The White House is Palladian. Mount Vernon is Palladian. Peerless Andrea Palladio, the Italian master architect, was dead 210 years before Washington was founded, yet the erudite and decorous beauties that he clarilfied still dignify our dreams. The Gulf Station at P and 22nd streets NW is Palladian in spirit. Andrea Palladio wed the antique to the modern, the farmhouse to the temple. Monticello is Palladian. The pedimented proticos on suburbia's "Colonials' are pathetically Palladian. His buildings are unpompous, dignified, commodious. He was the most influential teacher of architectural principles who has ever lived.
"The Drawings of Andrea Palladio" opens here tomorrow. It is a thoughtful exhigition, scholarly, austere and frequently surprising . Fittingly enough, it will be displayed in that most Palladian of monuments, the symmetrical West Building of the National Gallery of Art.
The fine plantation houses Palladio designed for the country gentlemen of Venice and the Veneto have, for calm and grandeur, never been surpassed. Lord Burlington believed that; so did Thomas Jefferson. It is fitting that the scholar who organized this show is himself attuned to the pulse of country life. His name is Douglas Lewis. He grew up on a plantation -- Beech Grove is its name -- in southwestern Missippi.
Andrea Palladio -- a stonecutter turned scholar turned builder to the rich -- taught himself his art. Equally self-taught were his devoted followers, whose gracious country houses in the early 18th century changed the face of England. They were country gentlemen, not architects or builders but learned amateurs. Lewis understands them. When he finished Yale, he went to England for two years, where he rowed for Clare College, Cambridge University. Appropriately, he is not credentialed as a specialist in Palladio or drawing or 16th-century building. He is the National Gallery's curator of sculpture. He first approached Palladio as a relative amateur.
That took daring. No Italian architect -- not Albert, not Vitruvious -- has been more closely studied than Andrea Palladio. One expects "The Drawings of Andrea Palladio" to reiterate old lessons. Instead, this show surprises. It includes more than 100 of the architect's own drawings. Lewis argues from these documents that Palladio has been much misread. And he blames Palladio himself.
The master's influence, ironically, has been spread less by his buildings than by his books. Our misreadings of Palladio, Lewis is convinced, were set in 1570, when Palladio published "Four Books on Architecture," which codified his teachings, and the teachings of the ancients, and promoted his own art. Jefferson, for instance, never went to Venice, but took the "Four Books" as a "bible." Lewis is less sanguine. The books, he argues, are "completely untrustworthy" as a guide to Palladio's own architecture.
There are "not guilty of gross simplifications," writes Lewis, but they "shamelessly 'improve'" the architect's designs. Palladio, in short, edited his art. "Plans were regularized, facades were simplified, idiosyncracies were omitted, and (perhaps most crucially) the whole determining influence of the surrounding context for each building was left out." Palladio's buildings "are not black and white; they are not flat and boldy outlined; and once more, above all, they do not sit on pristine, abstract, inviolate Euclidian planes."
Palladio has long been read as a 16th-century minimalist, fond of chaste walls and pure forms, who fought against the lies of painted decorations. The drawings Lewis has collected sweep that view away. One of them, for instance, for a wall of the Villa Godi, shows us that Palladio did not despise fictive frescoes but, in fact, designed them. The Palladio we meet in these drawings is a man fond of caprices, who adds frills to simple structures. His buildings are full of color, and of irregularities. They are less obedient to the teachings of the ancients than they are to their sites.
Paladi often claimed that the outbuildings and long barns that frame the gracious courtyards of his country houses were for "the uses of the farm. Though most scholars believe that, Lewis tends to doubt it. He points out in his catalogue, and the drawings prove, that Palladio's great houses were to a high degree theatrical: "Palladio's manor courts were definitely not farm yards." Though their wealthy owners liked to view themselves as stewards of the land, as agriculturally virtuous, the barns that seem to prove their closeness to the earth were -- like the shepherd's crooks of Stuart masques, or the milkmaid's costumes worn by ladies at Versailles -- stage props of a sort.
Lewis' researches have also changed the dating of many of these drawings, and of Palladio's buildings, too. In Venice, by fortuitous accident a decade ago, Lewis came upon "2,000 boxes of documents" that proved that one Palladio house, the Villa Cornaro, was built 15 years earlier than previously believed. "On the basis of that discovery, I was suddenly revising the dates of half a dozen other buildings that moved backward with it." From one account book in that hoard, Lewis also learned what Palladio, while supervising work, liked for lunch: farm-fresh eggs and scampi brought specially from Venice.
Most of the drawings the master made for his buildings and his books have not survived. His working drawings were used up on the site; those used for his woodcuts were pasted to the blocks and destroyed in the cutting. There is only one drawing by Palladio in an American collection. Most here come from England, from the Royal Institute of British Architects. A number are quick sketches of plans and elevations. Others are sheer fantasies. Some of the most beautiful are precisely measured drawings of the antiquities of Rome.
Gallery exhibits rarely are accompanied, as this one is, by major works of scholarship produced entirely inhouse. Lewis' finely written catalogue is full of original detective work, though for those who cannot read architectural drawings, his show may appear dry. The Palladio he shows us is not the architect of working farms, the simplifier of monuments or the Bauhaus functionalist we think we know. His show was organized for the Internatinal Exhibitions Foundation. It will tour after it closes here July 5.