2008 was the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio’s birth. A brilliant traveling exhibition was mounted in Italy which I was fortunate to catch in Vicenza, which, far more than Venice, is Palladioland. I subsequently wrote the following essay and filed it away in a folder inside another folder. Hey, it’s only ten years late. I am pleased to report I still stand by every word.
Entering the “Palladio 500 Anni” show in Vicenza’s Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, I passed through the portico of an interior courtyard where a large canvas read, “This exhibition speaks to us of a time when a society in the throes of transformation never lost faith in architecture as a means of improving the world.”
That’s quite a statement.
Right off, the show set me up for a vision of harmonious, balanced, and symmetrical spaces designed to elevate the human spirit. Goethe said that architecture is frozen music; Palladio listened to the Pythagorean music of the spheres.
While designing and building villas (before Palladio architects were only advanced stonemasons or sculptors) for the movers and shakers of renaissance Vicenza and Venice, Palladio pursued a vision. The individual buildings were a means to his end. He created for the world at large and he built to last, but he also learned the glory of imperial Rome from its ruins which had also been built to last. They were his textbook and his greatest inspiration. He was not a local boy building big houses; he was an evangelist for an elevated vision of domestic and public spaces. The buildings were arguments that Vitruvius had been on to something. Palladio’s most brilliant buildings are not slavish imitations of Roman imperial grandeur, they are variations on Roman themes, blending Vitruvius’s ratios and the intricate stonework of Corinthian capitals with the modern world as he knew it.
It was fascinating to watch this vision emerge fully formed, like Minverva. His signature is emblazoned on the portico at Villa Tressino at Cricoli, a renaissance vision crystalized between the square towers of a stodgy medieval building. His style developed to better realize his vision. His understanding grew, deepened, and expanded as idea and theories were tested in reality and perfected in practice. He knew the Roman’s ratios but not their trade secrets. That took experience. In the meantime he grew increasingly more daring and original in the drawings, where imagination reigned; he sketched and erased and redrew his way to an expanded understanding of the possibilities of Roman architecture.
And not only the exteriors. Detailed renderings of interior floorplans are based on the ratios of Vitruvius and Alberti, Palladio’s muses, along with the ruins themselves which he measured with a tape measure, all those vaults, arches, columns, capitals, and domes, especially and uniquely, domes. There may have been a dome or two before the Romans, but they perfected domes and the techniques for building them with lightweight concrete. They integrated the dome into the profile of important buildings and of the city itself.
The size and shape of individual rooms are in fixed ratios, stairways are golden spirals, the number and placement of the rooms are Fibonacci sequences. In the early plans for one of the villas Palladio quickly sketched sixteen variations, shuffling them like tiles in an orthographic Rubik’s cube.
Most of the models are sectioned and spread to show the inner workings. Watching the transformation from related sketches to building plans to models of the buildings spotlighted Palladio’s infinitely detailed creative process. He sculpted on a very grand scale.
Nothing was left to chance. He sketched the finest details of pediments and cornices, rustication patterns, the interlacing of brickwork. My favorite drawings split a building down the middle and present, on right and left, two possible variations with subtle changes creating varying impacts. The woodcuts for his Four Books of Architecture, executed from his drawings, are as precise and detailed as Durer. Sometimes he is drawing the plans for a villa, often he is recreating ruins, reimagining them intact from whole cloth, possibly better. One must view them as Palladio’s and not antiquities.
Often, the drawings of the villas he built don’t reflect the existing structures. That is because they are the director’s cut, representing what he really wanted to do, and would have done if he had been freed from the constraints of egos and budgets.
I was most amazed to learn that the iconic facade of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice was not what Palladio really wanted.
The pediments flattened into two dimensions — a bas relief of a Roman temple — were a late compromise. Superimposed pediments were a stylistic innovation Palladio pioneered to resolve the conflict between the Roman temple’s monospace and the Christian nave-and-aisle form. He first used this solution at San Francesco della Vigna and San Pietro di Castello, and perfected with Il Redentore.
The model of Palladio’s ideal San Giorgio prominently features a pronaus, a porch with freestanding pillars extending 40 more feet toward the water. Reprieved from flatness, it thrusts majestically toward St. Mark’s basin. The design is based on the Temple of Augustus in Pula, Croatia, which Palladio drew and redrew, analysed to the last micrometer, ran through the liquid-state computer of his brain, and then fought to build in the “real” world. But the Benedictine monks who initially authorized his design later got cold feet. It was too Roman, they said. Too Pagan. They asked him to collapse the porch and superimpose the pediments as he had done so many times before. The existing façade is a facile but flat solution.
“In Rome,” a plaque reads, “Palladio very likely mastered the difficult art of restoring ruins on paper to their original splendor.”
Or beyond, I would add.
My favorite exhibit in the show was a computer animation of Palladio’s proposed Rialto Bridge. A series of preliminary sketches and refinements, along with the final elevations and a large model, precede the main event. The computer animation takes the viewer on a stroll through the Roman forum posing as a bridge. It is huge for the site and far too complex for a pedestrian bridge. Nor does it face Grand Canal and offer sweeping vistas. It faces inward, and views the Grand Canal through precisely placed porticos.
Palladio’s bridge would have changed Venice at the expense of everything Ruskin held dear. I walked away from Palladio’s bridge proposal and from his proposed redesign of the Doge’s Palace, relieved that they only exist on paper. Had Palladio gotten his way, the signature Byzantine gothic, so flamboyantly unique, raised to a pitch of perfection in the lighter-than-air pink Doge’s Palace, would have vanished. Ruskin’s “central building of the world” would have gone the way of old Rome.
I walked away convinced that Palladio’s singular brilliance shines most brightly in his villas, where he had the blankest possible slate and the fewest constraints to realizing his total vision. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, his private homes featured his most consistently brilliant and innovative work. He had no other mold to fit than the gently rolling hills and fields of the Veneto. Palladio’s best villas are glimpses of perfection, unfettered by surrounding buildings and pre-existing structures, built from the ground up and from the sky down. His great churches may be recycled Roman baths, but his villas are private heavens.
More photos of Palladio 500 from the creators: