Sunday, November 30, 2014


Today in 2014 is the five hundred and sixth birthday of Andrea Di Pietro della Gondola, better known as Andrea Palladio. Clearly he got his first name from the date, St. Andrew’s Day. But his name Palladio was given to him as a young man by Gian Giorgio Trissino, a leading scholar of the time, who had written an epic poem in which he described an archangel called Palladio. Young Andrea learned the principles of classical architecture when he worked on new additions for a villa owned by Trissino, who gave the name Palladio to Andrea in an attempt to connect him with Classical times and perhaps in reference to the goddess Pallas Athene.

On our first trip together to Venice in 1987, Dennis and I took a boat tour up the Brenta canal from the Venetian Lagoon to Padua. We stopped at several villas including Villa Foscari, called La Malcontenta, which soon became one of Dennis’ favorites. We especially loved the vaulted cruciform central salon.

Of course we visited the great Palladian churches, San Giorgio Maggiore with its wonderful bell tower and Il Redentore. In fact we timed our visit to coincide with the Festa del Redentore. This festival commemorates the end of the 1576 bubonic plague that killed tens of thousands of Venetians. There was a week-long program of events leading up to the third Sunday in July. Every year, the Doge had made a pilgrimage to Palladio’s Franciscan church by way of a bridge of boats erected especially for the occasion. In late July visitors can make this same pilgrimage to the island across the pontoon bridge from the Zattere - the only time the Giudecca is accessible on foot. During the festival, there are bands, a regatta, and musical performances. The fireworks display on the final Sunday night was one of the most impressive we’d experienced anywhere. We had a perfect view around the corner from the old Custom House.

In 1997 we spent a few days in Vicenza. We even stayed at a B&B called Palladio. We had chosen it for its location near the central piazza and, of course, for its name (though it turned out, not to be very Palladian.) When I returned to Vicenza two years ago last August, it was gutted and being gentrified …and hopefully becoming a better reflection of the great architect.

(We had much better luck choosing a restaurant by its name when we were in Virginia five years ago for the Montpelier Hunt Race. After visiting the shell of Mr. Madison’s house being restored, and watching the races, we visited Barboursville winery named for Mr. Jefferson’s ruined Palladian house nearby–burned down by a Christmas tree— and then managed to get a reservation for dinner at the restaurant Palladio. It happened to be one of the best restaurants we ever experienced.)

In 1997 we visited the Basilica, Palladio’s first great civic commission in Vicenza from 1549, which established his reputation. To support a crumbling medieval structure he enclosed the older building in a new classical shell and disguised the irregularity of the window units by employing a series later called the Palladian motif. It was a three-part-design with a central arch. Palladio unified the elevation with consistent central arches, but camouflaged the irregularities by varying the widths of the horizontal side elements. (Please refer to my blog posting Palladio/Venetian Windows 9/5/08.) In August 2007 the Basilica was closed for renovations, which included a new roof.

Dennis and I also visited Palladio’s enclosed interpretation of an ancient Greek theatre, Teatro Olimpico, in Vicenza, with its extraordinary perspective and permanent architectural stage set. My friend and former Chanticleer colleague, Randall Wong, has performed on that stage in several Baroque operas.

A number of Palladio’s architectural innovations were his mistaken attempts to reconstruct ancient Greek and Roman building elements. He assumed that Greek and Roman temples were glorified versions of Greek and Roman houses. Since the temples had columned porticos, the houses must have too, even though he wasn’t aware of any surviving examples. So the wonderful temple porticos on Georgian country houses and Ante-Bellum plantations in the American South were originally based on faulty historical scholarship. How lucky for us!

Andrea Palladio is widely considered to be one of the most influential people in the history of Western Architecture. Apart from his actual buildings, of which there are relatively few in northern Italy, his influence derives more from his published treatise: Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (the Four Books of Architecture) published in Venice in 1570. Also his many drawings were bought from his student Vincenzo Scamozzi by the English architect Inigo Jones, and were later acquired by Lord Burlington. So today they are in London. (There was an extensive exhibition of Andrea Palladio at the Royal Academy of Art from January 30 through April 13, 2009.)

“Palladio's architecture was not dependent on expensive materials, which must have been an advantage to his more financially-pressed clients. Many of his buildings are of brick covered with stucco. In the later part of his career, Palladio was chosen by powerful members of Venetian society for numerous important commissions. His success as an architect is based not only on the beauty of his work, but also for its harmony with the culture of his time. His success and influence was a result of the integration of extraordinary aesthetic quality with expressive characteristics that resonated with his client's social aspirations. His buildings served to visually communicate their place in the social order of their culture. This integration of beauty and deep meaning is apparent in three major building types: the urban palazzo, the agricultural villa, and the church.

In his urban structures he developed a new improved version of the typical early renaissance palazzo (exemplified by the Palazzo Strozzi). Adapting a new urban palazzo type created by Bramante in the House of Raphael Palladio found a powerful expression of the importance of the owner and his social position. The main living quarters of the owner on the second level are now clearly distinguished in importance by use of a flattened classical portico, centered and raised above the subsidiary and utilitarian ground level (illustrated in the Palazzo da Porto Festa and the Palazzo Valmarana Braga). The tallness of the portico is achieved by incorporating the owner's sleeping quarters on the third level, within a giant two story classical colonnade, a motif adapted from Michelangelo's Capitoline buildings in Rome. The main floor level became known as the "piano nobile", and is still referred to as the "first floor" in continental Europe.

Palladio also established an influential new building format for the agricultural villas of the Venetian aristocracy. He consolidated the various stand-alone farm outbuildings into a single impressive structure, arranged as a highly organized whole dominated by a strong center and symmetrical side wings, as illustrated at Villa Barbaro. The Palladian villa configuration often consists of a centralized block raised on an elevated podium, accessed by grand steps and flanked by lower service wings, as at Villa Foscari and Villa Badoer. This format, with the quarters of the owner at the elevated center of their own universe, found resonance as a prototype for Italian villas and later for the country estates of the English nobility (such as Lord Burlington's Chiswick House, Vanbrugh's Blenheim, Walpole's Houghton Hall, and Adam's Kedleston Hall). The configuration was a perfect architectural expression of their perceived position in the social order of the times. His influence was extended worldwide into the British colonies. The Palladian villa format can seen at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and as recently as 1940 in Pope's National Gallery in Washington DC, adapted to convey the importance of art. The rustication of exposed basement walls of Victorian residences are a remnant of the Palladian podium.

Similarly, Palladio created a new configuration for the design of Roman Catholic churches that established two interlocking architectural orders, each clearly articulated yet delineating a hierarchy of a larger order overriding a lesser order. This idea was in direct coincidence with the rising acceptance of the theological ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, who postulated the notion of two worlds existing simultaneously: the divine world of faith and the earthly world of man. Palladio created an architecture which made a visual statement communicating the idea of two superimposed systems, as illustrated at San Francesco della Vigna.” Wikipedia

In 2003 Dennis and I had an offer from US Airways for really cheap tickets to Rome, so we decided to go to the opening of Carnevale in Venezia. My niece Allison Martin was studying at Christie’s in London at the time, and we invited her to join us in Venice. Actually, as I recall, the original offer was for inexpensive tickets to London to visit Allison, but Dennis said he’d rather go to Italy.

Before taking the train to Venice, we stayed at a large convent in the Trastevere and had dinner at a café, where I had had lunch my crazy jam-packed day in 1997 when I visited more than twenty churches, and five museums. (It had been our only free day in Rome when on a concert tour with the choir from St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco!) In 2003 Dennis and I climbed the hill and saw the outside of Bramante’s Tempietto, (then closed) whose interior I had entered in 1997.

In Venezia we stayed again at the Artigianelli Monastery in the Zattere. We left a message for Allison and her friend at their hotel on the Lido to meet us at Café Florian in Piazza San Marco. They got the message and had already saved us an inside table when we met them.

Dennis and I brought 18th Century costumes rented from the Bohemian Club thanks to my friend, John Blauer, head of costumes at the club. We had silk long johns to give a little substance to the clothes designed primarily for indoor productions. Allison and her friend brought costumes from London. We wore them to dinner at a restaurant next to Quadri.

We missed the official opening of Carnevale that Sunday in order to visit three Palladian villas in the Veneto. We rented a car which I drove. The tricky part was navigating through Mestre and making connections north. We first went to Villa Cornaro, where we had to make special arrangements for a private tour. We met the young lad at the Palladio Café across the street from the villa. Villa Cornaro was the inspiration for Jefferson’s original version of Monticello. It is owned by a family from Atlanta. Sally and Carl Gable have written a fascinating book about their house called Palladian Days. Then we drove to Villa Barbaro with its extraordinary frescos by Veronese and the handsome chapel, where Palladio reportedly died after falling off a scaffold. We saved Villa Emo, Dennis’ favorite, for last. It was a perfectly wonder-filled day!

Dennis and I also visited the former Roman Catholic Cathedral during that trip to Venezia. Palladio designed and supervised construction of the façade of San Pietro di Castello, which was his first commission in the city of the Lagoon. It’s not in the most convenient location, which may symbolize Venice’s troubled relationship with the Roman Church. It was only relatively recent – about one hundred years ago – that San Marco, the former Ducal Chapel, became the official Cathedral for Venice. (The original cathedral, of course, had been on Torcello. I have a story about that, which I’ll relate in a posting next February.)

I returned to Venice and Vicenza seven years ago August with some of Dennis’ ashes. He’s now in six or seven locations throughout the Veneto. I also sprinkled a hand full under a rose bush in the garden at Villa Almerico-Capra, popularly known as Villa Rotunda.

My iPhone photo of rose garden at Villa Rotunda

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Titian in the Frari (Venezia)