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PRINT September 2008

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Bruce Boucher on Andrea Palladio

ANDREA PALLADIO IS THE MOST famous architect the world has never known. If that sounds like a paradox, it is meant to be one. Although his name has endured for centuries, Palladio the man remains a cipher: In life he was elusive, and his inner thoughts remain a mystery. What we do know about Palladio derives from the rich heritage of his drawings and projects, which convey an understanding of architectural design scarcely rivaled to this day. Born in Padua in 1508, Palladio started out as a stonemason, working his way up to master architect over the course of two decades. Specializing in domestic construction, he exercised his trade chiefly in the small northern town of Vicenza and its territory, finally gaining recognition in the last decade of his life, when he became the unofficial first architect of Venice. There he published a retrospective volume of his designs, began several churches, and was consulted on every major project—including an abortive attempt to rebuild the Doge’s Palace—before dying in 1580. He left behind a number of buildings, the majority of them incomplete—and of those, none was ever finished according to his wishes. He also redrew the geography of Italy, making Vicenza a mecca for the study of post-Renaissance architecture.

“Palladio 500 anni” (Palladio 500 Years), originating at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto in Vicenza, is the first major retrospective view of the architect’s life and times in more than three decades, and is constructed around interlinking themes of Palladio’s career, his design process, and his influence. The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see eighty-one autograph drawings assembled from European collections, works that offer a unique insight into the architect’s flair for communicating his ideas to patrons and artisans alike. Another aspect of his graphic work, his publications, will also be featured. I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), first published in 1570, became one of the most important manuals in architectural history and enabled Palladio’s designs to reach architects who never saw his works in person. It still remains the fullest account of Palladio’s thoughts on building, and visitors will be able to leaf through the treatise in digital form. Complete with paintings by Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, and Canaletto and architectural drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Sansovino, and others, the show will evoke the world in which Palladio developed his skills and became a major architectural force.

Palladio was fortunate in moving to Vicenza at an early age, for it was a small city with a well-educated elite who used architecture to raise their collective status. The young Andrea’s talents were spotted by a wealthy amateur, Giangiorgio Trissino, who took him into his household and went with him to Rome, where they studied the remains of ancient buildings. Trissino groomed Palladio to become the architect of the Vicentine nobility, and Palladio’s successes are documented here by studies and wooden models for a number of palaces and villas, including those for the Thiene, Porto, and Chiericati families. The models are an especially welcome feature, because they represent not only what was built but also alternative ideas, now known only from Palladio’s drawings; in this way, visitors can see for themselves how studies translate into three dimensions. Splendid contemporary portraits by Vincenzo Catena of Trissino (from the Louvre) and by Veronese of Iseppo da Porto and his son (from the Uffizi) help bring Palladio’s patrons to life.

The architectural design process is perhaps the most difficult to convey, but the organizers have hit upon the happy idea of grouping drawings around themes such as initial sketches, more detailed studies, and the final presentation drawings for the client. The range of graphic work, lent largely by the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, allows one to look over Palladio’s shoulder as he “thinks on paper,” sketching various solutions, sometimes complete with measurements and elevations. It is also possible to compare Palladio’s approaches to designing palaces and villas: The former were often hemmed in by a dense, urban context that demanded ingenuity and agility and put Palladio’s love of symmetry to the test, while the latter more easily expanded into a sequence of buildings and courtyards, linked by classicizing colonnades. Probably the most impressive of the drawings are those dedicated to Palladio’s ideal reconstructions of classical temples and the Roman baths. Even when later archaeological evidence proved his interpretations wrong, Palladio’s imaginative re-creations of these outsize spaces with colossal columns still make compelling images.

Finally, it is legitimate to argue—as this exhibition does—that Palladio remains our contemporary. To take only one example, the Villa Rotonda, a secular villa surmounted by a religious dome, is an extraordinary marriage of the functional and the ideal that continues to fascinate architects and patrons. The Rotonda is presented here in model form, together with Palladio’s reconstructions of classical temples in a similar vein and later buildings inspired by it, such as Lord Burlington’s Chiswick and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Palladio’s ability to create buildings that look at once ages old and yet up-to-date remains the essential ingredient in his appeal. Perhaps Goethe put it best when he wrote that Palladio is like “a great poet who, out of the worlds of fact and fiction, creates a third world, whose borrowed existence enchants us.”

“Palladio 500 anni” runs at Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, Vicenza, Italy, from September 20, 2008, through January 6, 2009. It will be shown at the Royal Academy, London, from January 31 to April 13, 2009.

Bruce Boucher is curator of European sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time (Abbeville, 1998).