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The Most Influential Architect
on October 7, 2002
Who is the greatest architect who ever lived? It's an impossible question, of course. Perhaps one that might get closer to a real answer is, Who is the most influential architect who ever lived? Witold Rybczynski has an answer, and it is a convincing one: Palladio. In _The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio_ (Scribner), Rybczynski looks at the villas Palladio produced around the mainland of Venice in the sixteenth century, not as historic monuments but as useful and beautifully architectured homes. He places Palladio firmly within his times, but drawing on the classical architecture of Rome and drawn on by Inigo Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and countless others. It is hard to disagree with Rybczynski's conclusion about Palladio's influence, and after this book, a reader is likely to see Palladian themes not only in grand homes, but in diminished form in modern suburban ones as well.
Palladio was merely the son of a miller or maker of millstones; the historical record is not clear. He was trained as a stonemason, and early showed enough talent that Count Giangiorgio Trissino, of an old Vicenza family, noticed his ability. This was his introduction to higher things, especially his ticket to Rome, where the ancient buildings proved a continuing inspiration for his villas. He designed about thirty of them, several of which never were started and if started were not completed; clients of architects then and now faced over-optimism and reversals of fortune. Seventeen survive, some in excellent preservation and some a bit seedy. They are Palladio's main legacy, and remain beautiful and durable; most are still lived in. Rybczynski gives a wonderful introduction to the tools at Palladio's disposal - pediments, porches, entablatures, apses, and more. These were all juggled and adjusted in each specific case. And while there is a unity to the composition of the villas, Rybczynski demonstrates that there is no such thing as a "typical" Palladian villa: "Some of his designs incorporate temple fronts, some do not; some have pedimented windows, some have plain openings; some porticoes are supported by elaborate Corinthian columns, others by unadorned piers. His fertile imagination brimmed with ideas." Architects and artists have been learning from Palladio ever since. The book has the author's line drawings of each of the buildings, and some reproductions of Palladio's sketches or plans, but they are really not sufficient to understand the massings of space Palladio so expertly managed. When I read the book, I checked up on various websites to get fuller pictures.
Rybczynski has lived for a short time in one of the villas, and his words on what make them special are worth reading, although no one will fully be able to explain it. He gives enough examples from all over the world (in America, Monticello, the White House, local courthouses and countless southern mansions are Palladian buildings) to make entirely sufficient his argument about the architect's influence. It is easy to catch Rybczynski's enthusiasm. Those who don't know Palladio will find this book, which is a capsule biography, travelogue, and architectural appreciation, a fine introduction. Those who are already Palladians will rejoice in the clear descriptions and the first hand accounts, coming from an experienced observer and an entertaining storyteller.