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Palladio's Venice By Tracy E Cooper. Yale University Press, 2006.352pp. £45

There have been a great many books written about Palladio and, with the 500th anniversary of his birth coming in 2008, there are likely to be many more on the way. This is the first to deal exclusively with his work in Venice - an unbeatable combination for any publisher.

Palladio's reputation as the most inuential architect in history, together with the world's most photogenic city, would appear to be a marriage made in heaven.

It should be remembered that Palladio has not always enjoyed his current popularity.

In The Stones of Venice (published in 1851) John Ruskin attacked the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore, saying: 'It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible in every point of rational regard.'

One suspects that Tracy Cooper, the author of this new book, would have little time for Ruskin. The structure of the book is novel, arranged according to types of patron:

patriarchs; religious orders; the Venetian State; and charitable institutions. The text does not make for light reading, but is scholarly and thorough. There are over 1,000 books in the bibliography, but it comes as no surprise that The Stones of Venice is not one of them.

Palladio's Venetian works are easily separated from those in his home city of Vicenza and from his rural villas. He never succeeded in building palaces in Venice, in large part because his form of Roman Classicism did not adapt particularly well to traditional Venetian palaces.

He did, however, win several religious commissions in the city, which resulted in some of his greatest works.

Throughout the book we find that anything with a connection to the master, however slight, is treated by the author with absolute reverence.

This is a problem for a subject in which attribution presents such difficulties. Palladio built two churches in Venice (San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore), one church facade (San Franceso della Vigna), and a monastery (the Carità, now part of the Accademia Museum). This book, however, claims several other works, including San Pietro in Castello, a church with a Palladian facade built 15 years after Palladio's death. The fact that Palladio's design for the facade had a six-column portico and the built version has only four columns does not dim the author's enthusiasm for the project.

The lack of a critical eye in looking at great works of architecture is symptomatic of a modern historian's view of the Renaissance. The study of Palladio, it seems, is becoming less about admiring his mastery of the Classical language, and more about understanding the social context in which he and his patrons operated. How refreshing it would be if architects started writing about Palladio again, rather than merely confining him to a box labelled 'history'.

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