Palladian or Neo-Classical: What is the Difference?

Andrea Palladio was a sixteenth-century architect from Padua. He was a late Renaissance architect who lived in more stable and affluent times than his predecessors, and produced many beautiful villas based on the architecture of ancient Rome. The general characteristics are large porticos, often all four sides, and a huge domed central atrium. The arrangement was more for show than comfortable living.

Inigo Jones is introduced what is termed ‘Palladian’ architecture to England in the early seventeenth century, yet his work bears only passing resemblance to the work of Palladio. Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich, though early seventeenth century could, as observed by Sir John Summerson, easily be mistaken for an early nineteenth century work. (So is it ‘Palladian? or Neo-Classical?)

After The Civil War Jones’s chaste Palladianism gave way to the more baroque style of Wren, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and others. Baroque was once a derogatory term meaning rough or wrong. But after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and the return of Whig power a new Palladianism took hold in England in reaction to the vulgarity of the Tories (and perhaps Liberals still think Tories vulgar). Chiswick House and Mereworth Castle look genuinely like (slightly crude) versions of Andrea Palladio’s work. Other country houses of the time, such as Stourhead or Holkham Hall, are similarly thought of as Palladian, yet the link to Palladio is a little less obvious, though there are still powerful porticos and the huge domed central halls. But Neo-Classical architecture, associated with the late eighteenth century, usually features grand central halls and porticos too. So what are the differences? To most modern eyes, the answer is probably ‘not a lot’. There was no sudden change in 1750. The work of Robert Adam and William Chambers (dissimilar architects who disliked each other’s work) is generally thought of as neo-classical. What makes it neo-classical? It’s all in the eye of the beholder of course. The answer is (in Adams’s case) a more playful style, and (generally) a more Greek emphasis, and just a slight change in proportion to give lighter, perhaps more elegant appearance, and often less influence on the piano-nobile.

I think the answer to whether or not a house is Palladian or Neo-Classical is whether it looks more early eighteenth century or late eighteenth century. I refer to my houses as Palladian or Neo-Classical but, or course, my designs are early twenty-first century designs, and reflect early twenty-first century tastes. But some of my designs strike me as more Palladian, some more Neo-Classical.