Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was a Venetian architect whose design philosophy summarised much of the worthy architecture that had gone on before his time, particularly Greek and Roman, and set the standard for most of the architecture that followed. His influence and his work can still be seen today in our historic buildings, and 21st century design solutions around the world.
Palladio shared his philosophy not only by his practice and prolific design and construction during his lifetime, but also by writing and publishing his seminal work called I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). This body of work, first published in Italian in 1570, comprises guidelines, rules, design solutions, classical proportions, and everything else that design practitioners need to deliver the style that is has been known for 300 years or more as “Palladian”. It was over 100 years before the books were first translated into English.
In summary, Palladian architecture is characterised by symmetry and order. Copious use of mathematical proportions (after Vitruvius) porticos, colonnades, loggia, and of course the Venetian window.
Whilst it has unfortunately just finished, the RIBA ran an exhibition of Palladio’s work, and his subsequent influence, at its London headquarters called PALLADIAN DESIGN: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNEXPECTED. This enlightening and very well yet simply curated display of drawings and models spanned from Palladio’s hand to today’s architects who still embrace Palladio’s philosophy. The work of numerous big hitters in architecture was displayed including Inigo Jones and Terry Quinlan. But two architectural giants who embraced Palladian design principals stood out – An 18th century Earl, and a president of the United States.
Richard Boyle (1694-1753) was the the 3rd Earl of Burlington and is recounted as the “the architect Earl”. To develop his craft, he toured Europe studying architecture and when he visited the Veneto region he carried with him a copy of Palladio’s “Four Books”. As well as practicing as an architect, Boyle became a noted architectural historian and collector, owning several original Palladio drawings, which by Boyle’s time were already some 200 years old.
Boyle is of interest because he applied Palladian design principals to his own home on Piccadilly – Burlington House – which is today home to the Royal Academy and the Courtyard Societies. Boyle’s design solution for his home strictly aligned with Palladio’s rules and marked a shift in the architecture of London.
Boyle went on to contribute several outstanding Palladian-style buildings to London including Chiswick House Villa and Westminster School.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is well known as the third president of the United States, a Founding Father and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was a polymath, and amongst his myriad interests and talents outside of politics was architecture. Before his election as President, Jefferson (like Franklin and Adams) spent several years in Europe negotiating for the US on trade agreements. He was largely based in France and alongside many influences on his future interests, he discovered Palladio and his ‘Four Books”.
Like Boyle, Jefferson first applied the Palladian principals to his own home, the fabulous Monticello in Virginia. The history of Monticello’s design and construction, which spanned most of Jefferson’s adult life is convoluted, but there can be no doubt that the finished article evidences Jefferson’s renaissance-level contribution to the architectural language of American buildings that still persists today.
Jefferson went on to design numerous other very important buildings that still survive, most notably the Virginia State Capitol building and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia (having first founded the institution as part of the education reinvention that he led).
It is highly unlikely that when he wrote The Four Books of Architecture, Andrea Palladio realised the influence he and his work would have over centuries to come. Cynics might say that mathematical order, symmetry and form driven by function are inevitable directions of design development for an evolving, intelligent society. But that denies the fact that Palladio saw the need to restate the classical orders and design principals used 1,500 years before his own lifetime. His supporters would say that Palladio shifted the design paradigm and rescued Venice, Europe and subsequently the world from architectural mediocrity. Thank goodness he did.
Written by Paul S Smith, FRICS