Year of Palladio

The Portico

Although Palladioís discussion of the orders and Gibbsís subsequent refinements in Rules provided essential instruction to our colonial builders for various details, it is Book Two of The Four Books that has had the most widespread influence on American building. In Book Two, Palladio offered some fifty of his own designs for various buildings. This was one of the earliest published presentations illustrating how the classical elements and proportional systems could be applied to a variety of contemporary designs, from modest farmhouses to grander villas and imposing town mansions. To todayís eyes many of these images, particularly those of the villas, have such a familiar character that itís difficult to appreciate how revolutionary they were for their time.

Letís look at Palladioís elevation for the Villa Emo, for instance (Figure 10). To most of us it appears as a normal, relatively unpretentious, classical style dwellingóa regular, symmetrical house with four columns. But Palladio was the first architect to promote the application of the pedimented portico, the signature motif of an ancient Roman religious building, to domestic design. The portico was a form developed by the ancients for buildings to house gods. It was a form meant to inspire awe. Indeed, its powerful, ordered formality inspired awe in ancient times and still does today (Figure 11). Palladio mistakenly believed the Romans employed porticoes for dwelling facades as well as for temples. He thus didnít hesitate to attach porticoes to his houses. The Romans, however, reserved the portico for temples and major civic buildings. Nonetheless, Palladioís use of this ancient device to give a dignity of appearance to an otherwise plain dwelling was a profoundly important innovation.

It was largely through his villa designs, published in The Four Books, that the fashion for fronting houses with free-standing columns and pediments was spread throughout Europe. It gained a particularly strong toe-hold in England with the Anglo-Palladian movement. The monumental portico did not come into use in America until the middle of the 18th century, when the popularity of more formal classical architecture was nurtured. One of the very earliest classical porticos in this country is seen on the 1749 Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, a strongly Palladian-style building by the New England architect Peter Harrison. Harrisonís other works, such as the Brick Market in Newport and Kingís Chapel in Boston also exhibit Palladian qualities, but mainly though the lens of Gibbs _. Perhaps the earliest, if not the first example of an American house embellished with a full classical portico is Whitehall near Annapolis, Maryland, designed by William Buckland and completed in the 1760s. In the 1790s James Madison enlarged Montpelier, his fatherís colonial house in Virginia _(Figure 12). This expansion included the addition of a large Tuscan portico to the faÁade. Madisonís portico was a device consciously meant to signal his growing importance as a statesman and was one of the earliest truly monumental porticoes on an American house.

The portico has continued to be a status symbol for American houses to the present day. The columns and pediment signal that a dwelling is the home of successful and important people. Remove its portico and a house loses much of its visual and psychological impact. We see this in the 1823 Virginia house, Frascati, whose Tuscan portico is nearly identical to the Villa Emoís. The portico tells us this is an important building. Remove it and Frascati becomes a straightforward square brick house (Figure 13). America today has thousands of porticoed dwellings. Many of these porticoes follow the canons of classical proportions; many of the more recent ones unfortunately do not and often impose a dissonant note on the buildings they front. Be that as it may, the porticoed house is a familiar feature of our cultural landscape, one for which Palladio must receive the ultimate credit.

Figure 10
Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 11
Figure 11-a
Figure 11-a
Figure 12
Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 13

James Gibbs and Palladio | The Portico | The Two-Tiered Portico

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