by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art Fund
Chiswick House designed by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, completed 1729

Palladio's Conquest of the North

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 29 May 1999


Andrea Palladio, the most influential of all Renaissance architects, spent almost his entire career in and around this small provincial town designing farmhouses, villas and palazzi. He went to Venice late in life, to build the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore, his two great ecclesiastical monuments, but by then his reputation had already traveled far beyond his homeland.

The spread of Palladianism northward into those countries that would subsequently export it to the world is the subject of an admirable exhibition, 'Palladio and Northern Europe' at Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, until June 27.

This is the first of what are planned as a series of annual shows by the Andrea Palladio International Center for Architectural Studies in its splendid, carefully restored new home, built by Palladio during the last decade of his life. The original owner ruined himself financially constructing this palazzo and it passed to cousins, in whose hands it remained until the late 1970s, as a result of which many interior features have also survived to this day.

The exhibition opens with what the Palladio expert and academic director at Palazzo Barbaran, Howard Burns, dubs a 'shrine' to the architect, a suggestive assemblage of key pieces that not only introduce us to Palladio himself, but also show his impact on his early foreign admirers.

Rapid autograph sketches provide snapshots of the architect as he tackles the preliminary planning stages, confronts basic technical problems and tries out various possible arrangements of rooms, interspersed with flights of fancy into finer points of emerging buildings and details of their decoration.

Here, too, is Inigo Jones, who later owned these sketches, vividly portrayed in Van Dyck's famous drawing of him, and his heavily annotated copy of Palladio's 'Four Books of Architecture.' First published in 1570, this bible of Palladianism was even more important than the buildings themselves in diffusing the creed of the new architecture outside the confines of Venice and the Veneto.

Also on display is Sir Henry Wotton's 'The Elements of Architecture' (1624), a ground-breaking volume by this former ambassador to the Venetian Republic. Addressed not to architects but cultured laymen and women, it was highly influential in explaining the basic concepts of Palladianism, whose adoption in northern Europe was driven as much by enlightened patrons as professional builders.

As for the 'Four Books,' this was not just a 'style' guide but a thoroughly practical builder's manual, dealing with every aspect of construction, from establishing the right proportions for a façade to the design of staircases and fireplaces, and the convenient and hygienic siting of lavatories.

Palladio illustrated the book with his own clear and beautiful drawings, using as examples both his completed buildings and those that were still on the drawing board, integrating text and pictures in a manner rare at the time. This was a winning formula, and in stark contrast to the frequent obscurity of the ancient Roman author Vitruvius (one of Palladio's principal inspirations) and Alberti's tendency to the more literary and theoretical.

Inigo Jones was a true disciple of the master in that he completely absorbed his writings, studied his buildings at first hand and imbibed the true spirit of Palladianism, which emphasized that classical models should not be slavishly imitated but varied and elaborated to create a genuinely innovative architecture for the times.

Through Jones, Palladianism went to England early, yet caught on only partially, not becoming the dominant force in new building until the epoch of Lord Burlington in the 18th century. The reasons for the different rates at which Palladianism won acceptance in the various countries of the north are complex and are investigated in both exhibition and catalogue (which is available in English and stands as an invaluable book in itself).

Jones was almost exclusively patronized by the English royal court, and so, as Howard Burns observes, it was a significant moment for English architecture as well as political history when 'Charles I on 30 January 1649 stepped out of the first-floor window of Jones's Banqueting House onto the temporary scaffold on which he was beheaded.' The upheavals of the Civil War and Restoration did in due course, however, produce an altered social climate in which Palladianism ultimately flourished. The court ceased to be the absolute epicenter of national aristocratic life, and prosperous gentlemen of taste were ever more in search of visually pleasing and comfortable houses in which to spend time on their country estates.

Changes in social life also gave rise to a demand for new types of public building, of which Lord Burlington's Assembly Rooms at York (of 1730) were a prime example, although in this case the cardinal Palladian rule of combining beauty with practicality was perhaps not entirely met, at least vis-à-vis contemporary fashions: The Duchess of Marlborough was soon complaining that the columns 'stood as close as a row of nine pins. Nobody with a hoop petticoat can pass through them.' Holland was in many ways in advance of England in embracing Palladianism in both domestic and civic architecture, producing in the mid-17th century a building both strikingly grand and superbly functional in the new style: Jacop van Campen's Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace on the Dam), which drew on Palladio's designs for the rebuilding of the Doges' Palace that had never been executed.

Germany was slower to accept the classical style, partly on account of the general conservatism of its city burghers, and because no great metropolis like London or Amsterdam emerged there, with the resources and urge to celebrate mercantile wealth and national pride in the revolutionary new architectural language that Palladianism offered.

Later on, Frederick the Great, who himself became steeped in Italian classicism, was determined to catch up, providing his own sketches of what he wanted, specifying columns, ornaments and even the paints he wanted used. He wished especially to make Potsdam, which was both a permanent military headquarters and administrative center, 'a sort of walk-on picture book of Palladian architecture as he understood it' (in the words of Kurt Foster in the catalogue).

In 1751, Francesco Algarotti, Frederick's Venetian adviser who had come to him after a long stay in England, declared to the Prussian monarch that 'Potsdam will be a school for the art of architecture, just as it is a school for the art of war.' Sadly, this picture book of Palladianism was almost totally destroyed in the struggle against Hitler.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023