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Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey

Categories: Articles

Conjectural portrait of Andrea Palladio, c.1715. Engraved after Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734). Courtesy RIBA British Architectural Library.

By Calder Loth

The National Building Museum had the rare privilege of exhibiting a collection of original drawings by Andrea Palladio (1508-80), widely regarded as the western world’s most significant architect. The Royal Institute of British Architects, the keeper of these treasures, is sharing a group of 31 of Palladio’s sketches, studies, and presentation drawings, some of which have never been seen in this country before. Supplementing the drawings are numerous rare books as well as specially commissioned architectural models by Timothy Richards to help us understand how this person who lived so long ago and so far away shaped much of the architectural image of our country.

While we recognize that Palladio created many outstanding buildings, as did many other Italian Renaissance architects, we might ask why Palladio should be of particular interest to Americans. Most Americans have never heard of Palladio, nor have they seen any of his buildings firsthand. Nevertheless, it was not Palladio’s actual buildings that shaped the character of much of our architecture, but his writings—specifically his famous treatise, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, or The Four Books on Architecture, first published in 1570. Versions of Palladio’s lavishly illustrated treatise found their way to the American colonies by the first half of the 18th century. Various editions of I Quattro Libri, either in the original Italian or in French or English translations, were available in numerous institutional libraries in major colonial cities. For many colonial-era architects and builders, Palladio’s illustrations and instructions for composing the five orders, as presented in Book 1 of I Quattro Libri, became the principal authority on the Classical vocabulary and remained a textbook for architects well into the 20th century.

It was Book 2 of I Quattro Libri, however, that had the greatest influence on American architecture, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Book 2 was devoted to Palladio’s own designs for villas and town palaces and marked the first time that an architect’s built works had ever been published. His villas were relatively restrained structures, but were gracefully proportioned and deftly enriched with Classical detailing. In many of his villa designs, Palladio attached the service areas and farm structures to the residential section to produce formal architectural compositions, in contrast to the irregular fortified compounds typical of the period. His villas normally had the central residence connected to terminal pavilions by low wings or “hyphens.” These cohesively organized sectional layouts provided inspiration for many five-part American villas and plantations. An early example is Battersea in Petersburg, Virginia, erected in 1768 for John Banister. The so-called “Palladian” windows (a three-part opening with an arched center section) in Battersea’s terminal wings are an early 19th-century alteration, but one that intensifies Battersea’s Palladian character. The popularity of these five-part schemes continued into the Federal period. Baltimore’s Homewood, the 1801 suburban villa of Charles Carroll, Jr., was a prototype for many early 19th-century, five-part houses employing the more refined Classical detailing in the style of the Adam brothers, British architects of the 18th century.

Homewood, Baltimore, Maryland, 1801. Photo by Calder Loth.

In a number of his villa designs, Palladio demonstrated how the columned portico, the signature motif of ancient temples, could be applied to domestic buildings. Palladio mistakenly believed that the ancient Romans employed porticoes on their more prestigious dwellings. Nevertheless, we owe to Palladio the fashion for embellishing houses with columned porticoes. Probably the first canonically correct use of a pedimented portico on an American house is Whitehall, near Annapolis, built in the 1760s for Governor Horatio Sharp. James Madison continued the tradition when he added a massive Tuscan portico to his Virginia home, Montpelier, around 1800, a signal of his growing importance as a public figure. We see in Frascati, an 1823 plantation house near Gordonsville, Virginia, how its portico lends a stately appearance to an otherwise straightforward dwelling. Frascati’s portico closely resembles the Tuscan portico on Palladio’s Villa Emo, which is also a relatively plain building. Nevertheless, the portico serves to give notice that a building is the home of an important family or individual. America has countless porticoed houses. Some are dignified works of architecture, but, regrettably, many ignore the rules of Classical proportions as we see with numerous “McMansions” of today.

Frascati, Orange County, Virginia, 1823. Photo by Calder Loth.

Other innovations by Palladio included the use of the two-tiered or two-level portico. This form became especially popular for houses in the American South where the two levels provided shady outdoor living spaces. This feature is evident in the ca. 1742 Drayton Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina, regarded as America’s earliest fully developed expression of Anglo-Palladianism. Recent research has revealed that Drayton Hall’s first owner, John Drayton, owned a copy of the 18th-century Ware edition of Palladio’s The Four Books, an English Translation of I Quattro Libri commissioned by Lord Burlington, leading promoter of the Anglo-Palladian fashion. A Virginia house combining both the five-part scheme and a two-tiered portico (with attached colonnade), is the 1850s Moss Neck Manor near Fredericksburg, a striking composition measuring 225 feet from end to end.

Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 1738-42. Photo by Calder Loth.

Thomas Jefferson was Palladio’s foremost American disciple. He declared I Quattro Libri to be “the Bible” and employed Palladian forms and details in nearly all of his designs. In his most ambitious project, the University of Virginia, Jefferson intended to show the correct use of the Roman Classical orders in an effort to promote architectural literacy among the students. Therefore, the pavilions or faculty residences facing the colonnaded central lawn showed different versions of the orders, several of which were based on Palladio’s plates in Book 1 of I Quattro Libri. The focal point of the complex, the Rotunda, which housed the library, was a scaled-down version of the Pantheon, the domed Roman temple for which Palladio published the greatest number of illustrations in Book 4. Jefferson declared the Pantheon to be the most perfect example of “spherical” architecture.

Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, 1785-92. Photo by Calder Loth.

Jefferson’s most influential work was the Virginia State Capitol. Its temple form was inspired by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, the most perfectly preserved of all Roman temples. Jefferson first became familiar with the temple through Palladio’s several illustrations in I Quattro Libri and was later able to visit it. Following the move of the seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond, the Virginia legislators asked Jefferson for assistance with the design of a new capitol building. Jefferson, who was then serving as minister to France, worked up a set of drawings and sent them from Paris to Richmond. The imposing structure, begun in 1785, marked the first effort in modern times to give architectural expression to the republican form of government. With its temple form, the Virginia Capitol became a temple of democracy and established the precedent for using monumental Classicism, which Jefferson learned from Palladio, for the nation’s public buildings.

Andrew Mellon Auditorium, Washington, DC, 1934. Photo by Calder Loth.

Jefferson’s most influential work was the Virginia State Capitol. Its temple form was inspired by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, the most perfectly preserved of all Roman temples. Jefferson first became familiar with the temple through Palladio’s several illustrations in I Quattro Libri and was later able to visit it. Following the move of the seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond, the Virginia legislators asked Jefferson for assistance with the design of a new capitol building. Jefferson, who was then serving as minister to France, worked up a set of drawings and sent them from Paris to Richmond. The imposing structure, begun in 1785, marked the first effort in modern times to give architectural expression to the republican form of government. With its temple form, the Virginia Capitol became a temple of democracy and established the precedent for using monumental Classicism, which Jefferson learned from Palladio, for the nation’s public buildings.

U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, DC, 1935. Photo by Calder Loth.

A prodigious display of the fruits of the American Renaissance is found in the remarkable assemblage of Classical buildings in Washington, D.C. Outstanding among them is Arthur Brown, Jr.’s Andrew Mellon Auditorium, the central feature of the Federal Triangle complex. Completed in 1934, this imposing work is a heroic vision of Palladio’s ideal of ancient Roman splendor. With its massive portico and arched wings, it recalls Palladio’s reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Nerva Trajan, an ancient monument known only through Palladio images since its ruins were destroyed in 1606.

Palladio’s several reconstruction images of Corinthian temples had their impact on America’s greatest Corinthian temple, Cass Gilbert’s United States Supreme Court. Completed in 1935, its imposing octastyle portico (eight columns across) directly references the Temple of Mars the Avenger, a Roman ruin whose conjectural original appearance was first published by Palladio. We recall that the porticoed temple form was developed by the ancients to inspire awe, and the Supreme Court’s powerful Classicism today still commands a sense of awe and respect for the institution it houses.

While it is impossible to capture in this limited space the full breadth of Palladio’s influence on America’s built environment, it is safe to say that the architectural landscape of our country would be very different if Palladio had not existed. The several examples mentioned here illustrate how Palladio cast his shadow on some of our most iconic buildings. These, however, are merely a hint of the hundreds if not thousands of other structures that bear some reference, be it sophisticated or naïve, to the Italian master’s handiwork.

In Paolo Gualdo’s 1616 biography of Palladio, we have a foretaste of what he would mean to the western world’s architectural scene. Gualdo stated:

He left many disciples, especially in his home town of Vicenza; they subsequently, with recollections of Palladio’s style, have built both public and private building that are very beautiful in that city and abroad.

Calder Loth is senior architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. He was one of the curators of Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey, and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue. The exhibition was organized by the Royal Institute of British Architects Trust, London, in association with the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza, and is presented in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the National Building Museum.