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Palladio Forever!

The Four Books on Architecture

by Andrea Palladio,translated from the Italian by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield
MIT Press, 436 pp., $65.95; $24.95 (paper, to be published in October)

In New York City last summer, there were two shows of the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one at the Whitney, the other at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a Frank O. Gehry exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In addition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major retrospective of the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

These exhibitions underlined the fickle nature of architectural fame. Robert Venturi rattled the cage of modern architecture when he built an iconoclastic house (for his mother) in 1962 and followed it with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture,” according to Vincent Scully. For the following two decades Venturi was architecture’s most influential theorist. He advocated buildings that showed an awareness of architectural history and vernacular culture, and he ridiculed formally monumental buildings, which he called “ducks,” proposing to replace them with “decorated sheds.” Two famous—and infamous—decorated sheds of the 1980s were Michael Graves’s gift-wrapped Portland Building and Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-topped AT&T office tower. What came to be known as postmodernism was all the rage, but it didn’t last. Graves went on to a sort of stylized classicism, and Johnson just went on and on in his eclectic way. As for Venturi and Scott Brown, their ironic combination of flattened decoration and mannered modernism never became popular. Although they built some striking campus buildings and several well-known museums, including the handsome Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, they also failed to obtain prominent commissions, notably the Staten Island ferry terminal and the new Philadelphia concert hall. They stuck to their guns, but it turned out that ducks—or rather titanium artichokes, in the case of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—not decorated sheds, were what clients and the public wanted.

Frank Gehry is, of course, the architect of the day. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is not only at the cutting edge of architectural design, it is also a hit with the public. Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to an obscure Basque industrial city, attracted by his extraordinary sculptural confection. Currently Gehry occupies a unique position in the architectural world: he is a popular avant-gardist, or an avant-garde populist, I’m not sure which. This is unusual. All too often in the last seventy-five years the architects most admired by other architects and the critics did not find favor with the public, which was unimpressed by bare concrete, unadorned brick walls, and steel-pipe railings. On the other hand, the crowd-pleasing work of Raymond Hood, architect of Rockefeller Center, Morris Lapidus, of Miami Beach hotel fame, and I.M. Pei, whose East Wing of the National Gallery of Art is the most visited site in Washington, D.C., was on the whole dismissed as unoriginal by the architectural cognoscenti.

Mies van der Rohe never achieved popularity, let alone celebrity. On the other hand, he had an architectural following, and the so-called Miesian style, in vogue throughout the 1950s, produced such distinguished offspring as Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center. However, by the time Mies died in 1969, less really did seem a bore, as Venturi cheekily put it, and Mies’s brand of architectural minimalism was out of fashion. Architectural fashion is no different than any other kind, however—it swings. The attention paid to Mies last summer is revealing. As a younger generation of architects works to reinvent modernism, it is the taciturn Mies—rather than the mercurial Corbusier, the flaccid Gropius, or the hard-to-define Kahn—who stands out as the beau ideal.

This interest does not herald a return to Miesian architecture, however. Although every designer of a skyscraper owes a debt to Mies’s steel-and-glass high-rise buildings, his brand of Platonic idealism will not be taken up again by real estate developers, as it was in the 1950s. That moment has passed. Mies will continue to be venerated, and his buildings will be admired both for their beauty and their pioneering influence, but already only thirty-two years after his death he is slipping into history. We can imagine that a hundred years from now the Seagram Building will still be a brooding presence on Park Avenue, and its architect will be remembered, the way that H.H. Richardson, say, or Louis Sullivan is remembered today. But what about three hundred years from now? The Seagram Building may survive—its curtain wall is, after all, bronze—but if Mies van der Rohe is remembered at all, it will likely be by historians, not by the general public, who will have forgotten what “Miesian” meant.

For a durable architectural reputation, consider the long influence of Andrea Palladio, who lived at the end of a very different revolutionary architectural period and died in 1580. Thirty-three years later, there was no museum retrospective of his work, but there was something more important, a revival. Inigo Jones visited the Veneto, saw Palladio’s churches, palazzos, and villas, and as a result introduced Palladian classicism to Britain. Jones was a genius, and although only eight of his forty-six completed buildings have survived, masterworks such as the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, and the Queen’s House in Greenwich, mark him as one of the world’s great architectural talents. More than a hundred years later, there was a second British Palladian revival, led by Lord Burlington and architects such as Colen Campbell and William Kent. Its imprint on British architecture, particularly on the country house, was indelible, and a columned portico in the center of a house façade became the quintessential image of a country retreat. Meanwhile, Palladian buildings were springing up all over Europe, not only in his native Italy, but in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and Poland.

One hundred years later, when Thomas Jefferson was asked for architectural advice by a Virginia neighbor, he responded, “Palladio is the Bible. You should get it and stick to it.” Jefferson, whose entry in the architectural competition for the new President’s House in Washington, D.C., was a faithful rendition of a Palladio villa, was a great admirer, as was George Washington, who included a beautiful so-called Palladian window in Mount Vernon. Nor did Palladio’s influence stop there. The great Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens considered himself a Palladian, and Palladian motifs appeared in twentieth-century classical buildings such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Frick Collection in New York City, and the Tennis House in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Every American Colonial house with a pedimented porch, whether it is the Ewings’ fictional spread at Southfork or a suburban bungalow, owes a small debt to Palladio.

The architect who wielded this long-lived influence lived and worked most of his life in Vicenza, a small city in the Venetian Republic. With the exception of two prominent churches in Venice—San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore—most of Palladio’s surviving work is either in Vicenza or, in the case of villas, scattered in far-flung locations in the Veneto countryside. Although Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington—and thousands of architects since—made pilgrimages to Palladio’s buildings, his designs and ideas became known chiefly as the result of his book, I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books on Architecture). Palladio was hardly the first Renaissance treatise writer—he was preceded by Alberti, Filarete, Serlio, and Vignola, to name only the most prominent—but he had the greatest influence. This was owing to a number of factors. Quattro libri is written in simple language. Its author was a seasoned practitioner who emphasized practical advice and avoided abstract theory. Above all, the book is copiously illustrated, almost every page containing a woodcut. Palladio provides abundant visual information: plans of buildings, elevations, sections, details, all dimensioned and carefully drawn.

Palladio’s first book describes the rudiments of architecture, not only construction techniques, but especially the five orders that form the basis of the classical style. The second and third books document his own designs for residential buildings and bridges. The fourth book is devoted to ancient temples. Palladio was not only an exceptional designer. He was an expert on ancient Roman architecture, and he devoted almost half of his treatise to a catalog of his surveys and reconstructions of ancient monuments. This was an invaluable source of information for any architect who was interested in studying the prototypes of classicism.

Book Two had the greatest architectural influence. It is a catalog of fourteen palazzos and twenty-three villas. Although these are not theoretical projects but actual commissions that Palladio had built—or was in the process of building—they amount to an architectural manifesto. Palladio was a designer of enormous invention, but also endowed with a sharp analytical mind. His buildings consisted of discrete elements—columned porticoes, curved loggias, pedimented porches. In the hands of a skilled architect like Jones, they could produce de-signs that were entirely original and yet still recognizably “Palladian.” It is as if Palladio had magically unearthed an architectural gene that could be spliced and respliced by others to make apparently endless permutations. Moreover, he was a magician who explained his tricks. Quattro libri is full of simple formulas for laying out rooms (Palladio recommended seven pleasing shapes), calculating ceiling heights, and spacing columns. For generations of professional architects and gentleman amateurs, Palladio’s treatise served as dictionary, primer, and pattern book. The first American to own a copy was Thomas Jefferson.

Quattro libri was published in Venice in 1570, when Palladio was sixty-two. It was translated into Spanish (1625), French (1650), German (1698), Russian (1797), Swedish (1928), Polish (1955), Romanian (1957), and Czech (1958). There were several eighteenth-century English translations, the most accurate of which was by Isaac Ware, a distinguished Palladian architect. Ware’s 1738 edition became the standard English text, since 1965 available in an inexpensive paperback facsimile edition from the redoubtable Dover Publications.

The Ware translation has a number of serious limitations, however. The language is often stilted, and eighteenth-century spelling and typography make it inconvenient for the modern reader. For example: “If upon any fabrick labour and induftry may be beftowed, that it may be comparted with beautiful meafure and proportion; this, without any doubt, ought to be done in temples.” For the sake of convenience in printing, Ware placed the illustrations in groups, losing the concordance between text and drawings that characterized Palladio’s treatise. Lastly, he had his engravings copied directly from the original woodblocks, with the curious result that all his illustrations are mirror images of the originals. Since so many of Palladio’s plans and façades are symmetrical this is less disturbing than it sounds, but it means that occasionally, a plan shows a staircase on the left when it should be on the right, or facing pages do not match. Moreover, Ware’s metal engravings have a somewhat spindly appearance compared to Palladio’s sturdy woodcuts.

Now, after more than 250 years, a superb new English translation of Quattro libri corrects all these defects. Robert Tavernor, a professor of architecture at the University of Bath, who was a coeditor of a translation of Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Art of Building in Ten Books, and Richard Schofield, a professor of art history at the University of Nottingham, have produced a model of scholarly translation. They have augmented the text with a thoughtful introduction, copious notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and a useful glossary. Their translation is more accurate than Ware’s, and above all more readable. For example, the awkward sentence quoted above now reads: “If any building should have effort and labor expended on it, so that it is laid out with beautiful dimensions and proportions, then, doubtless, this should be done for temples….”

Ultimately, it is the qualitative combination of purposeful words and readable images that has made Palladio’s Quattro libri an enduring source of inspiration,” Tavernor writes. He and Schofield use facsimile reproductions of the original woodcuts and, equally important, they follow Palladio’s original graphic layout. In the treatise, the words and pictures for a particular project are usually on the same page, and full-page illustrations are arranged in specific sequences. The beautiful drawings of the Basilica in Vicenza, for example, are on facing pages, and small- and large-scale drawings of the same building complement each other. Palladio was an artist, and reading his book was intended to be a visual as well as an intellectual experience. The new translation recreates the masterful and stimulating mix of words and pictures that their author intended.

Tavernor and Schofield’s translation will undoubtedly henceforth be the standard Quattro libri in English. By making Palladio more accessible—and more readable—it is likely that yet another generation of architects and lovers of architecture will discover this Renaissance genius.* On the other hand, it is also likely that the excellence of this new edition will unintentionally carry on what Douglas Lewis refers to as its “pernicious influences.” Lewis, the author of The Drawings of Andrea Palladio, gently indicts Quattro libri as a guide to Palladio’s own architecture on several counts. First, since Palladio regularized—and sometimes idealized—his designs for didactic purposes, the descriptions in the book do not correspond with the actual buildings. Second, the illustrations in the book are black and white, whereas Palladio’s buildings frequently incorporate color. Third, Palladio’s architecture is part of a preexisting setting of surrounding buildings and landscape features, which the schematic illustrations in Quattro libri do not convey. Finally, the rather crude woodcuts are a poor medium to communicate the subtle and often delicate quality of Palladio’s architecture.

Paradoxically, these limitations have accounted for Palladio’s enduring appeal. An eighteenth-century rationalist, for example, could see Palladio as a kindred spirit. So could a twentieth-century modernist, who could imagine Palladio to have been a designer of monochrome, monumental buildings, a Platonic explorer of idealized geometry, of harmonic proportions and “pure” space, unconcerned with his immediate surroundings. Yet Palladio’s buildings, Lewis writes, “are not black and white; they are not flat and boldly outlined; they do not sit on pristine, abstract, inviolate Euclidian planes, 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.”

The influence of Quattro libri rests on the incontrovertible fact that it is the book that Palladio himself compiled and whose publishing he oversaw. Whatever its limitations, this is the source of its power, a power that even Palladio’s surviving buildings do not dampen. Palladio’s oeuvre should overshadow his book but it doesn’t. Partly this is due to its frequently remote locations. Moreover, many of his designs—even the famous Villa Rotonda, arguably the most famous private house in architectural history—were never completed, or were completed by others. Not one of Palladio’s palazzos was built in its entirety, and even the great church of San Giorgio Maggiore was in large part unfinished at the time of Palladio’s death. And many of Palladio’s buildings have been destroyed. Only a small portion of the Carità convent, which Goethe considered Palladio’s best work, has survived. Of roughly thirty villas, only seventeen are more or less intact. For these reasons, the misplaced notion has arisen that the buildings documented in Quattro libri represent the “real” Palladio.

The aim of The Drawings of Andrea Palladio is to correct this view. Douglas Lewis is curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and in 1981 he organized an exhibition of more than a hundred Palladio drawings that was shown in the National Gallery and five other American museums. The annotated catalog that accompanied the exhibit has now reappeared in a larger format and vastly expanded form. Since there are no comparable books on Palladio’s drawings, it is an invaluable work. Published in a large format, on good quality paper, the reproductions of the drawings in this splendid book are almost as good as the real thing, since most of Palladio’s drawings are small, generally about eight inches by ten inches. In addition, the book contains numerous photographs of surviving buildings, floor plans, and illustrations from Quattro libri that can be studied side by side with the drawings. An exhaustive bibliography and a particularly thorough index complete the book.

Thanks to English collectors such as Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, there are about 330 surviving drawings by Palladio, more than for any other Renaissance architect. They are hardly a typical cross-section of his total output. About two thirds are drawings of ancient buildings that he was going to use for additional books of his treatise (he died before completing it). In addition there are drawings of early work, and a few later projects. There are no construction drawings, since these were presumably destroyed through hard use. A few projects are described in preliminary sketches, allowing a glimpse into Palladio’s creative process; many others lack the documentation that would clarify them.

The most valuable drawings are of projects that do not appear in Quattro libri. Some, like the beautiful drawing of a new façade for the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, postdate the treatise. The palazzo had been damaged by fire in 1577, and Palladio, who was by then the semi-official architect of the Republic, proposed demolishing what remained of the structure and building anew (the Senate decided instead to restore the palazzo to its former state). Others are drawings of buildings, especially villas, that for one reason or another he did not include in the treatise. Such drawings enrich the Palladio oeuvre immeasurably, and show that he often reused unbuilt plans, and that he developed motifs over the course of several buildings. They also show him to have been concerned with site planning, and with fitting buildings to their surroundings. Lewis’s lively and opinionated accompanying text points out many interesting and previously ignored aspects of the great architect’s work.

Lewis’s most important discovery (or, rather, rediscovery, since the drawing was mentioned two hundred years ago) concerns a drawing of the interior of the Villa Godi near Vicenza that Palladio made in 1550. The rooms of the Villa Godi, like so many of Palladio’s villas, are richly frescoed. Architectural historians in the past assumed that these frescoes were entirely the work of the artists involved; some even considered the frescoes as intrusions on the master’s architectural vision. “That aesthetic viewpoint has insisted (in broad terms) on a Palladian architecture of pure whitewashed spaces, proportionately conceived, and sparingly (if at all) decorated with stone moldings of rigorously chaste profile,” Lewis writes. The Godi drawing, which is by Palladio himself, shows a design for the fictive architectural elements that the painter Giambattista Zelotti later frescoed on the walls of the main room of the villa. In other words, the drawing establishes that Palladio designed the overall layout of the rich interior decoration. Far from being extraneous, the frescoes should be seen as an integral part of the architectural design.

A striking feature of Palladio’s drawings, which though severe are very beautiful, is their modernity. Palladio used drawing to explore design in much the same way as a contemporary architect does (computers excepted). There are thumbnail sketches, back-of-the-envelope diagrams, hurriedly drawn preliminary plans, and rendered presentation drawings. He may have been the last of the true Renaissance architects, but he was also the harbinger of the modern professional. Unlike most of his contemporaries he was not trained as a painter or sculptor; he was a stonemason. Skilled in the practicalities of the building arts, versed in history, a student of ancient ruins, he was a zealous advocate of classicism as well as a restless and innovative designer. No wonder his influence was so long-lived.

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    Tavernor and Schofield’s translation is also available on CD-ROM: Andrea Palladio: I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (Library of Congress/Octavo, $45.00). It runs on Windows, Macintosh, Unix, or OS/2, and allows the reader to move between the English translation and the original 1570 Italian edition.

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