Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Andrea Palladio is the most famous architect of the modern world, and here we define modern in opposition to the ancient world (the architects of the great pyramids, as well as their entire history, are lost to time), and he has been so for over four centuries, essentially since he published his Four Books of Architecture in Venice in 1570.
His influence is such that his name has come to define a very clear, seemingly eternal architectural aesthetic, and moreover he is only one of a handful of human beings whose name has become an adjective; beside Palladianism itself, we have Palladian bridges and windows and villas, each invention an aspect of his monumental talent. So, after nearly four and a half centuries, what exactly is Palladianism, this architect's potent legacy, and what is the crux of his enduring fame?
First there is the Four Books, doubtless the most popular architectural book ever published. In it, Palladio presents the entire scope of architecture as then defined, from the proper use of the five classical columnar orders to civil engineering, from reconstitutions of ancient Roman monuments to his own architectural designs. More important, though, is his built work—particularly the poetic corpus of villas in the Veneto, the fertile plain between Venice's Adriatic coast and the foothills of the Dolomites. Built for wealthy land-owners, Palladio's villas are a theme-and-variations comparable to Bach's fugues or Mozart's late symphonies: they are the expression of fecund, deliberate intention in search of Beauty.
And Palladio's essential innovation—the idea of such power that it would endure five centuries—is what, in essence? In the end it is quite simple and quite profound: Palladio was the first to apply the Greco-Roman temple front—the triangular pediment and columns—to a private residence. In doing so, he elevated his patrons to the realm of the gods. His villas are, for the most part, simple, square-planned buildings whose essential form is more ancient than Rome itself, and he grafts onto these four-square volumes (the square being the symbol of the earth, literally its four corners) the symbol of divinity, the pedimented colonnade of the Greco-Roman temple. Crossing the threshold, the resident entered a temple; man lived in the abode of the gods.
What is so remarkable, after all these centuries, is the profound dichotomy between the stolid cubic volume of the ancient Roman farmhouse, ennobled by the delicate appendage of the columned temple front. Perfect examples are the villas Badoer (top) and Chiericati (below); the famed Villa Rotonda (above) is Palladio's ultimate distillation of this simple but revolutionary idea.
We have become so accustomed to this remarkable juxtaposition that, for centuries now, we no longer even see the incredible clash of the humble and the exalted, the human and the divine—the stolid mass of the peasant and the delicate filigree of the gods.
This was Andrea Palladio's great innovation—recognizing the divinity in each of us, and translating that idea into our built world—and for that he has gained true and enduring fame.