How Palladio’s architectural language has shaped buildings and ideas of beauty for 400 years
By Aidan Kiernander
In early 2020, a leaked draft executive order made civic architecture the unlikely new flashpoint in the US’s interminable culture wars. With its title echoing President Trump’s MAGA slogan ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’ revealed plans to set in stone a ‘classical architectural style’ for public buildings, and signalled a return to the aesthetics popularised over four hundred years ago by a visionary of unparalleled influence, Andrea Palladio.
Portrait of Andrea Palladio by Alessandro Maganza
Palladio was born in 1508 at Padua, within the Republic of Venice. At 13 he was apprenticed as a stonemason, and in 1523 he moved to a workshop at Vicenza, one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, where he spent most of his prolific career. He established himself by catering to the many competing grand families enriched by the city’s silk industry.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vicenza is home to forty-seven of these masterpieces: distinctive urban palazzi and countryside villas which made Palladio famous in this little corner of Italy.
The delicate, ornate Gothic façades that dominated Venice had grown out of medieval architecture, but Palladio reached back into antiquity and ransacked Greco-Roman ruins for inspiration, manipulating the classical orders to please and promote the individual tastes of his patrons. An erroneous belief that the remains of the Temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli were an imperial villa lent even his domestic architecture a sublime quality.
Palladio’s great ecclesiastic commission was Venice’s Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore on the island of Giudecca – a colossal votive church, commissioned to deliver the city from a plague that had carried away a third of the populace, including the elderly Titian. To some it is the most perfectly realised ecclesiastic structure.
Palladio’s creations were stately, serene, measured and harmonious. His hilltop mansion Villa Rotunda – a symbol of the Renaissance – has been called the architectural equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, such is its geometrical order.
The ground-breaking publication of his treatise I quattro libri dell’architettura in 1570 served to universalise Palladian principles. Both a record of his works, and a practical manual of design and construction, the first complete English translation attracted the likes of Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Wren in 1720. A century earlier, Inigo Jones had consulted an Italian edition when designing Covent Garden’s piazza. Palladianism soon came to be seen as quintessentially British: from Bath’s genteel crescents to English town and country houses, and even the principal façade of Buckingham Palace resembling a palazzo.
Palladio emphasised form and proportion over lavish materials and elaborate embellishment, enabling architects and tradesmen to achieve classical majesty and gravitas at little cost. It was a natural choice in Britain’s colonies, expressing suitably imperial power and aspiration. Calcutta, the seat of British power in Asia, became known as the ‘City of Palaces’, and here a Palladian hack was adapted to the local environment.
Palladio had reintroduced a special plaster called marmorino, which coated cheaper materials like wood and brick to make them resemble stone. At Calcutta, a brilliant white stucco called chunam was always in high demand; made from ground seashells, when polished it was more durable than cement and looked like brilliant marble.
Andrea Palladio was recognised as the father of the American architecture.
Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, believed Palladian architecture shared the high ideals of Beauty and Reason with his newly independent nation. He owned five editions of Palladio’s ‘Four Books’, which he called his ‘Bible’, and these were profoundly influential on his architectural designs; the Capitol Building, the Virginia State Capitol, and the University of Virginia’s Academical Village served as prototypes for federal and academic institutions across the US, not least in the nascent capital, Washington D.C..
The popularity of Palladianism and Neoclassicism endured, adapting in the early twentieth century to accommodate the functions of modern government, and becoming the de facto model for monumental and institutional buildings internationally. This Stripped Classicism emerged in the US’ New Deal, but also in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Eschewing the expense of detailing, the form lacked delicacy and charm, taking on a cold, elephantine and bullying look absent from Palladio’s seminal masterpieces.
Although Palladio was lauded as Father of American Architecture by the US Congress in 2010, the leaked executive order seeking to codify a ‘classical architectural style’ for federal buildings proved explosive. To opponents, classical architecture is tainted. It symbolises injustice and exclusionism, and has dystopian associations to colonialism, imperialism, authoritarianism and slavery.
One of the most common symbols of Palladian architecture in the US is the image of Monticello, Jefferson’s 1772 plantation house, depicted on the US nickel. Jefferson, who championed Palladianism for its lofty ideals, owned more than one hundred slaves. Like most 18th century US buildings, Monticello was built by slaves, people who Jefferson referred to as ‘inferior to whites’.
This conflict of ideas – the contesting visions of the past, and opposing aesthetic ideals – is symptomatic of the current polarisation of US public discourse. It is worth noting that Palladio’s own style – though measured, harmonious, and serene – was born of a tumultuous period when Vicenza was frequently violent and often deadly. Palladio drew on the past to create something uplifting and universal.
Our lesson from him might be not to limit ourselves: the onus, perhaps, should be on discovering new architectural iterations that are informed by and express the diversity of contemporary thought and aspiration.
Aidan Kiernander is a historical biographer and independent researcher. More info at kiernander.com