Palladio's Influence Spans Centuries and More Than One Architectural Renaissance

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Take a look at the exterior facades and interior walls of your house. There's a good chance that you will see elements -- roof gables, classically styled columns, crown moldings, perhaps an arched Palladian window -- whose prevalence in American architecture can be traced to Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance architect.

This month marks the 500th anniversary of Palladio's birth in Padua, Italy, and it is not going unnoticed. His influence on Western architecture in general, and on Washington architecture in particular, is so significant that more than two dozen members of the House of Representatives sponsored a resolution this year commemorating Palladio's birth.

Palladio's surviving buildings are collectively included on UNESCO's World Heritage list. They include dozens of villas, palaces, churches, theaters, stadiums and town halls. Palladio's famous Villa Rotunda, in Vicenza, Italy, is as well known to architects around the world as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye.

The ideas of Palladio and Palladianism are visible in countless neoclassically styled buildings around the world. In Washington, the White House, the Capitol and the John A. Wilson District Building are among the prominent edifices embodying Palladian motifs.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home depicted on the back of the nickel, was inspired by Palladio, as was Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia. Jefferson considered Palladio's landmark treatise, "The Four Books of Architecture," the architectural equivalent of the Bible.

Palladio began his career as a stone mason and subsequently studied architecture, engineering, topography and military science. Early in his career, he spent time in Rome making highly accurate drawings of temples, villas, bridges and the components with which they were composed in antiquity. Vicenza became his home, and many of his buildings are in that region.

The 16th century was the golden age of the Italian Renaissance, providing Palladio design commissions and an opportunity, later in his career, to ponder and write about architectural theory and practice. Thus his legacy is twofold: a large body of buildings and a treatise that would greatly influence architectural culture for centuries.

"The Four Books of Architecture," first published in Venice in 1570 and later translated into several other languages, including English, sets forth and illustrates Palladio's core beliefs: that architecture must have established canons and rules, that there must be standards and a correct way to design. His credo was based on his admiration and analysis of Roman precedents, as well as the creative work of some of his Renaissance contemporaries.

He advocated studying and properly using elements of classical form, in effect a kit of parts: columns and pilasters with their Doric, Ionic or Corinthian capitals; arches, vaults and domes; pediments and architraves; and a collection of Roman ornamental motifs. Also included in the "Four Books" are drawings and guidelines explaining how to compose building plans and facades, as well as how to design public works such as streets, bridges and piazzas.

In the 17th century, Palladio's buildings and treatise began influencing architects and architecture in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England, where Palladianism became the dominant style. Palladianism in turn crossed the Atlantic, permeated American design during the 18th century and, despite other styles that came and went, continued to influence 19th- and 20th-century American architecture.

Today, architects still study Palladio, but not just to be historically informed. Palladio teaches timeless compositional lessons transcending his kit of parts and neoclassical styling, lessons relevant to any aesthetic style.

Analyze a Palladian building, and you learn about symmetry, rhythm, modularity and proportion. You understand how an artful assembly of distinct parts, whether exterior elements or interior spaces, yields a unified whole. You discover the visual delight of contrasting scales and textures, of the interplay of solid and void. And you appreciate how architecture can be enriched through its relationship to landscape, whether set within it or embracing it.

Some of today's architects share Palladio's belief that creating good architecture requires established compositional principles and rules, along with culturally familiar, standardized building elements that have endured over time. They would argue that only the language, grammar and vocabulary of classicism passes that test.

But theirs is an uphill battle in light of 21st-century materials and technologies, more complex functional requirements, lack of highly skilled craftspeople, and, equally important, the desire of most architects to explore modern building forms. While many of today's architects adhere to a design formula, it's usually their own formula rather than one adopted universally.

Thus Palladio's birthday is best celebrated by recalling and applying his timeless compositional lessons, not by copying his buildings.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company