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Palladio triumphs at the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy’s extensive exhibition of Andrea Palladio’s work is a fitting celebration of the man dubbed history’s most influential architect, writes Lionel March

Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy. Until 13 April, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London W1J 0BD. www.royalacademy.org.uk

On 30 November 1508, a boy born in what is now northern Italy was given the name Andrea Palladio. Many of his architectural works would one day achieve the status of UNESCO World Heritage sites. His influence spread from his home region of Veneto to Britain, Russia and the United States, and his thoughts and works continue to excite scholars, from historians to computer scientists, today.

Curated by Howard Burns and Guido Beltramini, who also edit the authoritative, beautifully illustrated 300-page catalogue, the Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy exhibition is a joint adventure between the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio (CISA) in Vicenza and the RIBA. It was installed this winter in Vicenza, at Palazzo Barbaran da Porte. Any visitor there would have passed buildings designed by Palladio before entering the CISA exhibit.

In London, before entering the exhibition there is the legacy of neo-Palladianism in Colen Campbell’s Burlington House (1717), which today suffers from extensions front, left, right and one-storey above. The concoction makes a poor substitute for raw Palladio. Less compromised examples of British neo-Palladianism, such as the Banqueting House, the Queen’s House, Horse Guards and Chiswick House, are some distance from the site of the show.

In London, the exhibition has been installed in the Royal Academy’s main galleries by Eric Parry Architects. Drawings and paintings line the walls, while models, books and manuscripts are displayed centrally. Palladio’s pencil, ink and wash drawings are the true stars of the exhibition.

They come from several collections and represent a rare opportunity to see this many pieces so very well presented. The provenance for the English collections comes from British architect Inigo Jones’ Italian journeys in the 17th century, and Lord Burlington’s travels in the 18th. The casual visitor may be surprised to find drawings for multiple housing projects among the many showing palaces and villas.

The viewer is faced on entry with El Greco’s portrait of Palladio. Next is a portrait of Giangiorgio Trissino, the distinguished humanist who ‘discovered’ and named Palladio as - in the words of a contemporary - ‘a very spirited young man with much inclination for mathematics’. Palladio travelled three times with Trissino’s friends to Rome, where they investigated and surveyed Roman sites.

Two portraits show the Barbaro brothers who commissioned Palladio to work on their villa and chapel at Maser, in Veneto. Daniele Barbaro is portrayed by Paolo Veronese with his hand on pages of his work on Roman engineer Vitruvius, to which Palladio is known to have contributed illustrations. The edition was printed in both Latin and Italian, and in at least one of these Barbaro included pop-up and working paper models, which would have been good to have been shown. Manuscripts for this notable achievement are exhibited.

Marcantonio Barbaro is shown in Turkish gear as ambassador to Istanbul by an unknown Venetian artist. This provides an opportunity in the exhibition to raise the possibility of remote cultural exchange between Palladio’s circle and the great Ottoman architect Sinan. Earlier, Marcantonio had almost certainly seen Philibert de l’Orme’s chapel at Anet when he was ambassador to France during the first Huguenot uprisings in Catherine de Medici’s reign. There are distinct similarities with Palladio’s later design for the chapel at Maser, which is exhibited here as an openable model.

There are several scale models, mostly wooden. Unfortunately they are all recent. As far as I know, there exist no models from Palladio’s own time. The models serve the purpose of providing three-dimensional aspects, but at reduced scale. I would have liked to have seen some three-dimensional ‘fragments’ at full size, to give Palladio’s achievements a real sense of scale. In his introductory essay, Guido Beltramini describes the ‘temporary white architecture’ designed by Palladio in 1543 for the processional entry into the city of Vicenza. Full-size ‘white architecture’ of a column, an arch, a door, a window or an architrave would give a true sense of scale to Palladio’s work in the exhibition itself.

The last room shows Palladio’s fascination with Julius Caesar’s battle plans and military formations. Occasionally these figures, it is suggested, look like blueprints for his own building partis. These exhibits reinforce Palladio’s position as a humanist and worthy member of Accademia Olimpica. His works also show that he was also a mathematician of no mean accomplishment for his time, but this is not brought up.

A book on measurements by Palladio’s mathematician friend and fellow academician, Silvio Belli, is on show, but not his more relevant work on proportion and proportionality. Contemporary architects including Arata Isozaki, David Chipperfield, Richard MacCormac and Zaha Hadid make comments on Palladio’s perennial influence in the Architecture Space.

In the exhibition catalogue, Howard Burns makes a point of noting the grammatical aspects of Palladio’s work, but no reference is made to formal grammatical analyses completed some 20 years ago at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and MIT, or of the somewhat less convincing work on computer generation published by George Hersey from Yale. Quibbles aside, this is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to take in Palladio, the Vitruvius of his age. Go. See it.

Resume Drawings to drool over from the Old Master

Lionel March is emeritus professor of design and computation at UCLA and visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge

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