May 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

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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