Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter and patron saint of many things, including fishermen, Scotland, and Russia. However he is also the patron saint of one of the greatest and most significant architects of the modern age, Andrea Palladio, who was born on St. Andrew’s Day in 1508. If you are not hugely interested in architecture, you may not be familiar with his name, but if you live in the Western world there is a reasonably good chance that the home you live in, or the civic buildings that make up the town where you live, were shaped and influenced by the ideas of this 16th century Venetian master.
Just as Jacobo Sansovino, whom I wrote about earlier this week, had a profound influence on the artists of his day, in convincing them that they were equaling or even surpassing the achievements of their ancient Greek and Roman forbearers, so too Palladio was a driving force in convincing architects that they could do the same. Sansovino was himself a highly accomplished architect, of course, producing many beautiful and monumental structures in Venice between the 1530’s and 1560’s. Palladio, who was a generation younger, had to bide his time while Sansovino held sway over the public taste of the capital, but eventually he became the head architect of the Venetian Republic after Sansovino’s death.
One of Palladio’s most influential contributions to the development of modern architecture and indeed modern living was in taking advantage of open spaces, rather than being afraid of them. Keep in mind that in much of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West until the time of the Renaissance, most people lived together for protection, either in closely-packed walled towns, or in castles or other fortified structures in the countryside. Foreign invaders or marauding neighbors bent on pillaging and destruction could sweep in at any moment, and there was safety in numbers.
What our eyes need to be trained to see is how different the world which Palladio created was from the times that had come immediately before it. There is nothing of the fortress about a Palladian house. There are no dark, thick walls designed for defensive purposes, with only interior courtyards to allow light and air. Instead, his houses sit gracefully inside beautiful parks and gardens, surrounded by trees and flowers, green lawns and splashing fountains.
Nor were these houses gigantic, bloated structures, like the Baroque behemoths that were built to house the egos of absolute monarchs. Rather, they were comfortable places to enjoy oneself with one’s family and friends by engaging in outdoor activities, reading, entertaining, or the like. They are of course much larger than the average person’s home, but they are not overwhelmingly so. The confidence with which these villas were built testifies to a similar spirit of self-confidence of the day that times were getting better, and that the darker ages of constant warfare between rivaling factions were becoming less frequent, at least in the Venetian Republic.
This in itself is a key component to the architecture which Palladio created. His houses are built for aristocrats, but they are they are the aristocrats of a republic. There was no hereditary king of Venice: the Republic was ruled by a Doge, an elected official whose powers were limited further and further as the centuries wore on. While the Venetian Republic was not truly a representative democracy, in the sense that we would understand the term, it had a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one single individual or family could come to dominate the entire system.
Palladio’s ideas and methods were not just limited to a bunch of gondola-riding aristocrats half a millenia ago. For in fact, many of the American Founding Fathers were hugely enamored of the Palladian way of living. President Thomas Jefferson, for example, built his beloved estate Monticello, as well as the Virginia State Capitol building, and the main building of the University of Virginia, using principles derived from his own study of Palladio’s work. James Hoban, the Irish-American architect of the White House, took his plans for the Executive Mansion directly from two Palladian-style country houses which had been built a few years earlier in Ireland.
Even today, Palladio’s legacy is all around us, not only as part of our visible history, but in continuing to influence architects who build homes and businesses, offices and churches by taking Palladio’s ideas and applying or re-interpreting them. As is so often the case in these pages, we have here yet another example of why it is important to understand the cultural history of the West, something which the past forty-odd years of academically entrenched relativism has done such a bang-up job of trying to eradicate. Over many centuries the ideas of this single Venetian architect have had a positive impact on both the look and livability of our homes, our public buildings, and indeed our cities.
Palladio understood that in order for contemporary society to succeed, it must be interconnected with the best aspects of the society which came before it. He helped to radically change the way that his contemporaries lived by looking at how people had lived before, how they lived in his day, and figuring out he could bring together the best aspects of each. In doing so, he succeeded in transforming not only a small Italian republic, but the lives of people in countless cities and towns large and small, all over the world. His is but one example of why we should both study and try to understand our past, taking the lessons we learn there, and adapting them to the needs of the present.
“La Badoera” Villa by Andrea Palladio (built 1556-1563)
Fratta Polesine, Italy