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
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…

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