Learn How to Learn from Palladio


The Palladio exhibit at the Morgan Libraryis sadly coming to a close. August 1st is the last day of the exhibit which moves on to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. It is well worth a visit by both laymen and professionals alike. Curators have put together an impressive range of works by the master, including his measured drawings of Roman antiquities, reconstructions of others, and sketches of new designs.

Palladio is arguably the most influential architect in the West after Vitruvius. The son of a humble stone mason, he was tutored in classical literature and architecture first by Count Trissino, and later by Cardinal Daniele Barbaro and his brother Marcantonio. His book The Four Books of Architecture, published in 1570, provided a very practical manual for builders wishing to inject some savoir faire into their designs as it was very graphic, it provided simple rules of thumb, and it provided many examples which were easy to imitate. The Four Bookswere translated into English in 1716 just as the Anglo-Saxon Empire was waxing, and its principles were sown throughout the Western hemisphere. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a little Palladio in pretty much every building built in the Anglosphere after the 18th century until the advent of Modernism.

The drawings are an object lesson in both education and practice, for they make evident the central place that the study of ancient monuments must have if we are to restore life to the art. Palladio’s attempts to recover full continuity with antiquity were not new. In fact, what we call the Renaissance was only the most important in a series of renascences. The key to understanding Palladio’s efforts and those of his contemporaries is to understand that they were not motivated by a mere archeological interest, or romantic affectation for a long lost world, one disconnected from the present day.

Civilization is the tending of a fire from generation to generation. While the glory of Rome–her ideas of virtue, justice, administration, rational religion, all embodied in her subtle art and architecture–slowly decayed over the centuries, men of good will labored constantly to repair the damage and set the culture aright. They tried to fan the dimming fire. If it were to be snuffed out, a hard-fought treasure trove of thought and art, refined over the course of generations, living and giving life in the hearts and minds of a people, would be lost.

Palladio’s mostly faithful measured drawing of the Arch of Constantine, Rome.
The notations record dimensions.

After the sack of Rome by the barbarian Visigoths in 410 A.D., St. Augustine wrote The City of God, perhaps the first literary monument in a long restoration effort which never really ceased. Pagan texts from Greece and Rome continued to be copied and preserved in the monasteries of Ireland. The papacy tried constantly to keep the political continuity together, most notably when Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. Charlemagne’s scriptorium preserved and transmitted the ancient handbook The Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius. In the 13th century the Cosmati built the antiquity-affirming facade of the cathedral in Cività Castellana. And Vitruvius’s text was discovered in 1414 by the Florentine Bracciolini, popularized a few decades later by Fr. Leon Battista Alberti, and a century later handed to Palladio to study. What were mere embers of civilization were stoked back into flames.

Palladio seems to have shared Raphael’s regret that “Vitruvius gives me much light, but not enough,” and he made at least five trips to Rome to copy the monuments directly. As he copied, he was able to see more clearly the shortcomings in Vitruvius’s text. He sometimes edited the monuments themselves, taking what he liked, and discarding what he did not. Palladio received the tradition with a critical mind, not to destroy it as our skeptical minds do today, but to idealize it and perfect it.

This practice of studying the Roman monuments directly became a standard feature of architectural education in the 19th century, most prominently at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. It has unfortunately been entirely lost. Even the traditionalist program of choice at the University of Notre Dame, which takes all students to Rome for a semester or two, gives the physical monuments short shrift. Rather than using their valuable time in the Eternal City to measure, as Palladio did, the students learn the orders on paper, trot through the city like tourists, and focus instead on nearby villages. The curriculum is hobbled by the mistaken idea that the monument looks up to the humble abode, rather than the humble abode to the monument–like a father taking lessons from his child rather than the child from his father.

Drawing of the Corinthian capital and entablature of the Temple of Hadrian. Note that what look like threads and weights hanging from a few key points are actually plumb lines against which accurate horizontal dimensions may be taken.

Palladio shows us that the reverse is true. His studies of the Roman monuments informed his designs of relatively modest villas. There are shades of the Baths of Constantine in the planning of the Villa Barbaro at Maser, for example. And the villa’s chapel would have been inconceivable without a study of the Pantheon. Even the domestic porches of Charleston owe a debt of gratitude to the temples of antiquity.

The chapel at the Villa Maser, a homage to the Pantheon, showing adaptation to circumstance.
(Image source)

Students interested in honing their craft should first copy, copy, copy the canon. Sounds like an offense against artistic freedom to our modern ears, does it not? In fact, to teach a student through copying is to liberate the student. First, he is liberated from the tyranny of the professor, who ought to be as humbled by the canon as the student. Second, through copying the student gains real skill and authority. If he copies properly and intelligently, he will soon be able to overtake the teacher, just as Palladio overtook Vitruvius, setting new standards of excellence. And third, to know the canon is to know the future. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “The further back you look, the further forward you can see.” No approach is so sure to bring lasting value to our patrimony.

Leave a Reply