Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda: a Prototypical Site for Cultural Heritage Documentation and Scholarship

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art and Architecture

This effort will focus on Andrea Palladio's Villa La Rotonda (1566-71) as a prototype for the process of documentation, archiving, and scholarly analysis of cultural heritage landscapes.

Research Interests
  • Architectural theory
  • Renaissance Architecture
  • Cultural Landscape Studies
  • Historic Preservation

The goal of this project is the creation of high-quality, finely detailed digital records of the exterior of Andrea Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda, including the roofs and immediately surrounding landscape, using the combination of laser-scanned point cloud data and aerial photogrammetry. Villa La Rotonda (also called Villa Almerico Capra Valmarana or Villa Capra) is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto.” The building is a quintessential part of every architect’s education: it is a high-water mark in Italian Renaissance’s re-use of classical Roman architecture, as well as Palladio’s use of symmetry and clarity to draw in and please the viewer. Surprisingly, Villa La Rotonda is not well-recorded, with the most recent quality work being a partial photogrammetric recording conducted in the early 1980s.  The work of Palladio, as represented in print, was famously central to the study of architecture by Thomas Jefferson, and to Jefferson's design work: his designs for the University of Virginia clearly were influenced by Palladio's Villa La Rotonda.

Faculty, staff, and students from multiple disciplines will collaborate in recording, processing, and archiving detailed data on the Villa La Rotonda. We propose to employ a combination of recording technologies, namely laser-scanning and photogrammetry, as well as standard measured drawing. The first two methods will generate “point-cloud” data, that is, large collections of 3D data points sampled from the actual physical surfaces of the Villa La Rotunda and ground. The point-cloud data will then be available to students and researchers to construct 3D models of the building and grounds. Together the drawings, point-cloud datasets, and models will constitute a valuable resource for scholarship and will be archived with the University of Virginia Library and with the owners of Villa La Rotonda. As the first step in a long-term research initiative, this recording of the structure and the resulting archived data will be an argument for, and as demonstration of, the potential of more complete documentation of the Villa and its landscape.

This is part of a larger effort to collect and utilize data on key cultural landscapes, drawing together art and architectural history, environmental use, cultural heritage, and archival studies to gain a more complex and nuanced understanding of not just the challenges in preserving important buildings and sites but also the challenges of creating, preserving, and disseminating a wide range of scholarly research and analysis. Professor Mario de Valmarana, who taught at UVA for decades and whose family owns the Villa La Rotonda, was instrumental in the creation of the UVA Program in Historic Preservation and the development of the Architecture School's long-standing involvement in the Veneto. This project is a new era in this decades-long relationship between UVA, the Valmarana family, and study of the Veneto, through the use of emerging technologies to collect, archive, and make new data available for scholarship.

The resource derived from the proposed project will have many benefits, including student training, the development of faculty and staff research and skill sets, guidance for preservation of the Villa, multi-disciplinary scholarship concerning the Villa and its landscapes, and the development over time of a comprehensive archive focused on the Villa and its role in the Veneto and to world architecture. The high-quality data set and models generated from this data will be a significant resource for the guidance of preservation of La Rotonda, providing a very detailed  baseline for understanding change over time. Multi-disciplinary scholarship emerging from the consideration of the details held in the resource will include work from developing and established scholars, including architectural and art historians, architects and landscape architects, social and cultural historians, and scholars in many other disciplines who can develop modes of inquiry that use this data in creative ways. Key to the scholarship is the archiving of the data, which will be managed by the University of Virginia Library. Importantly, this project will open up the potential for future work focusing on recording the interiors of the Villa, and the combination of the exterior and interior data into one comprehensive model of the whole.

This project has the potential to reshape renaissance scholarship of the Veneto, facilitating a shift from understanding the Villa as an expression of a Renaissance ideal to approaching it within the context of the cultural landscape of the Veneto. This includes an understanding of the lived reality of the Villa, its role in an agricultural landscape, and its role in power relations in the Veneto, especially through the control of water.

The UVA Library is deeply interested in developing an informatics approach to the collection, processing, archiving of, and access to cultural heritage assets. Archiving large cultural heritage data sets and making them available to scholars and the public through digital collections is a major field of inquiry and research in library information science, and this project has the potential of being an important case study for developing this capacity at UVA.  Computer Science similarly has interests ranging from human-computer interfaces for investigating architectural structures to modeling of environmental and social systems exemplified by the cultural landscape of the Villa La Rotonda.

Data collection begins with the collection of coarse data, and moves to increasingly higher levels of fine detail. Two modes of data collection will be used: laser scanning from ground level and photogrammetry from both ground level and from a helicopter drone.  

The data collection will take seven to ten days, and will begin with aerial photogrammetry of the Villa and the adjacent landscape. This data will be used to generate a Graphic Information System (GIS) model of the Villa in its immediate landscape, which will then be used for referencing the detailed laser scanning of the Villa exterior and the detailed photogrammetry of the roof, including roof statuary.

Most of exterior walls of the Villa are suitable for ground-based laser scanning. This data acquisition requires the planning of multiple “viewpoints” for the laser scanner to assure as complete coverage as possible. At each of the viewpoints the laser scanner will directly provide a point-cloud dataset that records the surface measurements visible from that viewpoint. For the roofs and areas not visible from the ground we will fly a high-quality camera using a quadcopter to take thousands of photographs. We will then apply photogrammetry algorithms that (when guided by talented artisan/engineers) produce additional point-cloud datasets. The various point-cloud datasets will then be combined to develop 3D models of the exterior surfaces of the Villa.

Desired outcomes

Goals for this project include the creation of a very high-quality data set for the exterior of the Villa, including the development of a library interface for the data, as well as a means of archiving the data. This exterior data set will demonstrate capacities for further work including the recording of the larger landscape and associated structures, as well as interiors. The resulting resource will also be the basis for developing a range of multidisciplinary research initiatives potentially involving scholars from several fields such as environmental science, architectural history, art history, and history.