By Victor Deupi
Appears In Traditional Building
A RECENT GATHERING OF A GROUP OF INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & CLASSICAL America (ICA&CA) staff, faculty and friends at Palladio’s breathtaking Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese, Italy, brought to mind the question of the Renaissance architect’s relevance to contemporary practice.
Hosted by the gracious owners of the villa, Sally and Carl Gable, the ICA&CA group was given free reign to draw, paint and discuss the building for four days in early October of 2007. Of course, the overwhelming opinion was that Palladio’s legacy remains central to contemporary Classicism and that his influence is as much alive today as it was when he built the villa in the 1550s and subsequently publishes it in his much celebrated Quattro libri dell’architettura of 1570.
The group was perhaps less impressed by the magnificence of the villa than by the many gems we had not anticipated prior to our arrival. No one expected the cavernous cellars, labyrinthine stairwells, mysterious fresco cycles, dramatic timber-trussed grain storage in the attic, delicately glazed ceramic chimney tiles, proto-Georgian inlaid parquetry in the dining room and stunning views of the snow-capped Dolomites from the second-story north loggia. Yes, Palladio surprised us again categorically, even though we all thought we knew him well enough to wax poetically about him at the dinner table.
No amount of study, intellectual or otherwise, can prepare one for the onslaught of all’antica grandeur that the Villa Cornaro possesses. Its scale is simply phenomenal despite the relatively small size and the “dumb” plan to which it adheres. The word “dumb” was used by several participants to describe the matter of fact, straightforward square plan that defines the main block and the arrangement of rooms around the south-facing tetra-style (four-columned) atrium that serves as the villa’s centerpiece. “I could design that in my sleep,” said one of the more experienced participants, who had designed some hundred residences throughout the country. Yet it was not the clarity of organization as much as the grandeur of scale at every level that struck us all as particularly relevant.“Why don’t we build this well today” was an often repeated phrase among the group. Indeed, the villa surpassed all of our easy classifications – both in the positive and negative.
A free Sunday afternoon provided ample opportunity for the group to explore such nearby treasures as Venice, Padova, Castelfranco Veneto and, of course, other Palladian villas. I strong-armed a small unsuspecting group to visit Alvise Cornaro’s home in Padova that contained the first all’antica buildings in the Veneto, the Loggia and Odeon Cornaro by Giovanni Maria Falconetto from 1524 onward. It was here that Alvise Cornaro housed his humanist academy, where the young Palladio was exposed to cutting-edge ideas on Classical music, literature and benessere (well-being). Not surprisingly, architecture occupied a privileged position in Cornaro’s thought, and his Trattato di architettura (ca. 1550-1553) aimed at addressing the domestic buildings of the average citizen rather than the aristocrat, for he believed that architecture’s main function was to afford infinite pleasure, comfort and well-being. Cornaro maintained several gardens and villas too, where he could pursue various activities associated with a healthy life. And it was there that Cornaro largely wrote what is perhaps his most influential and inspired work, the Discorsi intorno alla vita sobria (1558), a eulogy of moderation and leisure that proclaimed the joys of health and longevity.
A few weeks later, I found myself back in one of the most satisfying urban contexts in North America – New Orleans, for the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference – whose Vieux Carré was forever shaped by the Spanish occupation of 1762-1803 into what is known today as the “Big Easy.” This is a term Palladio would have most likely endorsed not just for the Mississippi riverside citadel, but also for his preferred city,Venice (also located in a swampy marsh), known more expressively as La Serenissima, or the tranquil one. Here though,Palladio’s much renowned private villas and palaces are of little interest. Even his major public commissions, S. Giorgio Maggiore, S. Francesco della Vigna, and Il Redentore – brilliant solutions to the traditional Latin cross basilica plan and two-tiered pedimented façade – represent only a small fraction of what he had hoped to accomplish as the city’s Proto, or state architect, an office that remained firmly occupied by the great Jacopo Sansovino from the late 1530s to the 1560s. And though never succeeding Sansovino, Palladio’s partially built and unbuilt interventions in the city’s fabric included remarkable designs for ephemeral structures, civic pageantry, infill housing, renovations and repairs to existing buildings – an anthology of work that is rarely recognized, yet virtuous to the core.
In fact, when one considers the full repertoire of Palladio’s public works, not just in Venice, but his designs for meeting halls, bridges, theaters, gates and portals, as well as machinery (Palladio proposed an apparatus for “raising water from low-lying places,” inspired largely by Cornaro’s Treatise on Water of 1556, whose aim was to resolve the technical difficulties associated with irrigation and land yield), one discovers a breadth of vision and talent that far exceeds his reputation as the world’s most influential high-end residential architect. It is perhaps this least recognized aspect of Palladio’s career – the role of gifted civic activist – that is most relevant to contemporary practice. For it was in Venice that Palladio received his greatest designation as Architectus Illustrissimi Dominii Veneti (Architect of the Most Illustrious Dominion of the Venetians), a title suggesting that Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola (Palladio) was considered the architect of something far more important than he was, namely that of one of the greatest Renaissance cities that Europe has produced.
Putting aside for a moment that 2008 will be fêted around the globe as the “Year of Palladio,” I feel it is still necessary to ask,“Why all the fuss, can’t there be other important architectural characters that we can look up to with the same if not greater reverence than Palladio?” Shouldn’t we seek to promote as many exemplars as possible? Shouldn’t 2010, for instance, be the year of Philibert Delorme? Or consider non-Western alternatives such as Sinan (1489-1588), the Classical Ottoman architect who was a direct contemporary of Palladio and whose prolific body of work far exceeds that of most distinguished Renaissance architects. Certainly in the Islamic world his reputation is on par with that of Palladio.
However, I still can’t seem to get Palladio off my mind, and I don’t particularly care, because for better or worse, he will be a part of us for his quincentennial year in 2008 and for most of 2009 when the celebrations of his birth continue to linger like a pleasant hangover induced by a certain Venetian elixir. I have also tried to show that there is still a great deal to be learned from Palladio and that the most relevant aspects of his career are perhaps the least interesting and remarkable from the point of view of contemporary architectural fashion.Wouldn’t it be a delightful paradox if for the next 500 years Palladio was remembered less as the architect of sumptuous villas and palaces and more for his remarkable contribution to the profession, commitment to his family (five children) and devotion to a spouse named Allegradonna (content woman). That would truly be an extraordinary legacy.