by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pino Guidolotti
The loggia that Andrea Palladio wrapped arorund Vicenza's medieval town hall.

Palladio: 500 Years On

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 7 November 2008


Andrea Palladio was born in Padua on Nov. 30, 1508. Probably the most influential of all Western architects, he has at various periods been the most intensively studied.

Yet an exhibition, 'Andrea Palladio 500 Anni,' staged by the International Center for Architectural Studies at Palladio's Palazzo Barbaran da Porto to mark the quincentenary, reveals that significant discoveries about the man and his work are still being made.

The show of more than 200 of Palladio's drawings, manuscripts, models, paintings, books and other pieces, illuminated by the lively commentaries of the curators Guido Beltramini and Howard Burns, offers a concise tour of the architect's long and productive career (he died in 1580) and offers new and valuable insights.

The exhibition continues in Vicenza until Jan. 6, and goes on to the Royal Academy in London, then to Barcelona and Madrid.

Some cherished legends undergo modification here. Palladio's father, Pietro della Gondola, seems not to have been simply a humble miller ferrying around his sacks of flour in his boat, but a small businessman with diverse interests. Andrea's godfather, Vincenzo Grandi, was a well-respected sculptor. Grandi's useful professional and social connections in Vicenza now appear to have been a primary reason why Palladio went to that city to work as a stonemason, rather than because he was fleeing an oppressive Paduan master.

Vicenza was a prosperous town with a competitive and fractious nobility, whose tendency for one-upmanship would eventually provide Palladio with abundant opportunities to build grand urban palazzi. Meanwhile, the aspiring architect was taken up by some of the city's leading intellectuals, notably Giangiorgio Trissino, a poet, scholar and amateur architect, who no doubt appreciated the collaboration of a congenial young professional with hands-on site experience. As Vasari recorded, Palladio's 'affable and kindly nature makes him well-loved by everyone.'

Trissino and his circle took Palladio on five of their trips to Rome to study ancient architecture. These friends gave Andrea della Gondola the classical-sounding nickname 'Palladio.'

In 1546, Trissino was a decisive figure in securing for Palladio the commission to design the bold, classically inspired two-story loggia he wrapped around the city's medieval town hall, renamed by Palladio himself the 'Basilica.'

This was a major personal breakthrough, not least since the terms guaranteed Palladio an annual income for life, while leaving him free to accept commissions for private urban palazzi and country villas. In fact, several other famous architects proposed designs for the Basilica, and Palladio absorbed some ideas from them, although the final solution was substantially his and in the long term he won all the credit.

This was not the only example of appropriation early in Palladio's career, as Inigo Jones, Palladio's admirer and first promoter in England, bears witness. The Vicentine Palazzo Thiene was principally designed by Giulio Romano, 'yet Palladio sets yt downe as his owne,' noted Jones around 1613-14, in the margins of his own copy of Palladio's 'Four Books of Architecture.'

However, Palladio was now on the verge of proving himself unique in his scope among the architects of his age, and uniquely ambitious in his intentions. For he believed that by studying classical models and ancient literature a comprehensive new architecture could be created for buildings both public and private, for every level of society, urban and rural. Essential features of this rationalized architecture were as much reasonable cost (brick, not stone was the primary material) and practicality (comfort and hygiene were priorities) as beauty for its own sake.

A vital element in his whole program was the creation of a practical illustrated manual of the new architecture. This ultimately became the 'Four Books of Architecture.' Far from being a theoretical treatise, Palladio worked on the 'Four Books' for more than three decades, closely in parallel with his designing and building activities, constantly striving to harmonize the contents of the book with the realities on the ground. Indeed, it was above all the 'Four Books' that disseminated his approach and style around the globe. Thomas Jefferson, to take but one example, could build classic Palladian buildings in America, including Monticello and the University of Virginia, without ever setting eyes on one actually constructed by the Italian architect.

Beltramini argues in the catalogue that 'Palladio definitively became Palladio' with the project for Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza in 1550, which contains many of those artfully reinterpreted classical elements we now recognize as quintessentially Palladian. At first a private palazzo, it is now the city's Civic Art Gallery, and might equally have been designed expressly for this purpose - nicely demonstrating the interchangeability of Palladio's domestic and public designs. The Palazzo originally overlooked a piazza and a busy navigable river, this ambiance anticipating the architect's later projects in Venice itself and their watery settings.

None of Palladio's projects for Venice came to fruition until he was in his mid-50s. The first to reach completion (in 1565) was for the facade of Sansovino's San Francesco della Vigna church, consisting of two temple-style fronts, one superimposed on the other, a hugely influential formula he returned to for his 1577 Redentore church on the island of Guidecca (his only Venetian commission paid for out of the public purse). The twin bell towers of the Redentore bear an inescapable resemblance to the slender minarets designed by Palladio's contemporary, the great Ottoman architect Sinan. (As it happens, the new palazzo on Guidecca designated by the Republic as the official residence of Ottoman ambassadors was close by.)

A section of the exhibition raises the distinct possibility that the architects influenced each other, since apparent Palladian elements can be detected in some of Sinan's compositions. It is highly likely that, while he was ambassador in Istanbul, Marcantonio Barbaro, whose villa by Palladio appears in the 'Four Books,' would have donated a copy of the printed work to his friend the Grand Vizir Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, one of Sinan's patrons. And Ottoman and Western ground plans juxtaposed here show that Sinan would have had no difficulty in reading European designs. Moreover, a knowledge of Italian, then the commercial and diplomatic lingua franca of the Mediterranean, was not uncommon among the Ottoman elite.

Palladio's spectacular proposals for the new Rialto bridge were passed over for a cheaper, far less elegant alternative. At the same time he designed low-cost housing, for which drawings still exist (on display here). His buildings for the Carita convent (now part of the Accademia Gallery) included his dramatic 'flying' spiral staircase, the first of its kind, its stone treads projecting otherwise unsupported from the walls of the stairwell.

The new church for the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery, which now rises majestically above the waters of the broad St. Mark's Basin, was his first-ever commission for an entire church (it was begun in 1566). It is surprising to learn here that the original plan was for a temple front with a projecting portico and massive freestanding columns, which would have altered the effect considerably. The present facade was completed in 1610, by the now otherwise little-known Simone Sorella, who reverted to a flattened facade closer to those of San Francesco and the Redentore.

The exhibition also illustrates that the interior of San Giorgio, now all cool classical whites and grays, was originally more colorful with architectural details highlighted in a rich red, but 'whitewashed' over some 40 years later.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023