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Andrea Palladio's influential architecture at National Building Museum

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; C01

When a new edition of Andrea Palladio's "Four Books of Architecture" arrived in colonial Virginia in 1751, the news merited notice in the Virginia Gazette. Today, a cheap reprint of that edition, the English translation overseen by Isaac Ware, is published in paperback by Dover, list price $22.95.

This is not proof of depreciation, but rather yet more evidence that Palladio's ideas were so successful they have become ubiquitous, and almost invisible. Palladio, as a new exhibition at the National Building Museum reminds us, is the single most pervasive influence on American architecture, to the point that it can be difficult to distinguish "Palladian" ideas from generically American ones.

The local shortlist of Palladian buildings is long: the Supreme Court, the White House, the National Gallery of Art, the Virginia state capitol in Richmond and a host of homes and villas throughout the region, including Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville. All of these are featured in "Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey." All of them are distinguished by a strict classicism, a preference for column-supported temple-front facades, an orthodox use of Greek and Roman elements, and rigid symmetry.

The exhibition takes it for granted that these things are beautiful and that their connection to Palladio gives them not just Old World legitimacy but classical, ancient-world gravitas. Perhaps the curators are right, but it's enough to bring out the contrarian in a viewer. It's a bit like being told that the Bible is the single greatest influence on literature. Of course it is, but suddenly the mind craves liberation from this dull platitude in a host of iconoclastic questions: Was it a benign or malignant influence? Are there lesser influences that might have had a more positive impact? Would the history of literature be more interesting if it weren't so biblically saturated?

The same goes with Palladio. His particular marriage to American architectural history is a mix of accident and affinity.

He was originally a stonemason, before he was encouraged by a classic Renaissance man -- his mentor, Giangiorgio Trissino -- to take up a broader study of music, science, literature and the writings of the ancients. Palladio, however, never lost the craftsman's attention to the rugged stuff of making buildings, the foundations, the materials, the details of how stone was placed on stone.

He was not the first to publish a detailed survey of architecture, but his treatise was written in comprehensible language, relatively unencumbered by philosophical verbiage and richly detailed with how-to instruction. The down-to-earth thinking behind Palladio's great book was obviously part of its appeal to the Anglo-American world.

He also did most of his life's work in and around Venice, which was in the mid-16th century nominally a republic, although in practice it was a stinking cesspool of internecine family rivalries and oligarchic pretension. The republican virtues of the Palladian style were taken for granted by American architects and nation builders, including Jefferson and Washington, even though what seemed to them republican was in fact the imperial splendor of Rome, a brutal empire run by egotistical conquerors who left us the relics of a workable legal system and some good ideas about plumbing.

But it was the adoption of Palladio's ideas in 18th century England, about a century after they had gone stale most everywhere else, that sealed the fate of American architecture. By accident or design, Palladio's aesthetic infiltrated English architecture and, in particular, the pattern books that offered ready-made templates for so many home builders in the American colonies.

History, of course, might have taken a different path. Reading Palladio's predecessor, Sebastiano Serlio, is a lot more fun and gives you a much better and richer sense of the architectural possibilities of the Renaissance. And architecture before and after Palladio had a grace (in the works of Brunelleschi and Bramante) and whimsy (the splendors of the baroque) that is kept muted in the anal-retentive purity of Palladio's style.

No matter. The English, and eventually the Americans, were besotted with Palladio and now we live in his world.

But we don't respect it much. Images and models of important Palladian structures seen in this exhibition don't show the security fascism that has shut down access to their front doors. These buildings are all too often stopped up by bollards and planters, and subverted by new entrances. Their bombast survives, but none of the supposed republican openness or egalitarianism that we thought was inherent in the style. Even people who run libraries and museums undermine Palladian grandeur by doing everything they can to ensure that we enter the premises like charwomen and delivery boys, unencumbered by any ideas about the heroic dignity of knowledge or learning.

What one would give for an architecture of openness and access, irregularity and porosity, buildings so truly permeable that bureaucrats couldn't undermine them so easily. But that wasn't Palladio, who loved a centrally placed front door that can be plugged up. But of course he can't be blamed for how thoroughly we've diluted the power of his buttoned-up, tightly wound designs.

The current exhibition is best appreciated as a survey of Palladio's drawing, rather than for the blindingly obvious fact of his "transatlantic legacy." A few early drawings show him working in perspective, but these were copies of earlier architects' work (copying was a form of learning for young designers). For the most part, Palladio worked in straightforward plans and elevations, using only a bit of shading to indicate curves and depth. In this he was following the fashion of the day, but also giving the best and most useful information to builders.

In some cases, Palladio was transcribing what he found in Roman ruins; in others, he was speculating on what those ruins might have looked like before time took its toll. In one particularly finicky and academic drawing, made early in his career, he imagines an Ionic colonnade as described by Vitruvius, the Roman author who left detailed (and often confusing) descriptions but no actual representations of architecture from the supposed Roman golden age. It looks so hard-edged and tightly coiled that you can practically see the tension in the artist's hands.

The more free-form drawings, the ones that capture Palladio thinking aloud rather than beautifying ideas for patrons and posterity, are the most fascinating. In one particularly interesting example, we see him reconstruct a massive Roman temple, the Temple of Fortune, but in sketchy form, with "how they did it" merging with "how I'd do it." That technique was the essence of his architectural philosophy.

Along with rare drawings of Palladio, the exhibition also includes beautiful models made by contemporary modelmaker Timothy Richards, including a magnificent reproduction of the Pantheon and a fascinating rendering of Jefferson's Monticello with a classic Palladian two-tiered pediment, which would have offered great views from the second floor but was scrapped in favor of the lower, single-level pediment we know today. Together, the drawings and the models make for excellent study and a worthy afternoon.

And while it's tiresome to feel so obliged to genuflect before Palladio, maybe he deserves it. If nothing else, he gave America a neatly simple-minded vocabulary for making buildings, a tool kit of mostly interchangeable parts that limited the chances for monstrous abortions of taste. Bad Palladio would always be more palatable than bad Bernini or Mansart. It bore up well to American frugality, and we weren't old enough or wise enough to master much else in the early years of the Republic. Perhaps we should be thankful.

Palladio and His Legacy:

A Transatlantic Journey

is at the National Building Museum,

401 F St. NW, until Jan. 9. Admission

is free. For more information,

visit http://www.nbm.org.

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