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Palladio; Renaissance man for the ages

Palladio lives!

Four centuries are but a day when one speaks of the most influential architect in the Western world.

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No epitaph marks his tomb. No US postage stamp shows this calm-eyed gentleman with the bald head and trim beard peering calmly above his white-collared Renaissance garb.

Never mind the philatelic forgetfulness: Here is ''the most imitated architect who ever lived.'' The landscape of our architecture is his.

So, too, is the exhibition of ''The Drawings of Andrea Palladio,'' plus a catalog, a 48-minute film, and a symposium to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his passing.

The events began at the National Gallery in Washington, remain at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through Feb. 28, and conclude at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, March 15-April 30.

Andrea di Pietro (1508-1580) dropped the name that described his first calling, stonemason, to become Andrea Palladio, creator of monuments and villas, reviver of the ancients, shaper of the moderns for 400 years.

From the age of 30, Palladio built Venice and his native Vicenza and, through them, the world. But the anniversary and the organization of the show of drawings from ''apprenticeship'' to ''legacy'' underscore the irony of the life of this congenial Renaissance master.

For all his genius in building, one measures Palladio's work neither in remaining structures nor in tons of rusticated stone survivors; not in the details of ornament from the ancients nor in the three-part arched window that made the label ''Palladian'' more familiar than the man.

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Instead, one weighs Palladio's ''product'' in reams - the sheets through which his ''Quattri Libri - Four Books of Architecture'' fanned out to the world.

From Bernini to Thomas Jefferson, Inigo Jones to some ''dentist's dream office'' developer, 1980s style; from Lord Burlington to post-modern pranksters, Palladio's superb copies of antiquity and coherent system made his books the authority. Libertarians and absolutists, backward-looking revivalists and freakishly futuristic drafters, have picked the whole or parts of his paper presentations to rework or simply reproduce.

Crossing the Atlantic from England, everything from the classical orders to the overall grandeur and order of his elevations became the vocabulary for structures from George Washington's Mount Vernon to the suburban subdevelopment.

In a sense, though, the monographs undid the man.

The two-dimensional translation flattened his robust and plastic architecture. Just as mere etchings deprive us of the human warmth of this man who could be ''amiable'' to his clients (Vasari's word) and ''loving'' to his craftsmen (Gualdo's), the portrait paled.

Palladio's buildings ''are not black and white; they are not flat and boldly outlined; and once more, above all, they do not sit on pristine, abstract, inviolate Euclidean planes,'' curator Douglas Lewis writes in the catalog, ''but instead are jostled and nudged and crowded in dense urban or agrarian contexts, which almost universally have never been measured, drawn, photographed, dated, or otherwise acknowledged to exist.''

We remain armchair geographers, he writes.

Despite this acknowledgement, in some ways the show further dims the father of European clasicism. However lovely the lyrical brown-ink-and-wash drawings in the Fogg's two rooms, they pale next to the photos of, say, the Basilica or the Palazzo Chiericati at Vicenza. And couldn't the organizers have enlarged and multiplied the few photographs tacked to the walls?

Strangely, the nearby show, ''Andrea Palladio and his Life: Three Centuries of Illustrated Books,'' a dozen cases of opened volumes at Harvard's Houghton Library, has more zest and immediacy.

The ''book that shook the world'' stands there. One can almost picture Thomas Jefferson or H. H. Richardson, who owned one of the copies on view here, thumbing through the pages. It is a treat.

For all his distance in time, Palladio wielded his pen in an enduring gesture.

A modern designer might well doodle off his first thoughts for a project on a napkin. Nelson Rockefeller, that autocratic amateur, Walter Mitty-ed his fantasies that way; so have real architects such as Paul Rudolph. The Palladian equivalent of today's matchbox or scrap of paper was dog-eared to extinction, but some of the paper thoughts that followed have survived.

Drawings for personal use, drawings of polished visions, drawings of careful site plans, drawings to make a good case to the client, even drawings after the fact, still clutter designers' offices. In this, too, the Palladian practice lives.

Unfortunately, more specialists than ordinary visitors will feel that continuity. We may admire familiar facades or appreciate the graphic contrast between a faint and fanciful griffin and a sturdy bridge. But the labels and catalog lean to the academic - all citations and cross-citations, speculations on influences and datings.

Legitimate footnotes, all; vital to the Palladian cottage industry of scholarship, to be sure, in its charting of ''Bernini-esque Palladianism,'' '''Neo-Pallad-ianism,'' or ''Neo-Neo-Paladianism,'' and so on, yet rather more wearisome to the rest of us.

''Palladio: The Architect and his Influence in America'' comes to the aid of this tribe of nonprofessionals. The film, directed by James S. Ackerman with John Terry (shown at various times throughout the exhibition), begins with a scanning of the red-tile roofs of Vicenza; the terracotta toy town brings memories of Jefferson's University of Virginia.

By its close, the architect is made clear in all his colorful and complex parts. Shots from the courthouse in Galveston, Texas, to a Gulf gas station in Harvard Square, testify to Palladio in America.

While Professor Ackerman calls so-called late-modern classicism ''pseudo-history,'' a few views of Palladio seen through, say, the eyes of working designers such as the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki or Venturi and Rauch might have freshened the film still further.

Nonetheless, Palladio, updated by Ackerman, is resoundingly contemporary.

Like the best of today's design breed, Palladio learned to both love and leave the past (''Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem,'' Alexander Pope put it for the ages). He was in debt to Rome for San Giorgio Maggiore and the Dedentore, as others were obliged to him for Mount Vernon or the Virginia State Capitol. Yet it never cramped him. He cared for context, honored the environment and its public, and could house birds as well as nobility in the classical Palladian villa, the film observes.

At once an idiosyncratic artist and a humanist and public man anxious to fit into the idiom of his native landscape, Palladio, and Palladian ideals, remain more modern than most modernists.

All this and the genius of his architecture remain.

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