by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Private Palladio

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 June 2013
National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen
Palladio by El Greco



Considering that Andrea Palladio left behind him, according to Guido Beltramini's calculations and 'taking into account only the largest identifiable projects', over eighty buildings, 'including a good sixteen urban residences, thirty villas, four public buildings, five bridges, fifteen religious structures, three theatres and some nine portals, funerary monuments and triumphal devices,' it is surprising how little contemporary evidence about him has otherwise survived.

This has left us with a hazy view of the man himself, a picture now clarified as far as is possible by Professor Beltramini, who has been director of the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio in Vicenza since 1991. This short but enlightening monograph, based on a judicious re-examination of the original documents relating to the architect's life, and drawing on new discoveries and on many years research into the artistic, intellectual and social world in which Palladio rose to prominence, is felicitously translated by Irena Murray and Eric Ormsby.

'Guided by my natural proclivity I gave myself over in my earliest years to the study of architecture', wrote Palladio of himself in his 'Quattro Libri di Architettura', published in Venice in 1570. And it was this single-minded dedication to his calling and to getting things built, which left him little time for other activities, that may go some way to explaining why Palladio's private life has remained so elusive.

Born in 1508, the young Andrea della Gondola was raised amid a reconstruction boom that followed the devastation brought about by the siege, conquest and reconquest of Padua during the War of the League of Cambrai, during which Venice lost all its mainland possessions and came close to total destruction. Skilled building workers would have been at a premium, and the precociously talented Andrea was already salaried as an apprentice stonemason at thirteen.

His move to Vicenza two years later was very likely stimulated by the opportunities offered by Podemuro workshop, run by the city's leading builders and stonecutters Giovanni di Giacomo da Porlezza and Girolamo Pittoni. It has recently come to light that the former had surveyed ancient monuments in Rome, and perhaps introduced his protÉgÉ to the systematic study of antiquities. It was the respected da Porlezza who vouched for Palladio when he put forward his plans in 1546 for the loggias of Vicenza's Palazzo della Ragione that were to make his name and assure him a regular annual income from the city for the rest of his life.

But the most decisive single figure in promoting Andrea was the local nobleman Giangiorgio Trissino. Humanist, scholar, papal diplomat, poet, friend of Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Michelangelo and Raphael, Trissino talent-spotted Andrea in the late 1530s and took him to Rome in 1541, the first of a series of extended visits undertaken by Palladio in the 1540s and '50s. During the same period, through Trissino and his circle, the aspiring architect was introduced to major figures in the profession, including Michele di San Michele and Sebatiano Serlio.

Giangiorgio Trissino, Beltramini argues convincingly, was the most likely originator of Palladio's assumed classical-sounding name, with its echoes of the goddess Pallas Athene. This was also the name that Trissino gave to the guardian angel (and occasional building consultant) of the Byzantine general Belisarius in his twenty-seven thousand verse epic 'L'Italia liberata dai Goti'. Palladio went on to give classical names to all five of his children: Leonida, Marcantonio, Orazio, Zenobia and Silla.

Vicenza was then one of the wealthiest cities in Europe thanks to the silk trade. Its leading citizens raised silk worms on their neighbouring country estates and manufactured the textiles for export in the numerous silk mills on the city's waterways. The names of Palladio's surviving villas and palazzos - Porto, Piovene, Poiana, Saraceno, Godi, Thiene, Chiericati and so on - now preserve the names of these Vicenza silk magnates.

Although prosperous and with a highly educated elite, the city was deeply riven by factional rivalries and murderous domestic disputes which, as related by Beltramini, read like the plots of Jacobean revenge tragedies.

In one notorious incident, a widow, Isabetta da Roma, fell in love with a member of the Valmarana family, Alberto, but he rejected her. When her attempt to poison him failed she incited her brother to defend her honour. Isabetta's brother and a gang of hired thugs burst into the Palazzo Valmarana, murdered Alberto, two of his brothers and two servants. The forensic examination of the corpses found that Alberto had received thirty-eight knife and bullet wounds - the exact depth of the wounds helpfully 'measured with a wooden stylus'.

When Palladio's patron Giangiorgio Trissino remarried after the death of his first wife, his son Giulio with ten armed men drove his stepmother from the house where she was staying and ransacked it. On a later occasion Giulio dragged his ailing, nearly 70-year-old father out of bed and hurled him into the street. Denounced by his half-brother Ciro as a Lutheran heretic, Giulio died in prison in 1577. By then Ciro had been murdered by assassins, with fourteen stab wounds to the face. Seven years on Ciro's son Marcantonio killed the man behind the attack in a similar manner. The vendetta continued when Marcantonio's wife and infant son were shot with an harquebus and knifed to death.

Palladio's Villa Piovene became a crime scene when in 1577 the owner of the Palladian Villa Godi next door forced his way in and murdered his neighbour, who had tried to take refuge in a wardrobe. Some years earlier Paolo Almerico, who was to commission most celebrated building the Villa Rotonda, spent several years in prison for murdering Bortolomeo Pagliarino, who had just commissioned Palladio to build a villa at Lanzè.

'One day they will cut each other to pieces,' as a Venetian magistrate remarked observing Vicenza's perennial mayhem.

In February 1569 Palladio's son Leonida was charged with murdering the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair, but was lucky to get off with a dubious plea of self-defence (perhaps thanks to his father's influential friends).

The death of this delinquent son affords us a unique personal glimpse of Palladio. In a letter dictated in Venice in January 1572 to the superintendents of the site of the loggias of the Palazzo della Ragione in Vicenza, he apologizes for failing to carry out some task, 'having lost my eldest son in such a fashion that I find myself so hindered and troubled in both soul and body, all the more so for not being able yet to bury him, that I find neither the time nor the way to do anything whatever.'

During the 1550s Palladio designed a villa for the Barbaro brothers, Daniele and Marcantonio, at Maser. The architect also provided the illustrations for Daniele Barbaro's edition of Vitruvius, in the pages of which Barbaro praised his collaborator, whose buildings he wrote 'compete with those of the ancients, provide light for the moderns, and offer marvels to those that will see them.' Yet Palladio lived with his family in a series of rented houses in Vicenza and never built a residence for himself.

Palladio died during August 1580, perhaps on the 19th, but exactly where, when and why is still not known, nor where he was buried. During a search for his remains in 1831 a promising-looking slab in the Santa Corona church in Vicenza was lifted; no fewer than eighteen skulls were found underneath. One was duly selected as that of the great man and solemnly conveyed to a new monument in the city's municipal cemetery.

The Private Palladio by Guido Beltramini, translated by Irena Murray and Eric Ormsby, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2013

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023