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The Passions of Palladio

The Hand of Palladio

by Paolo Portoghesi, with photographs by Lorenzo Capellini, and translated from the Italian by Erika G. Young
Umberto Allemandi, 267 pp., $90.00
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San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, designed by Andrea Palladio; photographs by Lorenzo Capellini from The Hand of Palladio

From the evidence of photographs, drawings, and the countless neoclassical buildings in English-speaking lands inspired by his example, the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1581) may seem to be the most staid and tranquil of classicists. But that is because no other medium can quite convey the wild power and exoticism of his buildings themselves in their own surroundings. More than anyone, perhaps, the film director Joseph Losey came close to conveying this surprising wildness when he chose several Palladian structures as the setting for his film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

As Losey (like his remarkable Don Giovanni, Ruggero Raimondi) understood, both Mozart and Palladio put the extremes of passion into their tightly disciplined art, and both knew just when to let all discipline stop. Don Giovanni plunges into Hell screaming, and Palladio plays with the very same volcanic forces: the earthbound gravity that pulled down Don Giovanni and the human spirit’s contrary drive to soar. The columns of Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza (begun in 1550), rather than tamely bearing their burden of masonry, shoot skyward in a burst of energy drawn straight from the earth, which transforms them as they rise up into pilasters, into pedestals, and, finally, into statues poised to take flight. Palladio’s architecture is never simply a matter of load and support; it is all about directing huge forces, physical, political, and spiritual.

Palladio may have become the great inspiration for Enlightenment England and the antebellum US South, but he came from Vicenza, a sometime outpost of the Venetian Republic, and a rebellious outpost at that. Vicenza sits in the foothills of the Italian Alps, right where the flat, fertile expanse of the Po delta, laced by a network of canals, begins to give way to solid rock. It is a relatively gentle landscape of round, eroded hills whose rugged inhabitants never gave up their independent ways even after the region was annexed by Venice. Vicenza became a hotbed of religious dissent from the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation, and Palladio himself was caught up in those currents throughout his life. His architecture, as his admirer Thomas Jefferson must have known, was almost by definition an architecture for freethinkers.

A number of events honored the five hundredth anniversary of Palladio’s birth in 2008, including a splendid exhibition in his native Vicenza, which took place in one of the palazzi he designed, Palazzo Barbaran da Porto (designed in 1569; now home to the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio). The celebrations also included marathon conferences in Venice, Vicenza, and Verona; and the conferral of honorary Venetian citizenship on James Ackerman, one of Palladio’s most genial and learned modern exponents.

In the same spirit, the Roman architect Paolo Portoghesi, the photographer Lorenzo Capellini, and the publisher Umberto Allemandi have produced The Hand of Palladio, an introduction to Palladio’s architecture that comes as close as books can to capturing this elusive subject. Now in his late seventies, Portoghesi is best known for three different activities: his early scholarly work on Baroque architecture, especially on the melancholic genius Francesco Borromini; his design for the mosque of Rome (designed 1975, completed 1995); and his twelve-year stint as founding director of the exhibition known as the Venice Architectural Biennale, whose first incarnation, in the fall of 1980, was a project called Strada Novissima (New Road), in which brash young architects—among them Frank Gehry, Robert A.M. Stern, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, John Rauch, James Stirling, Michael Graves, Léon Krier, Ricardo Bofill, and Thomas Gordon Smith—mounted a gaudy, irreverent assault on Modernist austerity.

The mosque of Rome, the first modern Islamic religious center to be built in Italy, was set behind a hill in a suburb to minimize the impact of its minaret on a skyline where nothing may compete with St. Peter’s (and nothing does). The interior is a forest of slender, curving columns in prefabricated concrete tracery, and is probably the most successful of Portoghesi’s projects, well used and well loved from the moment of its consecration in 1995. Its spiritual purpose is enhanced by the organic quality of its curving lines, the gently suffused light of its interior, and its woodland setting.

Portoghesi’s other projects, most of them also in steel-reinforced concrete and brick, show their age more conspicuously. They are dream visions that progress from a 1960s Baroque version of Modernism (with starbursts, reds, and avocado greens) into his later taste for teal blues, rose pinks, and learned echoes of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Bramante, Borromini, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh—combining them all in a truly Roman embrace (his interiors for the Hotel Minerva in Rome are a good example).

These works have a terrible poignancy now, reminders as they are of the optimistic Italy that pulled itself from postwar destitution by sheer force of imagination—Fellini was in many ways a maker of documentaries, not fantasies—and unrelenting work. The mosque of Rome, despite its modern materials, still revels in craftsmanship, as can be seen from the specially cast prefabricated columns, the intricate mosaics, the chandeliers and fountains. That same loving care of surface shines forth in every aspect of Italian life: in Fellini, Raphael, Titian, Vivaldi; in Marcello Mastroianni’s swagger, Sophia Loren’s vitality, La Dolce Vita—but then it was another Italian, the Roman sage Vitruvius, who declared that perfection can be achieved only by following through on every last detail of ornament. Decoration in Italy is always more than superficial embellishment; it is the essence of true civility.

The current Italian byword degrado (degradation, which means “stepping downward”) shows what Italy has lost in the past fifteen years of increasing cynicism and greedy glitter. Another byword for the contemporary state of things is Italietta, the trivial version of an Italy where hope and what once seemed an indomitable lust for life have gone missing.

When Strada Novissima opened in 1980, with its subtitle “The Presence of the Past,” its color-saturated, playfully classical stage sets seemed to give expression to Italy’s cultural situation: classical style had galvanized Italy’s rapid advances in Roman times and in the Renaissance, so why not once again, as the pioneers of Modernism were slipping into maturity, old age, and, at last, history? The critic Reyner Banham played the part of disgruntled Modernist perfectly, railing against Strada Novissima’s “bunch of smart-ass postmodernists,” but the architects of that Biennale were actually a variegated crew who resisted a collective label, whether modern, postmodern, or classical. By herding such blithe spirits under a single roof, Portoghesi showed that contemporary architecture had broken free of slablike skyscrapers, steel-and-glass boxes, and “form follows function”—so that studying an architect like Palladio made sense not simply as an abstract exercise, but as a real dialogue between past and present.

Sadly, the ultimate sponsor behind Strada Novissima, the Socialist Party of then Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, turned out to be fostering a still more persuasive cultural force than new trends in architecture. That force was a young entrepreneur named Silvio Berlusconi, who had decided to put his own faith for the future in dumb TV shows, and his vision was prescient. Long after Strada Novissima folded its tent of many colors—and after Craxi, convicted of corruption, had fled into exile and eventual death in Tunisia—the past returned in the form of dubbed reruns of the American retro sit-com Happy Days on Berlusconi’s private television channels (along with a version of strip poker called Colpo Grosso). Berlusconi, as he coined money, saw the way to open new careers for himself.

In his new book, Portoghesi comes to Palladio, therefore, in a much different national mood than the one that accompanied his early studies of Borromini and his experiences as an architectural ringmaster, addressing the great classical architect as an interpreter of Baroque architecture, and especially of Borromini. In this field, for more than forty years, he has been a figure of extraordinary importance and eloquence. Like his buildings, his early books are recognizably products of their times, using terms much in vogue when they were written and less common now: “semiotics,” “postmodern,” “anti-classical.”

But more emphatically, Portoghesi, in all his writings, reflects his lifelong experience of Rome: its streets, its golden light, its architecture, its ravishing beauty. A native of the Eternal City, he takes its layers of history and its endless surprises as the normal setting for any life in the present, and that immanent presence of the past makes him write with uncommon vividness, engaging with architects long dead as if they were still alive. It is easier to proclaim the triumph of the modern in New York or L.A. than it is in Rome, in part because the ruins make a mockery of all human proclamations, but most of all because the ruins give life among them a depth and poignancy that no utopia can match. The timebound aspects of Portoghesi’s writing are more than counterbalanced by his clear sense of what is timeless in great architecture and great cities.

Portoghesi came to Borromini with an excellent command of Greek and Latin from a Roman liceo classico, as well as an acute eye for visual forms and an unusually fluid writing style. In analyzing Borromini, he managed to use the Greek and Latin roots of Italian words much as Borromini used the Greek- and Latin-based elements of classical architecture, such as columns, capitals, or stringcourses, combining these conventional elements with radical (another favorite Portoghesi word) ingenuity. In such buildings as the San Carlino church in Rome, Borromini’s classical capitals, for example, are never the standard-issue Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian of ancient Greece and Rome; their curls curl in the “wrong” direction, their sculpted leaves belong to palms, olives, laurels, or oaks rather than the classic acanthus plant; some sprout cherubs’ heads and feathery wings. They are as variegated as medieval gargoyles, but unlike medieval ornaments they are never one of a kind: Borromini uses his invented columns with the rigorous uniformity of any Renaissance building.

Borromini, the big, brooding stonecutter who came to Rome from Ticino in the Swiss Alps, was a man absolutely possessed by what Portoghesi described acutely as the “anxiety to communicate.” Portoghesi matched him by using his prose to beguiling effect, but also employing drawings, diagrams, and photographs, most of them minutely focused on details, just as Borromini had been. Portoghesi synthesized his ideas in the preface to a 1964 reprint of Borromini’s single published book, the OpusArchitectonicum (written with his patron Virgilio Spada in the seventeenth century, published in 1725), the very first project of an ambitious young publisher, Enzo Crea, who would soon become a Roman legend in his own right.

Borromini’s boldness in stretching the definitions of classical tradition is— and was—as obvious as his depression-prone personality. Portoghesi caught both the generosity and the torment of this supremely great architect, whose designs infused every slightest movement of his clients’ lives with beauty, from washing their hands to contemplating the universe. Borromini killed himself one sweltering August evening at the age of sixty-eight by falling on his sword, demoralized by the ascendancy of another genius, the tiny, quicksilver sculptor, architect, and man-about-town Gianlorenzo Bernini. The suicide may well have been meant to evoke Sophocles’ hero Ajax, who threw himself on his sword in frustration at the success of his slippery adversary Odysseus; when questioned, however, Borromini, dying of his wound, only admitted wanting to “hurt myself” (fare qualche male).

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Lorenzo Capellini
The chapel at the Villa Barbaro at Maser. The villa was completed in 1558, and Palladio designed the chapel at the end of his life, in 1580.

As a great classicist and a successful, settled family man, Palladio might seem to be Borromini’s opposite, but in fact the similarities between the two architects run deep. Portoghesi now has a perspective long enough to see the disconcerting connections between these two designers and, above all, to discern Palladio’s own claims to bold originality.

Like Borromini (born Francesco Castelli), Andrea Palladio started life as a stonecutter and under another name. In 1508, the year of Andrea di Pietro della Gondola’s birth in Padua, both that city and Vicenza belonged to Venice, Julius II was pope in Rome, and Martin Luther’s eye-opening trip to the Eternal City lay two years in the future. Visitors to Venice in that year included the Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus and the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Donato Bramante had laid the cornerstone of the new St. Peter’s Basilica two years before, Raphael and Michelangelo had just been set to work on the papal apartments and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but Palladio would spend his first thirty years in the anonymity of the working class, supplementing his income from ornamental carving with small-scale designs to support his growing family.

In his thirties, he caught the eye of Giangiorgio Trissino, a gentleman poet of Vicenza, who decided to educate the stonecutter in the classics and to refine his written Italian. Andrea turned out to be a voracious learner, verbally articulate, socially adept, and a fascinating conversationalist. The Hand of Palladio takes its title from the traces of the architect’s creative, figurative hand, but also from the literal well-worked hand that carries a scroll and a pair of compasses in the artist’s portrait by Gian Battista Maganza (1576). At some point in his association with Trissino, Andrea took the surname Palladio, perhaps in honor of Pallas Athena, the goddess of crafts, perhaps to honor an ancient Roman agricultural writer named Palladius, or, most likely, both. He designed a country villa and a palazzo for his patron, and then did the same for Trissino’s friends. He went to Rome to study the ruins on three different occasions. We can imagine the energy he applied to this task by counting the number of churches his guidebook to the city* recommends seeing on the second day: 132!

Palladio certainly aimed at creating a universal style of architecture, stripped to a large extent of regional peculiarities. Compared with their predecessors in Vicenza, his buildings look decidedly Roman. The local Venetian tradition favored elaborately ornamented brick structures, their terra-cotta colors and intricate surfaces ideal antidotes to the misty light and gray atmosphere of rainy, fog-bound winters. Palladio’s simplified columnar façades swelled the scale of Vicenza’s city center by raising the height of its important buildings by one or two stories; his decision to work in white stone rather than red brick bleached and cooled the city’s colors. Robust columns and massive ornamental sculptures emphasized the play of light and shadow on broad surfaces, evoking the brawny textures and grayscale colors of the Colosseum rather than the tapestry tracery of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

Palladio’s classical architecture reflects his experience of Rome, but like all Venetian classical architecture it filters that experience not only through Venice’s links to the Greek East but also through the late antique architecture of nearby Ravenna, where the golden light of Rome gave way to the fogs of the Upper Adriatic. The architects of the later Roman (or early Byzantine) Empire produced ever more dramatic three-dimensional effects with their columnar façades and mosaic domes, as well as the remarkable nesting spaces that make the domed interior of the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna (completed in 548) seem virtually transparent and infinitely mysterious. Palladio’s style, in other words, was not really a Roman style, or even a Catholic style; if anything, it aimed to become a universal style, unhooked from time, place, or creed. Initially devised for a series of freethinkers from Vicenza, many of them Protestants, it eventually migrated, along with its author, to Venice itself, and became an architecture that spoke for the very center of power.

From the stone temples of ancient Greece to the concrete structures of Rome, the characteristic elements of classical architecture—columns, arches, sculptures, moldings—took their particular forms by a kind of general consensus, and after long periods of experimentation. The forms that prevailed seem to have done so because they gave effective visual emphasis to the various parts of a building, suggesting the play of stress, weight, and support that keeps a structure upright. The colonnades appliquéd to the arcades of the Colosseum tell us that the arches beneath are performing similar tasks of lifting and spanning. The moldings that run across the surfaces of classical buildings announce a change: from one story to the next, from wall to window, from vertical wall to horizontal ceiling. The emphatic moldings of the cornice crown the building with a definite top (and at the same time gracefully channel rainwater from the roof into its ornamental gutters and spouts).

Palladio studied these carefully controlled details with intense attention—this was, after all, the kind of work he was called upon to do in his stonecutting days—and deployed them with endless ingenuity in his own designs. Only a trained craftsman, perhaps, would mark the division between the main façade of a villa and each of its two wings by two little vertical setbacks no more than a few millimeters wide. This dividing line serves no structural purpose—it is an added effort to put it in—but it sorts out the parts of the building for designer and viewer. Whether overtly or subconsciously, we notice the subtle but definite separation between the main block of the building and its two wings. It is this clarity of detail that makes Palladio’s structures seem so finely balanced.

But Palladio thought through interior space as well as exterior appearance, and he thought carefully about how his patrons would live in his buildings, whether they were urban palazzi like Palazzo Chiericati or the country villas for which he has become famous. An architect who grasps the separation of surface areas with Palladio’s insight is also likely to put the sink in the right place. Both Palladio and Borromini did even more: they made the sink a place for spiritual communion. Each designed the home of a religious community, Palladio the great Benedictine monastery at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Borromini the Roman home of Saint Philip Neri’s Oratorian Fathers. Both needed to provide a sink outside the refectory where the community shared its meals, and both made spectacularly beautiful marble washing places, lavabos, that turned the moment of hand-washing into a kind of communion, with one another and with God. (Unlike the ancient Romans and the people of the earlier Renaissance, neither lived in an age of bathrooms, in either modern sense of the word; their aristocratic patrons seldom washed, and relieved themselves in portable close-stools and chamber pots. Latrines were for servants.) Palladio’s famous villas were also working farms (part of a Venetian effort to restore territories ravaged by war earlier in the century). The lower levels of elegant spreads like the Villa Emo housed kitchens, livestock, and farm machinery; attics provided storage for grain or hay. Some Palladian villas still sell their produce today.

The ideological messages that architecture conveys are usually less evident than the messages about structure. Portoghesi, for example, contends that Palladio’s own religious beliefs, at least as he expressed them in his treatise, the Four Books of Architecture, may have been more conventionally Roman Catholic than those of his patrons in Vicenza. But how does belief declare itself in a structure? Size speaks for itself: San Giorgio Maggiore, the Venetian church that Palladio designed for the Benedictines, is as huge as this rich, powerful order could make it in a city with no hilltops to occupy (the usual Benedictine preference). Its grand refectory was graced once by a huge painting of the Last Supper by Paolo Veronese. (It was looted by Napoleon and is now in the Louvre. The version we see in its place is a high-quality photographic reproduction.) It is not surprising to learn that the art historian Hugh Honour called this simple, majestic space the most beautiful room in Europe; its richness lies in its scale and perfect proportions rather than the profusion of its ornament.

Gleaming across the lagoon from San Marco on its own island, the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore dwarfs the two other Palladio façades visible to its right (the unfinished Zitelle and the Redentore), both executed for less venerable, less moneyed congregations—and congregations more committed to their gospel of simple living. Evident discrepancies of scale and subtle differences of decoration proclaim the reforming sympathies of the Redentore, Palladio’s answer to his own grand temple of San Giorgio; but the basic architecture is the same.

In sixteenth-century Italy, classical columns can symbolize adherence to the Roman church, as they certainly did in Rome itself, but they can also convey, as they did in England and northern Europe, an idea of Protestant purity, or of civilization as it was before the Christian Middle Ages. None of these meanings, however, is absolute for an architect. It may or may not be significant for Palladio’s own credo that in the early 1570s both his son Orazio and his sometime collaborator Paolo Veronese were questioned by the Inquisition. Veronese had painted a Last Supper for the posh Dominican church of San Zanipolo (Saint John-and-Paul), but the friars objected to the fact that the scene, a great public banquet in a lavish palazzo, included two drunken German soldiers and a dog. The cultivated friars could tolerate Jesus and the disciples dining in an upper room that was approximately the size of the courtyard in the Doge’s Palace, but sharing such fine quarters with the Germans and the dog taxed their ideas of decorum.

Veronese’s self-defense, taken down in an exquisite calligraphic hand, declares that he is an artist who, along with poets and madmen, can claim “a certain license” in his work. He wanted to make the Last Supper a grand affair, so grand that, like the noble houses he knew in Venice, it included riffraff like the dog and two German mercenaries (he usually also included his cat in such settings). He resolved the issue for the Dominicans by painting “Banquet in the House of Levi” along the edge of the tablecloth of their painting, thereby changing the subject. Orazio Palladio, on the other hand, was questioned about some of his Protestant-sounding opinions; hence one wonders how Catholic his father really was.

In any case, Veronese and the Palladio clan, both father and son, were lucky, for soon after 1571, the Inquisition would feel that things had gone too far. Both the elderly Palladio and Veronese could have crossed paths in Venice in the later 1570s with a fugitive Dominican named Giordano Bruno, perhaps not yet fully convinced that the earth was one dot in an infinity of stars, but well on the way to formulating the idea. In 1592, Bruno would return to Venice, and the indulgent Inquisition that had allowed Paolo Veronese his poetic license would turn over the poet of infinite space to the inquisitors in Rome, and death at the stake. Palladio, at least, was spared that jolt to Christian certainty.

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Lorenzo Capellini
Tympana and cornices of San Francesco della Vigna, Venice.Palladio was asked to design its façade in 1562.

Yet in light of Portoghesi’s painstaking, perceptive analysis and Capellini’s photographs—themselves penetrating works of architectural analysis as well as compositions of great beauty—it is hard not to see something primally pagan about the architecture of Andrea Palladio, as if the Battle of the Gods and Giants for control of the earth were still only recent history. The ground beneath these structures still seems to rumble with restive Titans.

A new battle, however, is fast replacing that ancient clash. One of the most urgent problems facing Palladio’s buildings today is the terrible state of what was once an intact countryside: the postwar industrial degradation of the areas around Vicenza and around his villas, not to mention the callous neglect of many of the structures themselves. Refineries and chemical plants in Mestre and Marghera have poisoned Venice’s lagoon and its atmosphere while draining Venice itself of Venetians, who could earn better wages in the refineries just after the war. The population of Venice today, just over 60,000, is half what it was in 1966; people are escaping the inflated prices, the hordes of tourists, and the inconvenience of living on a lagoon and contending with constant floods.

Palladio, with his slow maturation, painstaking craftsmanship, and thoughtful care, is not an architect for the trivial, degraded Italietta, and this, too, is one of the messages that Portoghesi and Capellini are trying to convey through the insistent beauty of their book. While Palladio’s graceful villas were constructed for a small elite, much of his work was conceived for a wider public; and his ideas about architecture’s vocation for clarity, simplicity, moderation, harmony with nature, and beauty applied in his own practice to everyone, in every circumstance of civil life. He is still an architect to live by.

Letters

The Threat to Palladio’s City March 11, 2010

  1. *

    Now available in a spirited translation by Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks: Palladio’s Rome (Yale University Press, 2006).

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