Andrea Palladio: the man who made ancient modern - at the Royal Academy, London





No other architect has lent his name to an ism. There is no Bramanteism, no Gehryism, Wrenism or Corbusianism. There is, though, Palladianism.

The Royal Academy in London, like most galleries, rarely accords architects the same headline billing as your Titians and Van Goghs. But it’s proof enough of the enduring renown of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio on his 500th anniversary (well, last year) that he’s awarded a no-holds-barred blockbuster in the capital complete with brick-sized catalogue, accompanying BBC Four documentary and, no doubt, souvenir mugs bedecked in Corinthian pilasters. For Palladio is without doubt the most influential architect in history.

Without Palladio we would have no White House or Capitol in Washington, no Castle Howard, no Georgian Dublin and no suburban mansions the world over souped up with pediments and porticoes on steroids. Palladio has become, unbeknown to him, the architect of the arriviste, the architect of the newly moneyed social climber or newly powerful country. Think of classical architecture, and you’re probably thinking Palladianism. And it’s all thanks to one country – not Italy, but Britain.

Make no mistake, Palladio was a great architect – just one whose fame was as important as his work. Born Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola in Padua in 1508 to humble parents, Palladio acquired his assumed name only when he came under the wing, at 30, of an archetypical Renaissance man – the poet, musician and philosopher Count Giangiorgio Trissino.

The young Andrea had done the usual apprenticeship with stonecutters and sculptors. But it was under Trissino that he blossomed. Trissino’s house was one of the meeting places for artists and intellectuals of the Veneto. It was there that the Count wrote his poem Italy Liberated from the Goths, starring a winged messenger called Palladio. The talk of intellectuals of the time in the comparative backwater was of how to pull their socks up. The dominant power – Venice – was not what it had been, its stranglehold on European maritime trade with the East loosened. Culturally, too, the Renaissance was in full swing, only a few hundred miles south in Rome and Florence. The north was held in the grip of the barbarian Gothic, with Venice as its jewel.

Perhaps Trissino saw in the young Palladio his own winged messenger to put the Veneto on the map, for soon after he had taken him to Rome to visit its magnificent ruins, Palladio began decorating Venice’s hinterland with exquisite villas for a new generation of rich aristocrats – Trissino’s friends.

Palladio was the right man in the right place at the right time. Venice’s government had begun for the first time in its history to turn inland to its hinterland, not out to sea. To compensate for its declining empire it started giving grants to this new generation of landowning aristocrats to transform what was once useless marsh-land into productive – and lucrative – agricultural land. And those aristocrats, suddenly eager to leave their palaces in Venice, needed new country piles from which to administer their newly bountiful estates.Palladio suddenly found himself not in a backwater, but at the centre of things, creating for his clients a series of country houses – the Villa Capra or Rotunda, the Villa Malcontenta, the Villa Maser – of stunning originality.

But his work, sublime as it is, doesn’t quite account for the influence Palladio has had. Palladio was one of many Renaissance architects reinvigorating ancient classicism and freeing Italy from the barbarous Gothic. But none embraced that new invention – mass media – quite as savvily as Palladio. An architect’s renown had, until then, always been based on his actual buildings. A century before Palladio, though, Leon Battista Alberti had republished with the newfangled printing press the only published account of Roman architecture: De Architectura, by Vitruvius.

Vitruvius, for all we know, was an average 1st-century Roman architect whose take on the rights and wrongs of classical architecture just happened, by pure chance, to have survived. Yet it was on this slender survival that all post-Renaissance classical architecture is founded.

At a time when the spread of information was creakingly slow, Alberti’s book, and that of Sebastiano Serlio in 1537, fuelled the architectural ambitions of the Renaissance, that fundamental idea that the ancient classical was far more worthy than the recent Gothic, that the five orders – Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, Tuscan and Composite, each with its own character – were immutable, untouchable, the sine qua non of correct order and harmony in the human world. A genetic code, if you like, for the human landscape with a few basic rules, but infinite interpretations and variations.

Palladio wrote his own take on Vitruvius, the Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura,in 1570 when he was 62, at the height of his powers. Its strength is in Palladio’s grasp of how to create an accessible book – there is little writing in it, but page after page of detailed yet graphic illustrations of how to create modern architecture out of Ancient Roman rules. The book became a publishing sensation, translated into every major European language as a pattern book of modern architecture. You no longer had to risk life, limb and foreign armies to see new architecture – you could just open a book.

In the late 16th century England was as much of an architectural backwater as the Veneto had been. It may, under Elizabeth I, have had illusions of political grandeur, but its landscape was strictly old school. The Renaissance from Italy had arrived – though in an eccentric, distorted form, almost by Chinese whispers.

One man under Palladio’s spell was to change all that. Inigo Jones, like Palladio, was the right man in the right place at the right time. A year after visiting the Veneto villas in 1614 this ambitious architect, aged 42, snatched the top job – Surveyor of the King’s Works – as architect for James I’s court, and, therefore, chief tastemaker for the nation.

Armed both with having seen Palladio’s work in the flesh and a copy of his Quattro Libri, Jones immediately laid down his own immutable laws for aggrandising this behind-the-times nation in the correct classical style, with two buildings – Whitehall’s Banqueting House (first fragment of a plan to rebuild in splendour Whitehall Palace) and the Queen’s House in Greenwich – so pale, so weirdly different, so, well, Italian, that they stuck out like alien craft crashlanded from a distantgalaxy called the Renaissance in a dark Gothic London of clustered alleys and steep gables. They were, perhaps, as freakish to the Jacobeans as the work of Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind appears today...



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