Sunday, 20 September 2009




Andrea Palladio is the most influential architect who ever lived – much more so than those heroes of the Modern Movement – Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. It is significant that buildings we call ‘Palladian’ are still being built today – for example, by the British architect Quinlan Terry.


Palladio’s ideas were disseminated not only by his buildings, but also, even more effectively, by his writings, most notably by his didactic masterpiece, I Quattro Libri  dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), published in 1570. The four books were modeled on contemporary handbooks of grammar and style, and treated architecture as an infinitely flexible visual language, which was nevertheless created from a limited number of components, which could be combined in different ways in order to produce the desired result.


Palladio got his knowledge of these components from a study of Ancient Roman architecture, much of it derived from intensive research in the city of Rome itself. His other writings included a guidebook to the antiquities of Rome, published much earlier, in 1554.. He also provided illustrations for a new, annotated edition of the treatise written by the Roman architect Vitruvius.


Though he made use of basic architectural elements taken from the Romans, and, through them, from the Greeks, he evolved a whole series of new building types. It was Palladio, for example, who discovered how to graft a classical façade, with pillars and a pediment, on to a Christian church with a nave and aisles – a basic plan that owed as much to Gothic architecture as it did to anything classical. Among his most familiar buildings of this type are S. Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore  in Venice.


His greatest impact, however, was on the architecture of luxurious country houses and on that of public buildings. While wealthy Romans certainly built ambitious country houses, they are quite different in plan from those evolved by Palladio, and must have been quite difference in appearance as well. Palladio’s ideas for houses of this type came from what he knew about Roman temples and public baths, rather than from what he knew about Roman domestic architecture. In his day, Pompeii had yet to be discovered. It is interesting to speculate, for example, about how he would have reacted to the group of grand Roman villas at Stabiae, destroyed at the same time as Pompeii and Herculaneum, and now being re-excavated, after a first period of excavation in the 18th century.  These demonstrate, in vivid detail, the fact that Roman social customs were different from those that prevailed in Palladio’s day, and still more so from those current in our own.


British architects and patrons were the people who gave international, rather than purely local currency to Palladio’s ideas, and it is not surprising that the majority of his surviving drawings are now in Britain. A large group was acquitted in the early 17th century by Inigo Jones, court architect to Charles I, and further groups by Lord Burlington, just over a century later. It is therefore appropriate that an exhibition devoted to Palladio can now be seen at Burlington House in Piccadilly, once Burlington’s London residence. It now houses the Royal Academy.


The trouble is that appropriateness of location is not sufficient.  Most exhibitions devoted to architecture tend to be hard work. Great architecture is about the organization of proportion and space – things that really ought to be experienced directly, not vicariously. This show is harder work than it needs to be. There are drawings. There are a few exquisitely made modern architectural models. There are gloomy portraits of Palladio himself and of some of the chief protagonists in his story. The problem is that everything is jammed together, that many of the labels are poorly placed and almost indecipherable, in pale type on even paler backgrounds. The upper walls of the galleries have hectoring architectural designs that dominate the exhibits below them.  Altogether this is an object lesson in how not to organize a tribute to a great architect.


The fact is that the thing I most enjoyed about this exhibition is an item that has only a peripheral reason to be included in it – Titian’s elegant portrait of Giulio Romano, holding an architectural drawing that alludes to his activity as an architect in addition to being a painter. It is now usually to be seen in Mantua. What gives me an additional kick , every time I see it, is the fact that before it returned quite recently to Italy, the painting had a wonderfully inappropriate owner – none other than Imelda Marcos. That, alas, is about the only real enjoyment I got from this show.


(review of an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London)


This site was last updated 20-09-2009