God is in the details!  

P.S.  I even had a high end home builder argue with me that I was saying the word wrong.  He said “It is Palladium!!  Not Palladian!!”   I had to refer him to my resources.  He has been quiet ever since.  


DO ~ Heavy millwork (mouldings) around the window is used even with brick siding, and these mouldings give the appearance of 4 supporting columns and an architrave making this window proportionally correct as well as "feel" correct.


DON'T ~ The Brick here can not physically or visually hold up this shaped opening as in the historical method of structure.  Proportionally the flanking windows are too wide, there is no visual column support evident, and the lack of the Architrave (or beam) makes this all look false, like it might fall down soon.   It is also missing the elegance of the real form.  


The Architrave is the beam (made up of different mouldings) that spans between columns (lintel) to span an opening.

 Triumphal arch

The image motif of the Triumphal Arch was much used by Palladio in his architecture as windows and doorways

Venetian windows

What we call the Palladian window now, is more commonly known throughout history as the Venetian window.  17th/18th century England popularized Palladio's images.

Palazzo della Ragione exterior

Palladio's loggia addition to the Palazzo della Ragione bascilica's exterior shows his use of this motif used in a colonnade effect. Note the double column thickess per arch opening.

Loggia interior of Palazzo

The interior of the loggia ( Palazzo della Ragione) shows Palladio's creativity by using this motif as a doorway that is 2 columns deep - making a more 3 dimensional effect with a long wall of openings.  See this also in the plan of the loggia below.

 Palazzo plan & elevation

The plan of the Palazzo shows the double row of columns toward the loggia (porch) interior.  This adds to the apprearance of making the doorway/windows thicker and more 3-dimensional.  One column would have made this all look paper thin and not "weighty" enough for the large size of this building. 

 Palazzo elevation detail

This elevation detail of the Palazzo illustrates how important it is that the shape, form, proportion, and materials all work together to create the total effect.  Just the Palladian window shape alone will not pull off the beautiful effect.  What I am saying, is that with careful study of better resources, you can create this higher level of design details for your own home!

The Feast in the House of Lexi 

Like stealing good ideas from the home magazines of today, this practice has been used throughout history!!  Example:  This painting, The Feast in the House of Lexi by the Italian Renaissance artist Veronese in 1573,  shows the Venetian arch motif with the  columns and flanking openings.  Artists borrowed forms from architecture they saw, then centuries later their paintings were purchased by English gentry, who in turn copied the motifs into their own English architecture.......Tourist memento would you say??? 

Furniture proportions

English Cabinetry makers also borrowed these new motifs into their designs.  The proportions of the Palladian window/motif are evident in this Breakfront cabinet of the late 1800's.

Old Gate, Farmington, Conn

DO ~ In the 17th and 18th century, Palladism was BIG in England.  America caught on to the craze also. So Palladio's design principal (of proportion, symmetry, and order - all in the relationship to the whole (or holistic design) creating a higher degree of unity) found its way across the Atlantic and into American architecture.  Here, at "Old Gate" in Farmington, Conn the window is now used with clapboard siding.  But on this historic home, great care was taken to make the detail correct. 

Mount Vernon window 

DO ~ Our first president, George Washington, applied this motif at Mount Vernon.  Even with adding to the motif design with the broken pediment, they stayed with the original proportions and order.  So you don't have to always copy it exactly, and you can be inventive, but you should adher to the "unerring sense of proportion" of Palladio's principals to be successful!!

Bad window in brick siding

DON'T ~ There are so many "Georgian" details on this house that just miss the mark, but the Palladian window is the most obvious.  The proportions are close... but no cigar..., the arch height is compromised by the window panes trying to all stay the same dimension and the too low a roof eave, the arch should be higher than the other window heads, and the column effect is not present.  I feel like everything is squeezed too tightly into this facade!!

Bad window in brick siding - 2

DON"T ~ Another bad example with brick siding.....the same issues as mentioned at my first DON'T example at the top....  The Venetian window examples above show better use of masonary (or brick) moulding design surrounding the window.  Also, the feeling of supporting columns is not successful here.   Then, my pet peeve!......no shutters on Palladian windows!!!  Read my Shutter article to cover that issue.

Bad window in stucco siding

DON"T ~ Same issues already mentioned.....but this example really shows up the need for a wonderful millwork design around the window.  This window is on the front of the house and should have been treated as the feature it was intended to be!  All beauty is lost on this window.  With this imitation stucco siding (Drivit) came this imitation moulding that is wimpy, made of stryofoam, and ugly!   There are so many better ways to save cost on your home than here!  

 Bad window in stucco siding - 2

DON"T - The extra details needed to improve this window detailing would not have been much more effort or cost for this feature window on the front of the home.  Can you see what is needed or missing?.......there are 2 column pilasters instead of the 4 needed, an architrave is needed instead of crown mould projections.....all minor, but details that would make this window really stand out and be noticed!

Bad window in clapboard siding

DON"T - You tell me what is wrong here!  

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Lindsay Daniel provides residential design services to Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding communities.