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Palladio's treatise is wonderfully alive

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The Four Books on Architecture by Andrea Palladio. Translated by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield. MIT Press, 1997. 435pp. £42.50

These books, read right through, have been my most pleasant and fascinating architectural companion this year. Anyone seriously interested in architecture - not just in making buildings functional, in making elegant theoretical pirouettes, in making money, but in that core of honest refinement, sensitive skills and appropriate culture - will be enriched by the author's company.

As a provincial student, I met Palladio simply in colour slides of Italian tourist spots - that was the 1960s. Into the '70s as an astonished graduate student, I was thrown into the discourse of architecture which today is largely again accepted as our culture. I read the treatises and their arguments as if they mattered. I bought a Palladio and quite enjoyed its eighteenth-century phraseology and spellings, Leoni's elaborated drawings, the torn leather covers, the smell of the huge pages. Many years later I studied one of the villas in some detail and got to know another, very concrete Palladio.

Now Tavernor and Schofield's beautiful edition of I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura brings us, with great clarity and immediacy, the Palladio we had always hoped to meet.

Here is the first and definitive American version (we thus have 'neighbors', 'theaters'); its scholarship goes without saying.

Impeccably and lovingly produced, it is the first ever Palladio in English both to print the plates the right way round and next to the text which originally accompanied them.

These books are an obvious winner. No wonder Palladianism took off! Balancing short sections of text with large-format illustrations, it wasn't quite the first architecture book to use the format publishers still love. But it had two key qualities:

first, unlike the antiquarian words Serlio wrapped round Peruzzi's drawings, Palladio is direct, confident and clear. Second, the illustrations are not just useful to crib (though they are that), but they repay thoughtful attention. They do not seduce: no perspectives, all orthography presented with clinical abstraction. They appeal to the mind.

In this first ever picture book by a first-rate architect, the author is clear: 'one learns more rapidly from well chosen examples, [as a reader] measuring and observing all their details on a sheet of paper . . . than from written descriptions'. And so he contrasts 'my brief text' with 'the long hours of immense effort devoted to organising' the drawings.

'Organising' the drawings is not collecting and ordering them (like a Serlio), but working in drawing.

Everyone knows the care with which Palladio indicates relationships in the villas. He says virtually nothing about it in words - but if we 'measure and observe' just one of the spatial sequences, say the Venetian palace in Bk 2 Ch XVII, how much we learn!

Centrally, Palladio makes huge efforts of imaginative recreation with the Classical Roman architecture. There is a real sense that he looks creatively and from practical experience; ('I am pretty skeptical about this, ' he says, questioning an accepted temple dating and form).

We are offered the acute visual judgments of an inquisitive, thoughtful builder.

Today's book technology doesn't question replacing Isaac Ware's coldly beautiful (accurately traced and reversed) engravings in the standard Dover edition. So Palladio's prints are easily scanned on to the same page as electronically set, English type. What if he hadn't been limited to woodcut technology? Or, put another way, why not use drawings actually in his hand (from the RIBA's collection) now that the filter of the wood-block print is not needed? But there's no space to debate 'period instruments' as we listen to the digitally edited 'authentic performance'.

The guide to house design (Book 1) is a wonderfully comprehensive set of commonsensical rules of thumb - a fascinating parallel to Viollet-Le-Duc's 'How to Build a House' over 300 years later. There is no ambiguity, no Mannerism for Palladio. 'Abuses' (Bk 1, Ch XX) is great fun; commenting on a broken cornice, he says, 'I cannot think of doing anything more diametrically opposed to the laws of nature .' Book 2 illustrates his own houses, Book 3 public works. With the rather different Book 4 of Classical precedents, his fascination with this architectural language, its supple flexibility, is so well displayed in the transparent clarity of his drawings, in their wonderful range of scales from urban block to capital moulding. And then it just stops, leaving the other promised or suggested volumes unpublished and unknown.

It is a powerful polemic: linking Romans to the author, with Bramante's Tempietto as the only intermediate illustration - there is no evolving Renaissance, no Brunelleschi, no Florence - Palladio's language convinces us (as Einstein was convinced of Corb's Modulor) that its use made the good easy and the bad more difficult.

'Palladio', according to Trissino's epic poem, was the archangel, expert in architecture, who expelled the Gothic from Italy. It is well known how Trissino found an apprentice stonemason, dubbed him Palladio, only to see him, in fact, complete that task. If it is difficult today to sense how original Palladio's villas were, this fairy godfather remains the creative architect's archetypal fantasy. 'I am sure, ' Palladio says at one point, 'that those who look at the buildings included, and know how difficult it is to introduce a new approach - particularly in building, which is a profession everyone is convinced they know something about - will regard me as extremely fortunate . . . [to have found patrons] convinced by my arguments.'

Indeed, it remains our fortune too.

John McKean is preparing a monograph for Phaidon on Palladio's Villa Foscari

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