palladian building code

IMG_6439Reading Palladio on the flight home (because, really, why wouldn’t you).  His Quattro Libri have been excerpted to no end, and there are familiar passages that most course readers focus on (mine included).  But in the bits that usually get passed over, specifically the chapter with the fetching title of “Of stairs, and the various kinds of them; and of the number and size of the steps,” there’s this, which could have been pulled right from the International Building Code:

THE ſteps ought not to be made higher than ſix inches of a foot; and if they are made lower, particularly in long and continued ſtairs, it will make them the more eaſy, because in riſing one’s ſelf the foot will be leſs tired ; but they muſt never be made lower than four inches: the breadth of the ſteps ought not to be made leſs than one foot, nor more than one and a half.

THE antients obſerved to make the ſteps uneven in number, that beginning to go up with the right foot, one might end with the ſame ; which they look’d upon as a good omen, and of greater devotion when they entered the temple: The number of ſteps is not to exceed eleven, or thirteen at moſt, before you make a floor or reſting-place, that the weak and weary may find where to reſt themſelves, if obliged to go up higher, and be able more eaſily to ſtop any thing that ſhould happen to fall from above.

OK, not so much about the uneven steps, but with some minor adjustments to take into account the difference between a Vicenzan foot and an Imperial one, thirteen steps is still, five hundred years later, the maximum number of risers between landings for precisely those reasons; and he’s got the tread to riser ratio right in the sweet spot as well.


castelvecchio 04Nine years ago, when I was teaching in Iowa State’s Rome program with my colleague Pete Gochè, we took half of the students up to this part of Italy to see Vicenza and Verona.  Interspersed with Palladio, the other designer you go see here is Carlo Scarpa, who was based in Venice and, like Palladio, did most of his work in the immediate region.  His best-known masterpiece, the Brion Cemetery, is a drive outside of Vicenza, but the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, built into one of these Italian defensive structures that has an impossibly layered and complex history, is just as awe-inspiring.  Like Brion ,Castelvecchio took Scarpa years to complete, and it’s also a composition that’s based on total sensory immersion.  Pete and I were thinking on the fly when we took students around, but in talking through what we were seeing we sort of came to the conclusion that Palladio and Scarpa were perfect foils for one another.  Palladio’s buildings are based on an overall harmonic composition, in which the mathematics of the scheme trickle down and inform all of the details.  Scarpa’s begin with the details, with a very specific sensory experience of light, or touch, or with a focused idea about a material or how two elements come together.  His designs then work outward from those.  I remember looking at his work for the first time as an undergrad and just not getting it–his plans are often mysteriously composed, without any visible sense of composition.  But the first time I stood in the sculpture galleries of Castelvecchio, I remember feeling like there was something for the eye to rest on absolutely everywhere.  The satisfactions of this building come in a thousand different moments, while those of, say, Villa Rotonda come from walking around it, seeing it in perspective and starting to understand how the entire thing holds together as a self-contained piece.  Palladio built architectural fugues, Scarpa built architectural etudes.

castelvecchio 03In our first-year studio this semester, Andrew Gleeson and I talked a lot about architectural rhetoric, how every design problem boils down to an argument about something–materials, composition, light, experience, something.  Scarpa layers these arguments on top of one another, showing in a typical handrail detail, for instance, how the warm wood of the rail itself contrasts with the raw, cold edges of its steel support and with the cold, rough surfaces of the local Veronese stone behind it.  These moments are virtuosic–he’s clearly showing off–but they’re also instructive.  You know exactly where to put your hand, and you see instinctively how the rail is put together.  They’re also, of course, incredibly well composed.  Those elements could go together in a thousand different ways, but much of Scarpa’s notoriously slow process involved iterations, even on the job site, moving and re-composing until the detail not only was right, but also looked right.

castelvecchio 02I’m sure Palladio showed up on a job site or two and changed things around, but the rhetoric of his designs was almost entirely Platonic.  If you get the math right, his plans argue, then the details are inevitable.  This is what Jefferson complained about when designing his Palladian tribute, Monticello–when he changed the size of a window on one side of the house, the door frames on another had to change as well, because the basic argument of Palladian classicism is that the entire building is an integral system.  Scarpa’s rhetoric is exactly the opposite–the entire building is built up in literally hundreds of individual experiences that may be orchestrated, but that don’t depend upon one another in the abstract for their meaning.  Rather, they relate to one another in the way our senses are set up or prepared.  Lining up doorways in a Palladian villa is something you do because the rules of the composition tell you to do it, whereas lining up doorways for Scarpa is a way of hinting to your eyes about what they’re about to experience.

castelvecchio 01There are all sorts of dialogues in Castelvecchio–light vs. dark, new vs. old, honed vs. rough, etc., etc.  And the entire project set up a handful of important principles for historic preservation.  Everywhere the original fabric is treated as an artifact, and Scarpa’s interventions very carefully set themselves off from anything antique.  Concrete, iron, and stone are detailed with healthy shadow gaps that make it apparent what’s been added to the existing building, and the complex layering of old materials is presented at face value, which makes for amazing, lush backdrops like the one above, in the ‘knuckle’ between the sculpture and painting wings where you literally cross a bridge between the two buildings and are confronted with an array of materials and objects–including the heraldic statue with its own stairway and viewing platform, a little architectural gift that provides a break from the slew of galleries before and after.

A fine final jaunt on what’s been a full and inspiring five weeks…

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palladio“Vicenza, a city of no very large circumference, but full of moſt noble intellects, and abounding ſufficiently with riches ; and where I had firſt an opportunity to practiſe what I now publiſh for common utility, where a great number of very beautiful fabricks are to be ſeen…”

–Palladio, Andrea. The Four Books of Architecture (Dover Architecture) (Kindle Locations 574-576). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

Finishing up my time in Italy with some outright tourism, in particular getting up north to Vicenza, which is to Palladio what Oak Park is to Wright–an outdoor museum, and a lovely town to spend a couple of days.

Palladio is something of an obsession.  Teaching Renaissance architecture last semester, and coming back to it this semester in Big and Tall, there’s a moment in his career of synthesis, where the linguistic project of applying Roman architectural “quotes” and the systematic project of finding a deeper and richer architectural order came together into something that seems very much of the Renaissance and of the Enlightenment.  His treatise is almost entirely practical advice–very little hints at the complex system of musical ratios and proportions he employed to make spaces and elevations that feel literally ‘composed.’  But in blending much of the same practical and philological advice that Alberti and others had already published in his own work, Palladio added a deep rigor to his designs that seems to look ahead to the more complex mathematics of the 17th century.


Some of this, I think, comes from a near-perfect architectural education.  Until he was 30, Palladio was a stonemason–apparently a good one, but nonetheless a craftsman.  While working for the Vicenzan humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino, probably on the Villa Trissino in Cricoli (above, seen from across a rather jogger-unfriendly traffic circle), Palladio struck up a dialogue with his client and began a twelve-year friendship during which Trissino mentored him and brought him to Rome for the first time to study ancient and (then) modern architecture.  After Trissino’s death, Palladio enjoyed the support of the Barbaro family, who were his gateway into Vicenzan and Venetian society; he became something of the court architect for wealthy families in the Veneto, designing palazzos, villas, and eventually chapels and churches that are, fortunately for tourists on foot, clustered in and around Vicenza.

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The Basilica Palladiana (1549) is his one great civic work, a wrapper around a medieval basilica that, like Alberti’s wrapper around a gothic church in Rimini was an exercise in restyling and in finding a stylistically presentable facade for an existing, less-fashionable structure.  Palladio’s threefold bank of architectural knowledge is on full display here–he handled the technical challenge involved in attaching a rigorously ordered facade to a decidedly irregular chassis, every element of the facade is archaeologically correct (never mind the supposed influence of Michelangelo’s more histrionic inventions), and the composition is absolutely perfect–including adjustments to the corner bays that solve the dogged corner problem almost effortlessly.  By this point he was fluent in stonework, fluent in the proportions and details of classical precedent, and finding his way toward the mathematics that linked, to him and his contemporaries, architecture, music, and a divine celestial harmony.

basilica palladiana detail

What’s most interesting to me in his work, and in writers like Wittkower’s analysis of it, is that there is a different attitude toward this connection to the divine, and to an overarching universal order.  In Gothic building, you often here about the attempt to literally build the theology of Augustine–to replicate as nearly as possible the City of God in the cities of men.  This led to all sorts of numerological devices, and a rigorous order applied to cathedral planning that was based on three ratios–the square, the half-square, and rectangles with a ration of 1:1.414, or the square root of two.  Brunelleschi and early Renaissance architects continued these ordering principles, believing that whatever was numerically ordered would be beautiful and strong–Francesco di Giorgio wrote of this process as guaranteeing fortezza e bellezza.  But Palladio’s treatise has a different tone.  His family of proportions is much more complicated, using ratios that appear throughout the harmonic scale.  Which ratio to use?  While there are rules, there are often two sets of rules–geometric and harmonic (Wittkower explains these thoroughly…), and there’s an implied choice for those designing rooms.  One works best for small rooms, the other for large rooms, and it’s up to the designer to figure out which.   Palladio also appeals to architects to make their own judgments about whether a wall is thick enough to carry its load.  No longer were architects bound by rules that had simply been handed down by authority–either of the ancients, or the divine, or by custom.  Instead, there’s a porto-scientific sensibility to Palladio’s writing.  Try this, and that, and maybe this, he seems to advise.  Use your judgment to determine which one has the best outcome.

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That’s a libelous simplification, but it resonates with with the confidence and the thoroughness of his work.  Villa Rotonda is really a statement about the capacity for humans to actually instantiate a bit of the divine on earth–and not just in liturgical spaces.  This was a giant party house, and yet Palladio felt it was thoroughly deserving of all the interlocked proportions, the mathematical rigor, and the pitch-perfect execution of a temple–thus the dome and the pediments, among other things.

It’s the Palazzi, though, that are the most interesting to me, because they inevitably deal with imperfect sites, were rarely finished, and yet show how this combination of disciplined conception and composition, combined with an understanding of how buildings actually worked and were put together, could create stage sets of cosmic perfection and visual serenity out of the most chaotic urban situation.  Most of his work in Vicenza is on narrow streets, meaning you never get the big elevation view–instead, he used what little depth he had in the facades to create striking rhythms of shadows and highlights.  But the elevations are often perfect anyway (or, in some cases, imperfectly perfect, like where the existing courtyard wouldn’t allow a symmetrical entrance–here, he seemed unperturbed about violating the one cardinal rule of classical composition, and such violations seem to disappear in such narrow fields of view).


Here, on Palazzo Valmarana (1580), you can see that even he wasn’t against a few Mannerist games–look at the end pilasters and you can see that he’s replaced them with statuary.  But even here those games happen within such a fully detailed composition that they don’t seem jarring.  In fact, if you stare at this long enough (and there’s very helpfully a nice cafe across the street that will happily serve you a Campari and soda while you do this–note to architectural tourists) you start to realize that what he’s done here is to create two facades–one that’s the full breadth of the elevation, and one that is just the five bays framed by the giant order.  The two of them are compressed on to one another graphically, a trick he’d use in his to church facades in Venice–here’s San Giorgio Maggiore, note the way the two pediments here work like the two interlocked rectangles at Valmarana:


Anyway, this is all pretty foundational stuff, and to me the most interesting aspect of Palladio is that he bridges this gap between architecture as an aesthetic pursuit and as a purely technical one.  His approach is quasi-scientific, and certainly his compositions start to hint at an order based not in mysticism, but in mathematics.  He was exactly one generation younger than Copernicus, and one generation older than Galileo, and in the geometry and the rich mathematics that underlay his designs I think you can get a sense for the growing realization that a ‘cosmic order,’ far from being ethereal, was about to get very, very evident.

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