Il Miglior Fabbro

Five hundred years after his birth, Andrea Palladio continues to influence architecture

Academia Architecture Art Europe Heritage Italy

Last year marked the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio’s birth. Arguably the most influential architect of the Western world, Palladio exercised his craft in Venice and its surrounding territories until his death in 1580. He specialised in domestic architecture, which combined a sure grasp of the classical orders, with an imaginative recreation of ancient buildings’ appearances. Palladio distilled his genius into a major handbook, Quattro Libri or Four Books of Architecture (1570), a work that has kept his designs and fame alive.

The anniversary has generated a predictable crop of books and symposia, not least a splendid exhibition that will run at the Royal Academy from 31 January to 13 April. Last December, I had the honour of participating in a creative celebration of Palladio’s architecture, namely an evaluation of design projects by undergraduates at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. Notre Dame is a bastion of postmodernism, rooted in traditional architecture as championed by Léon Krier and Quinlan Terry. Students had been asked to design a chapel dedicated to St Andrew, Palladio’s namesake, and to draw inspiration from his buildings. The projects ranged from the ingenious to the pedestrian. By and large, the references to Palladio were little more than skin deep – here, the temple façade of Palladio’s Redentore; there, the interlocking large and small orders of San Giorgio Maggiore. Yet the interiors were generally simple boxes or circular in plan and almost all of them unrelated to the subtly shifting volumes that make Palladio’s buildings such an entrancing experience. Palladio still enjoys a mystique, and anyone who has glanced at his drawings or treatise will realise that his achievements were grounded in years of hard work and arduous study. His style is easier to describe than imitate, and his reputation has fluctuated surprisingly over the past 200 years.

Palladio reigned supreme among classically-minded architects until the 19th century. His vision of antiquity seemed more coherent and persuasive than any of his contemporaries or successors, and its essence was reduced to flexible, modern formulae through his book. But around 1800, a reaction developed against Palladio as gatekeeper of architectural good taste. Travel broadened the knowledge of classical architecture, and the once-despised gothic received new advocacy as the natural medium for religious buildings. Then, too, architects and connoisseurs discovered that the reality of Palladio’s work was rather different from the printed versions.

The reaction of Daniel Engelhardt, a leading German architect, writing in 1850, was characteristic of many others: “I sought out Palladio’s palaces with his book in my hand and found the majority with effort because so little of them had been built.” Engelhardt explained this by suggesting that Palladio’s designs were too extravagant to be finished, adding that his ornamentation was poor and generally repetitive. Others, like the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, attributed Palladio’s relative failure to the fact that he worked in the decades between 1540-1580, a period of relative decline after the brilliance of the High Renaissance.

As architectural historicism gradually overthrew the hegemony of Renaissance architecture, Palladio began to be derided as a hidebound teacher of petty rules. By 1905, the English architect and writer, Reginald Blomfield, could accuse Palladio’s followers of “fetish worship” and condemned the architect for “the touch of pedantry that suited the times and invested his writings with a fallacious air of scholarship…He was the very man to summarise and classify, and to save future generations of architects the labour of thinking for themselves”. Eventually, it took the upheavals of the 20th century and the revolution of the Modern Movement to give Palladio’s reputation the kiss of life. One strand in Palladio’s rediscovery lay in the publication of his original drawings for his palaces and villas as well as his studies after the antique. These drew attention to the sometimes untidy, but invariably compelling, design process behind the finished compositions in the Quattro Libri. Such drawings showed Palladio, much like any other professional architect, ringing variations on a given theme, a theme usually tied to a specific site, and this provided an obvious link with the problems faced by contemporary architects.

But the great boost to Palladio’s reputation came from two scholars working in the 1940s, Rudolf Wittkower and Colin Rowe. Wittkower’s studies were stimulated in part by his research at the Warburg Institute in London during the Second World War. By focusing on the ground plans for Palladio’s villas, Wittkower was able to show recurrent patterns in the architect’s system of composition. He simultaneously freed Palladio’s design process from its original context by stressing the rules and precepts that he believed to be behind them. His studies not only revitalised Palladio as an architectural theoretician, but they also contributed directly to Rowe’s influential essay, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa (1947). Rowe had been Wittkower’s student at the Warburg Institute during the period of his Palladian research, and he applied a similar analysis to a comparison between Palladio and one of the beacons of modernism, Le Corbusier. Rowe drew attention to the similarities between the ground plan of Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa de Monzie at Garches, suggesting underlying principles of harmonic proportions linking the working methods of the two architects. Ironically, Le Corbusier does not appear to have seriously studied Palladio’s works, but Rowe’s visual comparisons were compelling enough to reinforce Palladio’s role as a pioneer of modern architectural design, thereby ensuring that decades of students would be exposed to Palladio’s use of mathematical proportions.

Both Wittkower and Rowe achieved iconic status among recent interpreters of Palladio, but postmodernism has spun Palladio’s wheel of fortune once again, shaking up his image in the process. Now professionals and students seem more concerned with the end product rather than the process, the ornamentation rather than any underlying principles. Julian Bicknell’s Henbury Rotonda may be a close replica of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, but it also illustrates the old adage that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. By the same token, Quinlan Terry’s country houses are very handsome but unmemorable. In short, it is not enough to follow the letter of Palladio’s works, one must also strive to capture the spirit behind them. This was the problem with which the Notre Dame students were grappling, and it is still a worthwhile one for aspiring architects today. Palladio – like Brunelleschi, Michelangelo or Borromini – remains a great teacher and visionary, but his value for us lies in our capacity to read between his lines.