Rising from the inkwell of history; Palladio inspired 500 years of careful imitation
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 April 2008)

In Vancouver there's a jewellery store called Palladio and a big condo building with the same name. A quarry in Carrara, Italy, sells slabs of what it calls Granite Palladio Light and if you hunt it up on the web you can buy mosaic flooring in the Palladio pattern. A classy tableware carries the name Palladio and the Pentifica company ("Distinguished Pens for Distinguished People") has produced a Signum Palladio with 18-karat nib, at $500 or so per pen. These six examples, among a multitude of others, demonstrate that Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) persists in the 21st century as a quality brand.

If he's in any position to notice, he'll probably be pleased that admirers of his architecture are celebrating his 500th birthday this year with exhibitions, books and lectures. He might be displeased that commercial enterprises casually borrow his name but in a sense that's his own fault. He took pains to inscribe "Palladio" on the consciousness of the 16th century and the future.

He was a great publicist as well a great architect, a modern man in every way. (Today, he would be everywhere on the web.) He re-invented himself, in the modern fashion, and advertised his excellence through the new mass communications: printing by movable type and the reproduction of drawings with woodblocks. He combined his talent, imagination and conversational gifts into a personality that lifted him out of the working class and inserted him in the elite of the Venice region during its golden age. He created a name that still speaks to us across half a millennium.

Palladio's classic up-by-his-bootstraps story began with his birth as Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola, the son of a Padua stonemason. When he was 13, his parents set him up as an apprentice mason and three years later he left Padua for a more promising job in Vicenza. While doing stonework on a villa he met its owner, the man who was to be his first patron. Giangiorgio Trissino had a classical school for young Vicenzan nobility. He saw Andrea's talent, took him into his home and educated him. He also gave him a more resonant name, Palladio, a reference to Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of art, war and wisdom.

Under Trissino's guidance, Palladio created a career as an architect by emulating the great buildings of ancient Rome and Greece. After studying the ruins of Roman temples, he decided that designers inantiquity had somehow arrived at the right, natural, proper way to build; he believed all structures should be judged against ancient standards.

This was a key moment, when the Renaissance rediscovered antique culture and projected its values into the future.

Palladio, furiously ambitious, operated at the centre of that epochal event. As a critic wrote a few years ago in the Architectural Record, Renaissance architects imitated Rome; then the Palladians, later architects who learned from him, imitated the Renaissance.

His work inspired the first notable British Palladian, Inigo Jones, one of the designers who spread Palladian buildings across England and its colonies.

A language as much as a style, Palladian expresses itself in minor details as well as in grand visions. It lives to this moment. Its most recent burst of popularity, in the late 20th century, intensified Palladian influence across North America. Today, in a district like Forest Hill in Toronto, you can see it in recent houses. Often you find a Palladian window, a central arched section flanked by two narrow rectangular sections.

Palladio designed churches, theatres, monasteries, bridges, roads and, above all, country villas near Venice. In everything he did he brought his own delicacy, poise and grace to his ancient models. The Villa Rotonda, which sits on a low hill near Vicenza, expresses his desire to link architecture with nature. It's a simple, cubelike shape capped with a dome over its central room and with front porches on all four sides, designed in perfect symmetry and providing four views of the surrounding landscape. Palladio's Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice succeeds with equal elegance but an entirely different effect, monumental rather than intimate.

Palladio in Print, now (and until Oct. 31) at the Douglas Library at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., exhibits rare books that demonstrate the way Palladio's ideas travelled through the centuries. He was an author as well as an architect; one of his guidebooks to Roman monuments ran through 30 editions over two centuries. He absorbed the ideas of Vitruvius, a Roman author of the first century CE, whose study of ancient buildings was discovered early in the 15th century in a library in Switzerland. Unillustrated and not always crystal-clear, the Vitruvius manuscript nevertheless provided much-needed data about ancient materials, building methods and design intentions.

Palladio borrowed that information and his own discoveries in writing The Four Books on Architecture, a guide covering everything from rules of proportion to proper design of doors. His advice ranges from the theoretical (on why cities should contain squares) to the strictly practical (when making stone bridges "if the river bed is sandy or gravelly, one must excavate it until one gets down to solid ground").

This was fairly early in the history of printing (Johannes Gutenberg's first Bible was less than a century old) but Palladio managed to put each piece of text right next to the drawing it explained, something that at least half the book designers of the world now find either impossible or not worth the trouble.

In The Four Books he published drawings of his own work alongside ancient examples, spreading his reputation across the Mediterranean, northern and eastern Europe and eventually North America. Thomas Jefferson, when designing his famous home, Monticello, borrowed often from Palladio and called The Four Books his bible.

That was Palladianism, a force in architecture for centuries. The Four Books on Architecture, short enough to fit within a single volume, have been translated dozens of times over the centuries; my own copy came from the MIT Press in a fresh 1997 translation. James Ackerman, a modern expert on Palladio, wrote: "Without that remarkable monument of public relations, there could have been no Palladianism." Celebrating the centenary of Palladio's birth, the world also celebrates a great moment in the history of publishing, the beginning of printed secular books as a shaping force in cultural history.

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