The Accademia Olimpica (Olympic Academy) was founded in 1555 by a group of 21 citizens from Vicenza. From the beginning, the Accademia Olimpica had different characteristics when compared to earlier local academies, such as the Academy founded by Gian Giorgio Trissino, which occupied the suburban Villa Cricoli, and the Costantini’s Academy which was created by the canon Gerolamo Gualdo. The latter was located in Via della Pusterla, inside a beautiful palace rich in paintings form various eras, as well as statues and archaeological findings from the ruins of the ancient Berga Roman theatre. Individuals who were recognized as renowned scholars in Greek and Latin literature, or as illustrious in the arts, were chosen as members of the Academy, even though they were not part of the nobility. This criterion of independence would guarantee the Academy’s future intellectual vitality.
The founding academics promised to cultivate all the arts in the new institution, even the exercise of weapons and the study of music, with a preference for Mathematics and associated disciplines. Consequently, sword masters and riding masters, musicians, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, cosmographers and architects all came to the service of the Olympics, an their contributions were read during the academic meetings.
Personalities that were connected to the Academy include, besides the promoters Valerio Chiericati and Girolamo da Schio, intellectuals such as Anton Maria Angiolelli, Conte Da Monte, Giacomo Pagello, Giuseppe Ovetari, Elio e Silvio Belli, Andrea Palladio, Bernardino Trinagio, Vincenzo Magrè. Later on, Antonio Fasolo and Gian Battista Maganza also took part in the Academy's activities. Both famous painters, the latter was also known as a country poet.
The academy did not initially have its own venue and its members used to gather in the house of the da Porto family, the Pallamaio family, or in the house of Elio Belli. The impresa chosen to represent the Academy was the Chariot of Olympia, coupled with the motto "hoc hopus hic labor est" (“here is the difficulties, here is the challenge”). One of the favourite activities carried out by early academics was to set up theatrical performances.
The first to suggest the idea of a stable theatre was Andrea Palladio, the famous architect who later designed the Teatro Olimpico. The first attempts were also made to provide the new institution with permanent headquarters, the building of which was also entrusted to Palladio. The Academy’s new buildings were located in the "site of the old prisons", which had to be granted by the city.
The new structure, based on the model of ancient theatres, was built thanks to voluntary contributions from the academics themselves, to whom it was reserved, in return for the honour of having their own statue placed inside. The place for each statue was assigned according to the contribution paid. Palladio prepared the drawings, but did not finish the project, which was instead completed by his son Silla and by the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi, who also designed the prospects for the scene (photo A) (photo B). In the years immediately following Palladio's death, and even more in the following centuries, the Teatro Olimpico remained a significant example of the structure of ancient theatres, and was often reworked.
The work on the theatre was finally completed in 1585, when the new structure was inaugurated with the performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, an artistic achievement which had no equivalent at that time. Later, an adequate number of rooms for academic meetings, the so-called "Odeo", was also added to the theatre, and it is still used for the Academy’s sessions.
The Olympic Academy continued its centuries-old life, expressing its identity through different cultural and social events. Regular classes in horse-riding, weapons, literature and science were also taught there. In 1741 the school of Experimental Philosophy was founded and a city contribution was requested, which was to come from the gifts of the Monte di Pietà. Thus, every cultural event was centred on the Academy, and when the German poet Goethe came to Vicenza in September 1786, he wanted to attend the sessions.
The fall of the Venetian Republic practically decided the end of another Academy in Vicenza that had a glorious tradition, the Agrarian Academy. The subsequent alternation of foreign dominations, French and Austrian, spelt some difficult times for the life of the Olympic Academy. By virtue of the Napoleonic decree of 1810, and in the danger of being suppressed and consequently undergo the forfeiture of its property, the Academy preferred to renounce direct ownership of the theatre, the headquarters and the annexed buildings. the entire complex was ceded by deed in 1813 to the city of Vicenza, only reserving rights to use the spaces in perpetuum.
After this, the Academy laid almost entirely dormant until 1843, when the Imperial government allowed it to be reinstated under the name of “Olympic Academy for the Sciences, Letters and Arts”. The presence of intellectuals such as Camillo Franco and Valentino Pasini among the academics should already alert us to the Academy’s political leanings, that is, supporting the new liberal ideals that were giving rise to the Risorgimento. The presidency of Francesco Secondo Beggiato, which began in 1851 and saw the beginning of an incredibly active phase from the point of view of education, reveals the extent of the renovation. In 1857, the Meteorological Observatory was founded, under the direction of Beggiato first, and later of Almerico da Schio, who would be its moderator for the following 60 years. In 1858, mainly under the auspices of Fedele Lampertico, the School for Drawing and Plastic Arts for the People was created, funded by several public and private institutions; the School remained under the direct control of the Academy until 1927.
In this period, Fedele Lampertico, Giacomo Zanella, Antonio Fogazzaro and Almerico Da Schio took turns in the presidency. Almerico da Schio passed away in 1930 and the General of the Army Corps Giuseppe Vaccari was appointed rector in his stead. In 1935 the Accademia was recognized as a Moral Organization. Senator Antonio Mosconi, who succeeded General Vaccari, found himself facing the most tragic moment in the history of the Academy, the paralysis of academic activity (the last meeting was in August 1943), to which was added, in 1944, the destruction of the Observatory in a bombing: "its premises, used as the seat of the Academy, were completely overthrown with all the expensive equipment, overwhelming and destroying everything". On that occasion, the archive and the library, over 20,000 volumes, were dispersed, while the Teatro Olimpico remained miraculously safe.
After the end of the war and for about three years, the Academy was extraordinarily managed by a commissary, Ascanio Pagello. In 1949 Egidio Tosato, an MP and member of the Constitutional Assembly, was elected president. 10 years later, it was the turn of Mariano Rumor. The academy could thus come out of the troubled times of war and reconstruction. Once the institutional layout of was formalized, the Academy could turn to the new realities facing it, and not only in a local perspective. In 1990, when Rumor passed away, who had presided the Academy for 31 years, he was succeeded by Giorgio Oliva. Since 1991 the president of the Academy have been Alessandro Faedo (1991-1994), Lorenzo Pellizzari (1995-2002), Fernando Bandini (2003-2010), Luigi Franco Bottio (2011-2014), Marino Breganze (2015-2016), Gaetano Thiene (2016-ongoing).