Year of Palladio

The Virginia State Capitol

As noted above, Thomas Jefferson wanted Monticello, among other things, to be a demonstration of the correct use of the classical orders on a residence. However, he was also concerned about the state of the new nationís public architecture and wanted a clean break from the prevailing provincial Georgian mode. He believed it to be a role of government to provide proper models of architecture for the public to emulate. By this he meant that civic architecture should be expressed with the correct use of the classical vocabulary. To him, the classical architecture of ancient Rome was the foundation of the architecture of western civilization. It had achieved what he described as the ìapprobation of the agesî. Jefferson, of course, was introduced to classical architecture primarily through Palladioís The Four Books. The opportunity to put his thoughts about public buildings into practice presented itself in the 1780s when his native Virginia proposed erecting a new capitol building in Richmond. Although serving as our ambassador to France at the time, Jefferson seized the chance to provide a design. His concept was to employ the ancient temple form as the basis for the new capitol. The use of a religious form for a modern public building was a revolutionary idea for its time. In so doing, Jefferson was creating a ìtemple of democracyî, consciously using architecture to give expression to the ideals of the young nation.

We might ask, were does Palladio fit into Jeffersonís project? With his reading of The Four Books, Jefferson was introduced not only to Palladioís villa designs and classical orders, but to ancient Roman temples through Palladioís drawings in Book Four. Jeffersonís specific inspiration for the Virginia capitol was the Maison Carree in Nimes, France (Figure 46). The temple survives as one of the best-preserved of all Roman temples, a building to which Jefferson was first introduced through Palladioís illustrations. Moreover, the Maison Carree was one of the few ancient Roman buildings that Jefferson actually saw. Although, Jeffersonís Virginia capitol is nearly double the size of the Maison Carree, and employs the Ionic order rather than the Corinthian for its columns, the capitol owes its temple form and prostyle portico to the ancient work Jefferson so admired. Jeffersonís Virginia capitol marked the birth of the Classical Revival movement in American and established a precedent for the use of the monumental classicism learned from Palladio for our public buildings, a practice that lasted well into the 20th century. Nearly every one of our state capitols, along with our national capitol, is expressed in some version of the classical style.

Figure 45
Figure 45
Figure 46
Figure 46

The Three-Part House | The Virginia State Capitol | The University of Virginia

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