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EXHIBITION: Andrea Palladio

‘Andrea Palladio: His life and legacy’ at  the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 5 February 2009

Palladio is one of those figures of architectural history generally known more by name than output, and so it is interesting – and curious – that there is currently such a concentrated focus on his work. Two exhibitions: one online and one gallery-based, explore his life and work and have been used explicitly to promote a broader acceptance of Palladio’s influence.

Admittedly, it is the 500th anniversary of his birth, but even as the self-confessed Palladian architect Francis Terry writes in the RIBA Journal: “by contemporary taste, he should be derided as a backward looking plagiarist with no ideas of his own.” (1) So what is it that has brought about Palladio’s new-found acceptability?

A clue can be found in Sunand Prasad, the current President of the RIBA’s insistence that “Palladio’s relevance will last and last”. Indeed, the word “Legacy” in the exhibition title is instructive. It seems that Palladio is the tool by which today’s architects can find succour. Palladio is portrayed as an architectural uber-Mensch: loved by clients, developers and the public – he is, as the Royal Academy of Art (RA)’s promotional literature states: “the architects’ architect”. The exhibition calls him “the eternal contemporary”. The message seems to be: if only we could connect in that way today.

The Guardian’s Steve Rose assumes that love of Palladio is about his cross-sectoral appeal. Rose quotes arch-traditionalist, Robert Adam as saying: “Just you wait… Richard Rogers will say, ‘I’m really a Palladian’ and so will Norman Foster.” (2) As such Palladio is readily caricatured as something of a consensus-builder – providing something for everyone. But actually (as I argue in The Future of Community) there are actually no substantive differences between traditionalists and modernists these days. The reason that so many and varied architects can claim or admire Palladio’s heritage, is because there is no critical tensions between architectural schools. As such, we have a flabby consensus that stultifies the very theoretical development that made Palladio who he really was. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but too many seem content to imitate the imitator, rather than the originals. As such, in the current period, whoever claims Palladio – little of substance will be created.

The RA’s exhibition on Palladio is complimented by the Royal Institute of British Architect’s (RIBA) online resource “Palladio and Britain”. The former is a rather compact exhibition of sketches and models housed in four rooms of the Royal Academy; the latter exhibits 200 or so drawings from the RIBA Library where “80 percent of (Palladios drawings and books) in existence” reside. Actually, both exhibition and website opened to muted fanfare on 26th January 2009. (3)

For many advocates of his work, Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’ Architetura (The Four Books of Architecture) are key to his elevated status as a major architectural figure. Some of the drawings and writings from the Four Books are on show and these are genuinely fascinating. These books comprise his study of the architecture of classical antiquity, first published in Venice in 1570, exploring the rules and plans for buildings based on aesthetics (design rules) and technical expertise (construction rules).

Essentially these magnificently illustrated volumes on the nature of architecture. In the contemporary argot, they are “accessible” meaning that they have a straightforward clarity, and as such, over the years have inspired architects and patrons, including Inigo Jones in England and Thomas Jefferson in America. Inigo Jones (perhaps best known perhaps for his design of Covent Garden) studied Palladio’s Italian buildings closely and brought a large collection of his drawings to Britain in the 17th century. Other drawings were “acquired” by Lord Burlington and in 1894 these were all gifted to the RIBA. These now form a fabulous resource which includes a great deal of written detail about Palladio’s life and work, as well as photographs to compliment fine reproductions of his original drawings, woodcuts and preliminary sketches, a large percentage of which are now online.

Palladio began his career in Vicenza and became famous for his works throughout the Venice and Veneto region. Much still survives, from the refectory and cloisters at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to the magnificent Villa di Maser (Barbaro) situated not far from Treviso. (The exhibition contains a huge model of this villa, but if you are looking for architectural details you will have to consult a tiny, photocopied plan on the side wall).

Educated by humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino, Palladio is known as much for his domestic residences, his barns and farms, as he is for the grand-scale religious buildings. He certainly influenced the skyline and there are some wonderfully luminescent Canalatto’s at the RA to admire in the first exhibition room. It is interesting to judge whether Palladio’s unbuilt sheme for the Rialto bridge in Venice – captured by Canaletto – would have been as appealing as the one that was eventually constructed.

The exhibition itself, designed by Eric Parry Architects, is unprepossessing… some might say, cheap. A series of rather poor grey metal stands contain the displays but these sit awkwardly in the ‘Palladian’ interiors of the Royal Academy/ Burlington House. One display of Palladio’s fascinating speculative housing projects is contained within what can only be described as a replica bus shelter. This poor layout is less noticeable because of the surfeit of large scale wooden models. Each model lacks sufficient detail – or maybe lacks differentiation between the styles of model making – to facilitate close examination. They only permit an appreciation of the form, but not the depth, of Palladio’s work. Indeed, the exhibition lacks real substance, and the initially impressive models clarify little.

I recommend the audio guide, not least because it is less an instruction about what to see and more of an iPod download: a journey with the curator’s conversational chat providing a pleasant backdrop. However, the fact that the first item in the audio package indicates that the El Greco portrait hanging at the entrance “might” be of Palladio ought not have been the best first choice. Even though it is true that few verifiable images of him exist, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the show.

The exhibition describes Palladio’s early work and methods; followed by a room on his influence, a room on his later projects and a small room on his sketches. Palladio’s studies of Roman and classical architecture informed his sketches. Scale, proportion, beauty are all documented and displayed in some of the exhibits. He was not averse to mixing details from historic periods provided it worked. One of the curatorial notes states: “The basis of architecture by Palladio, or for Alberti, was mental invention.” One display shows his rapid sketches and the alternatives that he generated after consultation with the client.

The real Palladio brought together theory and practice in an exemplary manner, so it is ironic that he name has been associated with “pattern book” architecture ever since, and doubly ironic that contemporary interpretations make him sound like an idol, rather than an historic figure whose work should be critically appraised. It was Inigo Jones who ‘popularised’ Palladio’s ideas and ‘style’ in Britain and Europe and conceptualized the notion of a “Palladian”, and “neo-Palladian” architecture whereby “traditional” architects (like the aforementioned Francis Terry of Quinlan Terry Architects) can dip into his pattern books and easily replicate authenticity. Terry says: “it’s an amazing treatise, without question the greatest pattern book of the Renaissance. We use it in our office on a daily basis, for anything from sizing a door architrave to spacing modillions on a pediment. It is a five hundred year old cook book whose recipes still taste good”.

There’s nothing wrong with that but unfortunately, Palladio’s pattern-book approach became bastardised in later years to mean a pick-and-mix catalogue of parts. Gone went the intellectual rigour; artistic integrity; and the instinctive ability to rationalise based on years of study. The contemporary architectural milieu is hoping simply to reclaim the popular appeal of his methods without the hard part. For example, Palladio, the exhibition notes say, was the “inventor of structural methods” – hardly a claim that could be pinned on any architect today.

Whereas Palladio theorised about architecture – this exhibition lauds the 500-year old soundbite from his favoured client: “(Palladio can) rival the ancients (inspire) the moderns and will appear marvellous to future generations” (Barbaro). What many fail to appreciate is that he worked hard at it. Today architects are confused by, rather than masters of, history. In some ways, many are still trying to find the easy way of attaining greatness. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but too many seem content to imitate the imitator, rather than the original architecture from which Palladio took his influence.. As such, an unintended consequence of this exhibition might be to reinforce the common perception that plagiarism has its merits. Either way, this brief snapshot of his life – occasionally conveying him as some kind of early “collaborative learning “exponent – distorts the intellectual genius and artistic integrity of Palladio.

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(1) Francis Terry, “The polite truth about Palladio” RIBA Journal, January 2009

(2) Steve Rose, “Palladio: the battle for an architect’s soul” The Guardian, 31 January 2009

(3) www.architecture.com/palladio