Why has Roman classicism been so pervasive for 2,000 years? And why, during the past two centuries, did many European and American architects rebel against classicism's aesthetic dominance and stylistic constraints? In the rejection of classicism, has something been lost?
Some answers to these questions can be found at the National Building Museum's exhibition "Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey." Displaying original drawings, models, treatises and pattern books, the exhibition explains how the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), considered the Western world's most influential architect, enabled design based on Roman classicism to become the ideal, normative way to make buildings.
Palladio's lasting influence resulted from his being in the right place at the right time - along with his extraordinary talent, ambition and energy. He lived and worked in Italy during the 16th century, when Renaissance intellectual ferment was at its peak. The architectural legacy of ancient Rome was being uncovered, documented, analyzed and extolled for ideals of beauty - symmetry, proportion, harmony of elements - unappreciated during the Middle Ages.
Palladio visited, studied and made drawings of antique Roman structures. At the same time, he designed aesthetically original buildings - villas, palazzi, churches - in the Veneto, the region around Venice - the Villa Rotonda in Vicenza among the most famous. His inventive, unprecedented architectural work showed how the grammar and vocabulary of Roman classicism, a veritable kit of parts, could be applied creatively to any building.
In 1570, at the age of 62, Palladio took the step that cemented his reputation and influence for hundreds of years. He published "The Four Books on Architecture," his treatise showing what one needed to know to design beautiful, classically styled buildings. The comprehensive treatise was an architectural handbook and historic reference, but it was also a very effective marketing tool.
Palladio enjoyed a monopoly, since no other comparably practical treatise on architectural design existed at the time. Book 1 presented the theory of Roman classicism, its compositional principles and components, such as Doric, Ionic and Corinthian column orders. Books 3 and 4 contained drawings of Roman archeological antecedents. But Book 2 was Palladio's business brochure, a portfolio presenting drawings of his own exceptional work.