RA Magazine Winter 2008
Issue Number: 101
A law unto himself
The Royal Academy's show celebrates the quincentenary of Europe’s most influential architect and as Jonathan Glancey argues, Andrea Palladio was a far more inventive architect than even his followers and imitators believed)
The view from under the Roman pediment and through the arcade of the classical loggia comes as something of a surprise. Instead of rolling lawns, oaks, elms, a tempietto, a grotto, an ornamental bridge, a ha-ha and prize sheep, there is little more than a flat plain stretching beyond the simple boundary walls into an infinity of autumnal drizzle, pylons, industrial sheds that look as if they have been shipped in from New Jersey and the brutal course of a new motorway. This is the view from Villa Saraceno, a simple, almost frugal, farmhouse built by Andrea Palladio around 1550 and rescued in recent years by the Landmark Trust. This is surely not, though, quite what the view from a Palladian country house should be.
Or, at least, not if you happen to have been brought up in a world of English and Irish Palladian houses. My own house, for example, in rural Suffolk, is Palladian to its hidden rubble core, a showcase of eighteenth-century English architectural taste, design and craftsmanship. It is the type of house that, great or small, urban or rural, came to dominate British domestic architecture for something like three-quarters of a century, from roughly 1725 to 1800. Its siblings and cousins can be seen in the guise of grand, if austere, country seats such as the peerless Holkham Hall in north Norfolk and the thousands of brick and stone terraced houses that line the streets of British towns and cities from Bath to Edinburgh.
These are houses we have come to cherish even if many of the sash-windowed terraces rushed up in our cities in the eighteenth century were also the product of greedy speculation.
Created, though, in an age of commonplace architectural grace, they happened to be good looking and well proportioned. Today they serve us as homes, shops and offices. In their time, they have also been workshops, sweatshops, the garrets of swooning poets and half-starved hacks and, in Dickensian London, the dens of thieves and rogues. Up and down these islands, they are matched by quietly noble town halls, assembly rooms, churches, inns, follies and, yes, farmhouses crafted in the same certain and assured style.
We know this style as Palladian, and yet sitting on top of the great marble steps leading up to the chastely monumental entrance of Villa Saraceno, it seems quite obvious, if a little odd, that Palladio himself was clearly no Palladian.
His own farmhouses, villas and palazzi were very different from the all-embracing Palladian style that emerged in Britain at much the same time as the last stones of St Paul’s, Wren's English Baroque cathedral, were laid. In Italy, the voluptuous Baroque style, a product of the Counter Reformation and Rome's determination to outshine the threat of iconoclastic Protestantism, came later than Palladio’s own.
Inigo Jones - of Banqueting House and Queen’s House, Greenwich fame - first used Palladio's style in England long after the Italian master’s death in 1580 (when Jones was just seven years old). It reappeared, after a magnificent flirtation with the Baroque led by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, on the drawing tables of a loose-knit group of radical young architects, spearheaded by Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, and Colen Campbell. This was soon after the Jacobite uprising of 1715 and became part of the Whig Ascendancy, a political wave that did everything it could to drown out anything that smacked of Papacy. This, logically enough, included Baroque architecture. So, Wren and his disciples fell out of favour, and in came the austere young Protestant Palladians with their books of architectural rules and proportions, that were, in many ways, as unbending as Palladio himself was ever inventive and infinitely adaptable.
The English and Scottish Palladians, although many had been on the Grand Tour, saw what they wanted to in the work of their hero. The Palladio building they most admired was the Villa Capra or La Rotonda of 1566-70 near Vicenza. This four-sided villa - each elevation adorned with a Roman temple pediment - revolving around a central, circular salon was the star attraction in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus (1715), the book that set the tone and style of Palladianism.
For Palladio himself, the Villa Capra was a one-off, a villa designed for wealthy gentlemen who would go there to read, drink fine wines, eat well, admire art and revel in the panorama offered from its four hill-top entrances. The house, though, was as different from Palladio’s classic farmhouses as Bardolino is from Prosecco. And yet, it set the pace for Palladianism in Britain. Campbell realised a version of the Villa Capra - Mereworth Castle, Kent - in 1722-25. Lord Burlington followed with Chiswick House, London (1723-39), Matthew Brettingham the younger with Foots Cray Place in Kent (1752; destroyed by fire, 1949) and Thomas Wright with Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire in 1757; since demolished, its ruins lie beneath the carriageways of the M1.
But, where the Palladians were keen on correctness and certainty, Palladio’s own work was rich and diverse. Many of his buildings, including Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza and Villa Barbaro at Maser, break most of the Palladians’ rules. His achingly beautiful Benedictine church, San Giorgio Maggiore, a counterpoint to St Mark’s in Venice, is at once a Roman temple, imperial Roman baths and something of an Ottoman mosque melded into something wholly original. We know, by the way, that Palladio was in touch with Mimar Sinan (1489-1588), the great Ottoman architect, through Venetian diplomatic channels. And we can see that Sinan’s awe-inspiring mosques in what is modern Turkey have a touch of Palladio about them in terms of their geometry and proportions.
Palladio’s later buildings, influenced by his ecclesiastical commissions in Venice, were certainly not Palladian. But because these - the Villa Sarego, Palazzo Porto-Breganze, the Loggia del Capitanio - were not included in Palladio’s much-read book I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) of 1570, British and other Palladians were unaware of the ways in which their mentor’s work had developed over time.
They saw Palladio as a fixed quantity of sorts rather than a lively, inventive talent ever seeking new design challenges.
San Giorgio is certainly not Palladian, nor is his equally impressive Venetian church, Il Redentore (essentially 1577-92) which is a homage in some ways to the work of Michelangelo. It also hints at its being a great Venetian warship coming to berth between the low houses of the Giudecca. Indeed, some of Palladio’s later works have often been regarded as Mannerist and even, dare one say it, Baroque, although this word was not used to describe his work during his lifetime.
Palladio himself appears to have been less concerned with a specific look or style, but with a rediscovery and reinterpretation of the several guises of Ancient Roman architecture and, above all, with harmony and proportion.
To mark the 500th anniversary of his birth, the exhibition occupying ten rooms on the piano nobile of Palladio’s inventive Palazzo Barbaran da Porto (1570-75) in the heart of Vicenza offers a breathtaking sweep of this great architect's work. In January, the exhibition, organised by the RA and the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza, travels to the Academy’s main galleries.
Original drawings by the architect have been garnered from more than 80 museums and libraries across Europe; no fewer than 78 drawings, some owned by Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, have been shipped over from the RIBA Drawings Collection, London.
On display too, are models of Palladio's farmhouses and villas - about 40 buildings are still standing beyond the walls of the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto. Then there are more than 40 paintings of Palladio’s clients by the likes of Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto as well as paintings of his buildings by Canaletto. Here you can peer at the pages of Palladio’s influential books, including L’antichità di Roma Raccolta Brevemente de gli Auttore Antichi e Moderni (The Antiquities of Rome in a Brief Compendium from Ancient and Modern Authors) the popular guidebook he wrote in 1554, and I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, the work that, widely translated, spread his style worldwide in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
However, no exhibition, no matter how lively, thorough and well-presented as this one is, could fully convey the character and sheer drive of Andrea Palladio. Just why is Palladio the most influential and revered European architect, and how did he achieve such an exalted position? The short answer is energy and skill, coupled to at least one lucky break, and then the charm and ability to discuss even the most arcane matters in clear and simple terms, a charm that is hard to fathom in the few illustrations we know of the man himself.
Born Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, and a stonecutter from the age of thirteen, Palladio was discovered by the poet, dramatist, diplomat, grammarian and architectural patron Giangiorgio Trissino (1478-1550) when he was about 30 years old. Not only did Trissino take his protégé to visit Rome, an eye-opening inspiration for the budding architect, but he also renamed him Palladio, much as the great modernist architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret became Le Corbusier. The reference is thought to be derived from an angel named Palladio, a divine fictional character who not only helped to save the day in the neo-Homeric epic L’Italia Liberata dai Goti (Italy Released from the Goths) published in 1547 by Trissino, but who was also an expert in buildings and urban planning. The new, real-life Palladio was to be the guardian angel of a new wave of Italian architecture.
Palladio was popular with local patrons, labourers and craftsmen. The Venetian nobility and clergy took to him, too. He was evidently an unpretentious fellow, marrying a carpenter's daughter and never buying a house. He was not wealthy despite working hard; far from it. He was a spendthrift, while at least two of his sons appear to have been profligates - one of them a murderer - and seem to have given him no end of trouble. He was a great communicator. Of his writings, he said, ‘I will avoid lengthy words and will make use of those terms which workers commonly use today.’
The farmhouses he built in the Veneto, including Villa Saraceno, are essentially simple structures, buildings of brick and timber, faced with stucco. They are thoroughly practical and well organised; services below, family rooms above, storage on top. They are as easy to live in today as they would have been the best part of half a millennium ago. Structure, form, function and ornament are perfectly integrated. These houses are truly fit for their purpose. Elegant and beautifully proportioned pre-industrial machines for living in.
Andrea Palladio caught, and still captures, the imagination of architects, their patrons and everyone who loves architecture. His work was truly essential. It was also both poetic and practical. In recent years, there has been a further Palladian revival in England, with yet another version of the Villa Capra built; this is Henbury Hall (1986), Cheshire by Julian Bicknell.
My own heart, perhaps, lies more with Palladio’s farmhouses, and, of course, his Venetian churches. In the design of my own house, despite the different building materials and the very different view, I catch more than a glimpse of what this incomparable architect was trying to achieve: a Virgilian idyll translated afresh with an appeal to millions of people through the centuries and around the world.
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