The Perfect House: A Journey with Renaissance Master Andrea Palladioby Witold Rybczynski
"Palladio is the Bible," Thomas Jefferson once said. "You should get it and stick to it." With his simple, gracious, perfectly proportioned villas, Andrea Palladio elevated the architecture of the private house into an art form during the late sixteenth century -- and his influence is still evident in the ample porches, columned porticoes, grand ceilings, and front-door pediments of America today.
In The Perfect House, bestselling author Witold Rybczynski, whose previous books have transformed our understanding of domestic architecture, reveals how a handful of Palladio's houses in an obscure corner of the Venetian Republic should have made their presence felt hundreds of years later and halfway across the globe. More than just a study of one of history's seminal architectural figures, The Perfect House reflects Rybczynski's enormous admiration for his subject and provides a new way of looking at the special landscapes we call "home" in the modern world.
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Read an Excerpt
Forty miles northwest of Venice, the flat plain that starts on the shore of the Adriatic runs abruptly into the base of the Dolomitic Alps. The foothills village of Lugo Vicentino overlooks the Astico River, whose broad valley must have been pretty once but is now an unsettled quilt of cultivated fields and large manufacturing sheds. The mixture of agriculture and industry is apparent in the La Casara restaurant, where I'm surrounded by a noisy crowd of farmers and factory workers enjoying their lunch hour.
After an excessive meal, which raises again the puzzle of how Italians get anything done in the afternoon, I take a stroll. The restaurant is on the outskirts of the village. The houses here are too new to be picturesque, but the neat buildings and well-kept gardens attest to the prosperity of the region. The suburban landscape is dotted with agricultural remnants: a renovated farmhouse, a stone barn, a fenced piece of pasture. At the edge of the built-up area the ground rises steeply and I can see the bare branches of an orchard. Farther up the hill, behind a forsythia hedge that is already blooming, a large rectangular building with a red-tile roof commands the scene. This is what I've come to see -- Palladio's Villa Godi. Although Renaissance country houses are commonly referred to as villas, this use of the term is modern. In the sixteenth century, la villa referred to the entire estate; the house itself was la casa padronale (the master's house), or more simply la casa di villa.
I drive my rented car up the winding road. "Placed on a hill with a wonderful view and beside a river" is how Palladio described the house, and despite its industrial excrescence the Astico valley still presents a spectacular vista. The house sits on a man-made podium circumscribed by an imposing stone retaining wall. The curving, battered wall resembles a medieval bastion; the sturdy building, with its compact mass and severe symmetry, likewise has a military bearing. At first glance it could be an armory or a garrison post. As one gets closer, two features soften its severity: the plastered walls, which are painted a faded but cheerful buttery yellow and resemble old parchment, and an arcaded loggia, which is recessed into the center of the building and creates a shaded and welcoming entrance.
The caretaker lets me in through a large wrought-iron gate and I follow a path across the podium. The gravel crunches agreeably underfoot. The lawn is planted with conifers clipped into spheres and pyramids. A fountain, whose centerpiece is a statue of a nymph surrounded by cavorting cherubs, sprays water into a pool. I give her a sideward glance and hurry through the garden to the house.
The villa, which did not look large from a distance, turns out to be immense, almost as tall as a modern five-story building. The plain plastered walls are relieved by a regular pattern of windows with stone frames and slightly different details: a heavy bracketed sill for the lowest floor; a delicately modeled sill for the main level; and a plain surround for the attic. Square windows are pushed up against an elegant cornice just under the shallow eaves. The cornice is supported by a row of little repetitive blocks, a detail adapted from ancient Roman temple eaves decorations called modillions. These are the only classical references in this otherwise undecorated and austere façade.
"The master's rooms, which have floors thirteen feet above ground, are provided with ceilings," Palladio wrote, "above these are the granaries, and in the thirteen-foot-high basement are placed the cellars, the places for making wine, the kitchen, and other similar rooms." This pragmatic stacking of warehouse and domestic uses originated in Venice, where land was scarce. The tall Godi "basement" is entirely aboveground, so a long straight stair leads to the loggia. This spacious outdoor room faces west, which must give splendid views of sunsets over the peaks of the altipiano but leaves the main façade of the house exposed to the hot afternoon sun. It is unclear why Palladio turned the building this way -- the preferred orientation was southern, and that view was equally fine. It may have had to do with how one originally arrived at the villa, since old maps show a long, straight approach road climbing the hill from the west. Or it may be explained by the fact that the villa is believed to incorporate parts of a medieval house that already existed on the site. The citizens of the Venetian Republic had a reputation for penny-pinching, if not outright parsimony, and new houses were frequently built on top of old ones in order to save money by reusing foundations and walls.
The intonaco, or plastered stucco, of the walls shows marks where it was once incised to simulate the joints of stone construction. The entry in my old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims that Palladio's buildings were originally "designed to be executed in stone." In fact, none of Palladio's country houses are built of stone; all are brick covered in plaster, which was the standard method of construction for rural buildings. The jointing pattern, which is faint today but was prominent when the house was built, was not meant to deceive. Like the wooden faux-stonework of George Washington's Mount Vernon, it produces a sense of scale as well as a pleasing decorative texture.
Not all the masonry is simulated. The most distinctive feature of the house is the three-arch loggia whose square piers, arches, and imposts from which the arches spring are all faced with stone. Two carved stone emblems adorn the wall above the loggia: an armorial shield with imperial eagles, symbols of the owner's nobility, and a rampant lion, the stemma, or coat of arms, of the Godi family. An inscription on the tablet below reads HIERONYMUS GODUS HENRICI ANTONII FILIUS FECIT ANNO MDXLII (Built by Girolamo Godi, son of Enrico Antonio, in the year 1542). The Godis, one of the most powerful and wealthy patrician families of Vicenza, owned large estates in the Vicentino. When the patriarch Enrico Antonio died in 1536, he bequeathed the lands in common to his three sons (the fourth was a priest). Girolamo took charge of the Lugo holdings, more than five hundred acres, which included the hilltop of Lonedo, where he started to build a villa the following year.
Small doors lead directly from the loggia to rooms on either side, but the large door in the center is obviously the main entrance. PROCUL ESTE PROFANI is carved into the stone frame. "Keep the unholy far away" may have been intended tongue in cheek, since the Godis were known to have had heretical tendencies. ET LIBERA NOS A MALO -- "And deliver us from evil" -- completes the sentiment on the inside. I read the interior inscription later, for when I open the door my attention is immediately arrested by the grand space -- as Palladio, no doubt, intended. The cavernous room rises up to the roof -- about twenty-five feet -- and extends all the way to the rear of the house. This is the sala, or hall. The sala, which originated in medieval times, was a common feature of Venetian country houses. Always the largest room in the house, it was neither an entrance vestibule nor a living room, but a formal social space, "designed for parties, banquets, as the sets for acting out comedies, weddings, and similar entertainments," Palladio wrote. The sala in the Villa Godi is lit by a large window, a triple opening with a semicircular arch in the center called a serliana. This end of the sala extends slightly beyond the rest of the house, and the additional narrow windows on the two sides give the effect of a large bay window, which not only illuminates the room but also affords views of the garden below.
The sala is flanked by eight large rooms -- four on each side. Six of the rooms are identical, two are slightly smaller to make room for the staircases; the large rooms are each about eighteen by twenty-eight feet. This seems like a lot of space, but the bachelor Girolamo shared the villa with his brothers and their families. There are no corridors; instead, each room opens directly into the next. The doors and windows are exactly lined up so that standing in one of the rooms with my back to a window, I can look through four sets of open doors and see the corresponding window on the opposite side of the house. The stair, the loggia arcade, the front door, the sala, and the serliana are likewise carefully aligned. These precise geometrical relationships give the interior a sense of calm and repose. Everything appears in its place.
I walk around the house, or rather slide since I am obliged to wear felt slippers to reduce wear on the floors. These are battuto, an early version of terrazzo, made by slathering a mixture of lime, sand, and powdered brick across the floor, pressing milled stone chips into the hardening mixture with heavy rollers, then grinding smooth and oiling the surface. There are no other visitors, and the caretaker has left me alone. I swish from room to room. The doorways are low and the unpretentious doors of simple plank construction have wrought-iron strap hinges. The identical windows incorporate a charming feature: facing stone seats that transform them into little conversation nooks. The flat ceilings are supported by closely spaced wooden beams with ornamental carvings on the underside. The only room with a plaster ceiling is in the southeast corner of the house, a privileged position that gets the morning sun, summer and winter, and probably belonged to Girolamo.
The Godi house, which was begun about 1537, has the distinction of being Palladio's first villa; indeed, as far as we know, it was his first independent commission. The novice had moments of clumsiness, particularly in the front façade. The recessed entrance bay, for example, while welcoming, has a large section of blank wall over the loggia, which the heraldic coats of arms do not quite fill. The external staircase rises to a complicated landing in front of the loggia that distracts from the overall composition. The asymmetrical placement of the windows on the façade is disturbing. Instead of being equally spaced they are bunched together in pairs (to leave space for the fireplaces and chimneys, which are located on the exterior walls). Thirty years later, when Palladio was writing his architectural treatise, he included drawings of the Villa Godi but took the opportunity to smooth out these defects. Leaving the plan largely unaltered, he simplified the stair, reduced the number of windows and spaced them equally, and capped the central section of the house with a pediment.
The design of the villa is very successful in one key respect. Earlier Venetian villas often look like town houses transposed to the country, elegant but slightly ill at ease. Palladio manages to make the Godi both a polished work of architecture and a sturdy farmhouse. Like a country gentleman in a tailored hacking coat and muddy rubber boots, the villa fits into its surroundings, even as it holds itself above them. This quality would permeate all of Palladio's villas, which are both sophisticated and rustic, genteel and rude, cosmopolitan and vernacular.
The Villa Godi hasn't always been appreciated. Sir Charles Barry, the leading British architect of the early 1800s, thought it "an unarchitectural pile." Banister Fletcher, the nineteenth-century author of a long-lived architectural history, a bulky copy of which I owned as a student, considered the Godi's main façade "a very poor example of our master's genius." The modern art historian Rudolf Wittkower criticized the Villa Godi as "retrogressive." Indeed, as Wittkower pointed out, the design bears a resemblance to the Villa Tiretta, a country house built about forty years earlier near the village of Arcade, only thirty miles away. In fact, the proportions of Godi are more robust than Tiretta, and the massing is much more accomplished. But the resemblance is a reminder that Palladio, at this early stage of his career, was not straying far from established local traditions. His conservatism is understandable. Most architects today begin their careers designing kitchen additions or weekend cottages. The Godi is a palatial residence on a dramatic site, for the richest family in town. A mistake here could stop one's career in its tracks; it is prudent to be cautious.
An architect's early work is often consigned to a back drawer. Some masters, such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, even suppressed their youthful efforts. Yet when the elderly Palladio was being interviewed by the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, who was collecting material for Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, he specifically mentioned the Villa Godi. And he included a description of the villa in his great treatise, I quattro libri dell'architettura (The four books on architecture), which he published near the end of his life. He may have made some mistakes and not broken new ground at the Villa Godi, but he was obviously proud of his first building. It couldn't have been an easy commission: a no-doubt demanding client used to getting his own way; an exceptionally large house; a dramatic site with a splendid view, but also perched on a slope and restricted in area; and existing buildings that had to be integrated into the design. Yet the novice pulled it all together and produced a handsome work of great gravitas and, yes, nobility. It is an exceptional accomplishment for a beginner.
A beginner in architecture but no stripling, for when Palladio was first mentioned as working on the Godi house he was already thirty-two years old. Renaissance architectural careers started late: Filippo Brunelleschi was forty-one when he entered the competition to design the dome of the cathedral in Florence; the great Donato Bramante was thirty-seven when he was called to rebuild St. Peter's in Rome; Vasari was forty when he designed his first building; and Michelangelo was forty-six before he applied his prodigious talent to architecture. Since there were no architects' guilds or associations in the sixteenth century, there was no period of formal training or apprenticeship. In that sense, to be an architect did not mean to be a professional; it meant, rather, to hold a position. Renaissance architects were generally mature men who had already distinguished themselves in some branch of the fine arts. Brunelleschi was a renowned goldsmith and clockmaker; Bramante and Vasari were accomplished painters; Michelangelo was a celebrated sculptor as well as a painter. Palladio stands out in this company, for when he entered architecture he was not famous nor did he have a background in the arts -- he was a stonemason.
He was born in Padua in 1508, sixteen years after Columbus discovered America. It was November 30, St. Andrew's Day -- or so legend has it -- and the child was named Andrea. His father was either a miller or a maker of millstones, but in any case someone who delivered his products by boat, for he was called Pietro dalla Gondola; his mother was Marta, of whom little is known except that she was lame. Since the family lacked a hereditary surname, the son was called Andrea di Pietro dalla Gondola, or simply Andrea di Pietro. There is no record of any siblings, nor is anything known about his ancestors. Yet there is a telling detail associated with his birth: his godfather was a stonemason.
The city of Padua belonged to the Venetian Republic. The year after Andrea was born, war broke out between the Republic and the so-called League of Cambrai, the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Aragon, several city-states, and the papacy. Early in the war, the Venetians lost a decisive battle, and Padua was occupied by the enemy, changing hands several times as the war dragged on. Although the Republic ultimately regained most of its mainland possessions, including Padua, life did not return to normal for seven years. It was sometime during this turbulent period that Andrea lost his mother.
At thirteen, as was customary, the boy was apprenticed to learn a trade. He was placed with a local master mason, Bartolomeo Cavazza. Apprenticeship normally lasted five to seven years, but after only three years Andrea quit and moved with his father to Vicenza, about twenty miles away. Cavazza brought suit, as was his right, and the boy was returned to Padua, but a year later Andrea was back in Vicenza, this time for good. These events remain unexplained. Cavazza was no journeyman mason but a well-known taipiera, or stone carver, who fashioned architectural ornament for churches and convents as well as stately houses. Would Andrea really break off such an advantageous relationship? More likely Pietro left Padua for his own reasons and took his only son with him. Moreover, the boy capriciously quitting his apprenticeship is out of character -- the adult Palladio is always described as genial and steadfast, and there is evidence that Andrea remained on good terms with Cavazza. In any case, he did not abandon his trade. At the age of sixteen, the fante, or apprentice, Andrea di Pietro was formally admitted to the Vicentine guild of plasterers, bricklayers, and masons.
Vicenza, with a population of about 20,000, was one of the smallest cities of the Venetian Republic, smaller than Padua and much smaller than Venice, whose 150,000 inhabitants made it one of the largest cities in Europe. Nevertheless, Vicenza was prosperous, surrounded by rich farmland that belonged to its many noble families. The city was well situated at the confluence of two rivers and beside an attractive hill, Monte Bèrico. Like all Venetian towns, it was surrounded by a protective wall, much damaged in the recent war. At the foot of the wall, on the Contrà Pedemuro, was located the so-called Pedemuro workshop, considered the leading stone-carving yard in Vicenza. It was here that Andrea continued his training. How did he land this plum position? Perhaps thanks to his godfather, who was a native of Vicenza. Or maybe his experience with a well-known Paduan master impressed Giovanni da Porlezza, co-owner of the workshop, who sponsored the boy at the guild and paid his initiation fee.
Andrea lived and worked on the Contrà Pedemuro for more than twelve years. There is little documentation about this formative period of his life, yet it should not be glossed over. The workshop, though specializing in carved stone, was also a construction company. Andrea learned not only how to carve a variety of building elements -- door frames, portals, column capitals -- he was also exposed to all practical aspects of building. This experience served him well. By the time he became an architect, he knew, and could precisely describe, not only what he wanted done but also how he wanted it done. If need be, he could pick up a stone chisel and give a convincing demonstration. This firsthand knowledge was unusual among Renaissance architects whose artistic background generally did not prepare them for dealing with construction issues.
Porlezza became Andrea's mentor (and probably a father figure, since Pietro dalla Gondola died before Andrea was twenty). Porlezza was often called upon to function as capomaestro, or master builder, since Vicenza had no architects, and from him Andrea learned about the design of buildings, including the rudiments of geometry and drawing. "Guided by a natural inclination, I dedicated myself to the study of architecture in my youth," Palladio wrote in Quattro libri, "and since I always held the opinion that the ancient Romans, as in many other things, had also greatly surpassed all those who came after them in building well, I elected as my master and guide Vitruvius, who is the only ancient writer on this art." Vitruvius was a Roman architect whose Ten Books of Architecture was the sole architectural treatise that had survived from ancient times -- the Renaissance builders' Rosetta stone. A medieval copy of the Vitruvian manuscript had come to light in 1415, and had long been studied by scholars in hand-copied form, but it was not until 1521 that an Italian translation -- with added illustrations -- became widely available as a printed book. Palladio was born only about fifty years after the invention of the printing press, and he was fortunate to live near Venice, one of the great European centers of the new printing industry. (The first Italian translation of Leon Battista Alberti's important architectural treatise Of Built Things, which had been written in Latin, would be published in Venice in 1546.) Porlezza probably had a copy of Vitruvius in his shop, and one can imagine Andrea poring over it in his spare time. Yet any ambitions he had in that direction were severely limited. Architects lived in Venice and Florence, and worked for the grand signori; he was a mere stonemason. As a popolano, or commoner, he occupied a lowly social position. In Vicenza, as in most cities of the Venetian Republic, anyone engaged in the so-called mechanical arts was precluded from formal citizenship, as were newcomers; in Venice, fifteen years' residency was required for even partial citizenship.
When he was twenty-six, Andrea took a wife. This was somewhat unusual, for men generally married in their thirties or forties, when they were financially independent, and we do not know the circumstances of the marriage. We do know that his bride was named Allegradonna, and that she was the daughter of a carpenter. The record shows that she was in service as a maid, and that it was her mistress who provided the dowry: a bed, a pair of sheets, three new shirts, three used shirts, handkerchiefs, assorted clothing, and lengths of cloth. The dowry was valued at about twenty-eight ducats (a far cry from the five to ten thousand ducats that accompanied a nobleman's daughter). The couple shared Andrea's room in the workshop after they were married, and it was another year or two before they could afford to set up their own household.
In 1537, the Pedemuro workshop received a commission to remodel part of a large house on an estate in Cricoli, just outside the northern city gate. The client was Count Giangiorgio Trissino, scion of one of the oldest families in Vicenza. The fifty-nine-year-old nobleman was more or less in retirement. He had spent most of his life as a diplomat and papal ambassador in Rome and elsewhere, and had only recently returned to Vicenza. Now, after a failed second marriage, he was ready to settle down. His new house at Cricoli was not to be merely a suburban retreat -- he already owned a country villa as well as a residence in the city -- but the seat of a new academy where he planned to introduce the progressive culture of Rome to the young men of his native Vicenza. Trissino was a formidable personage: a familiar of cardinals and popes, confidant of emperors, an intimate friend of that cultivated aristocrat Isabella d'Este and her infamous sister-in-law Lucrezia Borgia. His portrait hangs in the Louvre: large handsome features, a sensual mouth, and heavy-lidded eyes with a shrewd, penetrating gaze. He holds a beautifully bound book in his delicate hands, a symbol of his literary accomplishments. Trissino was a scholar and poet, the author of a celebrated tragedy, and a linguist. Well known throughout the Italian states, he was Vicenza's leading Renaissance humanist.
He was also an amateur architect. The Cricoli house that he was remodeling had been bought by his father. It was a castello, a type common throughout the mainland, or terraferma, of the Venetian Republic. Patterned on medieval fortified houses, castelli typically had four corner towers, often picturesquely crenellated, and a main façade with a central balcony or loggia. They were adorned with the delicate Gothic tracery that was popular during the Venetian quattrocento. Trissino was modernizing his house, removing the Gothic elements and completely rebuilding the loggia in the so-called all'antica style, based on the classical architecture of ancient Rome. His design was a literal copy of a garden loggia by the famous architect Raphael, whom he had known in Rome: a three-arched opening surmounted by pedimented windows, with Ionic pilasters below and Corinthian above.
It is not recorded exactly how Trissino encountered Andrea, but popular legend has them meeting on the Cricoli building site. While the story has been dismissed as apocryphal by some scholars, it seems a plausible explanation; after all, where else would a count meet a stonemason? We do not know exactly what it was that caught Trissino's eye, for surely it was he who initiated the encounter. Maybe he saw one of Andrea's sketches and recognized his innate ability. Or maybe he was talent spotting, for Trissino intended the membership of his future academy to include young men of different social backgrounds, not only the sons of his aristocratic friends. In any event, as Paolo Gualdo, a canon of the Cathedral of Padua who knew Palladio well, described it, the pair "developed a very close relationship." This must have happened in 1537 or 1538, for by 1539, Andrea is mentioned as being a guest in the Trissino home.
"Finding Palladio to be a young man of very spirited character and with a great aptitude for science and mathematics," Gualdo recounts, "Trissino encouraged his natural abilities by training him in the precepts of Vitruvius." Training may not be exactly the right word. Trissino was a man of taste but his architectural abilities were limited. His surviving sketches, for example, are clumsy and amateurish. I went one afternoon to see the loggia at Cricoli, which still exists. It's a handsome enough building that demonstrates his academic knowledge, but it gives the impression of a textbook exercise, stylistically correct yet curiously flat -- a literary man's idea of architecture. Nor is it likely that Andrea was ever a full-time student at the so-called Accademia Trissiniana, which opened in the late 1530s. For one thing, he had a growing family to support -- by this time Allegradonna had borne him three sons. Moreover, whatever his natural aptitude, lacking early schooling or tutoring, he would have been ill-prepared to undertake a humanist education. More likely, Trissino lent him books and invited him to sit in on classes. Yet the nobleman's influence was considerable. Trissino had lived in Rome and knew the city's leading artists and architects, and he could speak with firsthand authority about the latest currents of architectural thought, including the all'antica style, which, though it originated in Florence and Rome in the previous century, was still a novelty in the Republic. In that regard, the loggia at Cricoli, whatever its shortcomings, was an invaluable model for Andrea. He had had years of practical training in architectural decoration from Porlezza and, we can assume, years of personal reading; contact with Trissino provided an intellectual frame of reference for this informally acquired knowledge.
The Count was a restless spirit, and he spent much of the next two years traveling, often accompanied by his protégé Andrea. There were extended stays in Padua, which was not only larger than Vicenza but also the seat of an ancient university and the intellectual center of the Venetian Republic (there was no university in Venice proper). Andrea, who had left Padua as a sixteen-year-old apprentice, now found himself moving in very different circles. One of Trissino's friends who had a lasting influence on Andrea was Alvise Cornaro, a successful businessman and dynamic patron of the arts. He was an unusual character who, after an intemperate youth, had adopted strict dietary rules and preached moderation (years later -- he would live to ninety-one -- he published his celebrated Treatise on the Sober Life). Like Trissino, Cornaro was an architectural dilettante, but with an original bent; he was not a nobleman, and his ideas about architecture were those of a bourgeois. Cornaro described architecture as "ministering to the good comfort of men in their lodging, and to their other necessities...and in addition to this, it is beautiful as well." He stressed the importance of personally examining ancient Roman buildings rather than simply reading about them in Vitruvius. Yet his approach to the past was pragmatic. "A building may well be beautiful and comfortable, and be neither Doric nor of any such order," he instructed, "as are in this city [Venice] the church of S. Marco and in Padua the Chiesa del Santo." Such down-to-earth thinking provided Andrea a practical counterbalance to Trissino's more theoretical view of architecture.
Padua offered several architectural examples of the all'antica style, most by the recently deceased Veronese painter and architect Giovanni Maria Falconetto. Falconetto had been a protégé of Cornaro, and a decade earlier had built two structures in his patron's garden: a loggia used for theatrical presentations -- some of the earliest comedia dell'arte was performed here -- and the so-called Odeo, a pavilion used for musical performances. Both buildings were skillfully designed and contained the first examples of architectural frescoes in the Veneto. Cornaro taught that frescoed décor, which the ancient Romans also used, was both attractive and economical. Falconetto's designs obviously served as an inspiration for the Cricoli loggia, and his drawings, including his measured drawings of Roman antiquities, were available to Andrea for copying. Unlike Vicenza, Padua also offered significant examples of actual Roman ruins, including an impressive amphitheater, an open-air theater, and a ceremonial gateway. At Cornaro's house, Andrea was introduced to several Venetians who were studying at the University of Padua: the young noblemen Vettor Pisani, his cousin Daniele Barbaro, and Giorgio Cornaro (no relation to Alvise), as well as Pietro Godi, his future client's older brother.
Andrea also met two architects. One was Sebastiano Serlio, an elderly man and a friend of Giangiorgio Trissino; he is believed to have helped the Count with the design of the Cricoli villa. Serlio was a Bolognese who had been trained as a painter by his father and had then gone to Rome, where, at the age of thirty-nine, he decided to become an architect. His life was turned upside down in 1527 when the besieged city fell to the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, whose Lutheran mercenaries went on a weeklong rampage pillaging and destroying hundreds of churches. The calamitous Sack of Rome, which a contemporary observer described as "rather the fall of a world than of a city," marked the end of an era. It was also the end of papal patronage -- at least for the moment -- and many artists and architects left Rome in search of work. Serlio, now in his sixties, moved to Venice. His career did not flourish. He had a prickly disposition and was by inclination a scholar rather than a builder. He published several prints illustrating the classical orders, and in 1537 brought out the first volume of a treatise ambitiously titled Tutte l'opere d'architettura, et perspectiva (All the works of architecture and perspective), which would become an influential architectural handbook. In Serlio's book Andrea could study the ancient monuments of Rome. It is also likely that Serlio taught the young stonemason proper draftsmanship while he was in Padua, since Andrea's earliest surviving architectural drawings date from this period.
The other architect was the Veronese Michele Sanmicheli, whom Palladio may already have known, since he was a distant relative of Porlezza. Sanmicheli was then about fifty, his career in full swing. Raised in Verona, as a youth he had gone to Rome, trained under the great Bramante, and, together with his friend Antonio da Sangallo, worked for the papacy. After the Sack, he, too, sought employment in the Venetian Republic. Sanmicheli's specialty was military architecture, and he was engaged by the Venetians to refit the battered fortifications of their terraferma towns and cities. At the time of Andrea's visit, Sanmicheli was rebuilding the walls of Verona. A skilled engineer, he was also a superb architect. Of Verona's Porta Nuova gate, Vasari would write that it was "done with so much judgment, cost, and magnificence, that no one thought that for the future there could be executed any work of greater grandeur or better design." Sanmicheli had recently completed the magnificent Palazzo del Tè in Mantua, which Palladio visited, and he was building three more palazzos in Verona. His domestic architecture exemplified the latest direction in Renaissance classicism. Whereas an earlier generation of architects -- Bramante and Raphael -- had sought harmony and repose, Sanmicheli -- like Michelangelo and Giulio Romano -- stressed drama and originality. He was interested in the past, but he freely interpreted classical rules to great scenographic and emotional effect.
Sanmicheli, an extremely successful practitioner, had an unusual background: he was not a painter or sculptor; both his father and his uncle were architects. He must have been a compelling model for Andrea. There is every reason to suppose that despite his humble origins, the Vicentine stonemason was welcomed by these sophisticated and accomplished men. Cornaro was no snob, and Serlio and Sanmicheli would have been sympathetic sounding boards. The learned conversations, the study of plans, the sketching of buildings, the drawing lessons, and the contact with men for whom architecture was a subject of everyday vital concern, deepened Andrea's interest and inevitably influenced his thoughts of the future.
Trissino had his own reasons for encouraging his protégé to pursue an architectural career. The Count was a patriot. Not that he was devoted to the Republic -- quite the opposite, like many Vicentine noblemen he considered Venice an oppressive power (and had sided with Venice's enemies during the War of the League of Cambrai, which later caused him problems). His allegiance was to his native city. He had great hopes that his academy would promote the dissemination of humanist culture, including architecture, and raise the level of intellectual life in Vicenza. Postwar prosperity had arrived, and new construction would follow: palazzos in the city, houses on country estates. But Vicentines lacked their own architect; there was no Sanmicheli waiting to come home. They could import an outsider, as the Venetians had done in commissioning the celebrated Florentine architect Jacopo Sansovino. But Trissino understood that greater honor would come to his city if it nurtured a homegrown talent, and in his estimation, Andrea di Pietro could be that person.
Of course, there's more than a little Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle here. Andrea, whatever his abilities, was a diamond in the rough when Trissino met him. The nobleman had the wit to recognize Andrea's amiable nature and innate talent, and the foresight to perceive that his experience as a stonemason could be an invaluable asset. But the Count, a diplomat and courtier, wanted more. Renaissance architects and painters were generally uncouth, rough individuals who belonged to the artisan class. He resolved to teach his protégé genteel manners -- how to behave, speak, and dress. The stonemason might be a commoner, but he would be a man of refinement and taste to better command the confidence of noble clients. Andrea must have learned these lessons well, for later firsthand accounts invariably mention his gentle and well-bred disposition; according to Gualdo, he was a "most extraordinarily able and attractive conversationalist."
The final step of the makeover involved finding a more impressive name than Andrea di Pietro. Renaissance architects regularly adopted professional names. Jacopo Sansovino was born Tatti; Giulio Pippi de' Giannuzzi, a Roman expatriate practicing in the Venetian Republic, called himself Giulio Romano, or simply Giulio. The mellifluously named Michele Sanmicheli had adopted the name of his birthplace, San Micheli, a village near Verona. Andrea di Pietro might have become Andrea Padovano, or Andrea Vicentino. Instead he took a far grander name: Andrea Palladio. It is generally assumed that Trissino proposed the name since he later used it in an epic poem. The Latin palladius means pertaining to sagacity, knowledge, or study, and is derived from Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom. It is a name to live up to.
An architect, however impressive his name, needs clients, and in Vicenza that meant the nobili, or patrician class. Trissino's judgment in such matters was widely respected. If he considered Andrea Palladio an architect, that would have been good enough for his wide circle of friends. In 1540, before the villa at Lonedo was finished, Pietro Godi recorded several separate payments to "Master Andrea, Architect." This is the oldest surviving record in which Andrea di Pietro, now known as Andrea Palladio, is called an architect. The transition from craftsman to architect was hardly instantaneous, however, for a year later legal documents still referred to Palladio as a "stonemason."
One might have expected that to please Trissino and show off what he had learned, Palladio would incorporate classical elements into the design of the Godi house. He did no such thing. Although the three-arch loggia echoed a similar arrangement at Cricoli, it only served to underline the differences between the two designs. Trissino's delicate façade, with its carefully copied classical ornament, appears brittle compared to Palladio's sturdy proportions, his heavy massing and simplified details. Taking Cornaro's teaching to heart, Palladio made the Godi house "comfortable and beautiful" without incorporating classical orders. This may simply have been the guarded prudence of a novice, but it was also a clear signal that while he may have owed his new name to another, he intended to be his own man.
I return the next day to the Lonedo hilltop where the Villa Godi is perched. The house is officially closed, but the caretaker recognizes me from my previous visit and lets me in. I want to take a more leisurely look at the interior. The walls of the rooms are a cavalcade of Greek and Roman gods, legendary heroes, and cherubs, as well as landscapes, battle trophies, cornucopias, garlands, and swags. They cover every square inch. These figures, motifs, and patterns are applied in what was called buon fresco, a demanding technique that involved painting with water-based pigments on fresh, moist plaster. There was no room for error; the application of the pigment had to be swift and accurate, as the plaster stayed wet only one day. The themes at Godi are distinctly classical. In one room, a heavy painted beam runs around the room, as if supporting the ceiling, and is held aloft by monumental female statues. Between the statues are glimpses of a naturally rendered countryside peopled by reclining poets and watchful muses. On the walls of another room are the ruins of a Roman temple, with Olympian gods populating the sky above the crumbling columns. The sole plaster ceiling is frescoed with a monumental oval depicting a beautiful woman (Virtue) standing over a hideous man in chains (Vice). The walls and the vaulted ceiling of the loggia are likewise painted with allegorical themes. The grandest decoration is naturally reserved for the sala, which is done up like an art gallery, with grand paintings in gilt frames -- the Rape of Europa, the Labors of Hercules -- all frescoed.
All the rooms are defined by a trompe l'oeil framework of architectural elements: columns, architraves, friezes, cornices, dadoes, and decorative moldings. This fictive architecture -- and it is definitely architecture -- is rendered in shadowed, three-dimensional perspective. The textures of faux marble and stone are so convincing that I find myself touching a door surround to check whether it is a facsimile or the real thing. Real windows and doors have imaginary counterparts on the opposite side of the room. The artist doesn't stop there. While some of the painted figures in the niches are white marble statues, others are rendered in lifelike colors and give the spooky impression that they are about to step off their pedestals. Realistic putti cavort just below the ceiling, their pink buttocks hanging saucily over the edge of the architrave. The frescoes not only depict allegorical classical themes and an architectural framework but also represent a whimsical illusion of reality. In one of the painted doors, a life-size man lifts the curtain for his companion and beckons him into the room. Elsewhere, a mischievous little boy sits on a ledge. In the hall, where painted windows complete with window seats echo the real thing, a relaxed gentleman in doublet and hose occupies one of the seats. Although the décor refers to ancient Rome, the ghostlike personages that look out at me from the walls are dressed in contemporary -- that is, sixteenth-century -- clothes. They both decorate and inhabit the space.
Many of Palladio's villas are frescoed. It is impossible not to be struck by the extreme contrast between the vivid style of the interiors and the simplicity of the exteriors, particularly in the case of the austere Godi house. In the past this led some historians to conclude that the frescoes were an afterthought. Lacking evidence to the contrary, it was also assumed that Palladio had nothing to do with the design of the frescoes, which were therefore regarded as distinct from his architectural vision. This attitude was summed up by Banister Fletcher, who observed that "interior decoration seems to have been somewhat neglected by our master, owing no doubt to a shortage of funds." According to others, the rich décor actually undermined Palladio's design intentions.
The Godi frescoes were not begun until about 1552 -- that is, a decade after the villa was completed. The painter Gualtiero Padovano completed the loggia and the rooms in the south wing, and then unexpectedly -- he was in his fifties -- died. His replacement was a talented young painter named Giambattista Zelotti, who finished the work (except for one room that was painted by Battista del Moro). Before the painting began, Palladio was called back to Lonedo for additional work. He was asked to design a new main window for the sala. The original window was a thermal or Diocletian window -- that is, a high, arched opening modeled on the windows found in Diocletian's Roman baths, or thermae. Palladio replaced this with the serliana that is there today. It is unclear exactly why this expensive alteration was made. Maybe Pietro Godi, who supervised this phase of the work, had his own ideas of what was fashionable. Some historians believe the window was altered to make more space for the frescoes. In any case, an entry in Pietro Godi's account book reads: "Palladio. Gave him today, 4th July  for the drawing of the Hall, one Hungarian crown [worth] 7 lire 14 soldi."
The drawing in question has recently come to light. It is of paramount importance, writes Douglas Lewis, a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who unearthed it, "because its subject represents an aspect of Palladio's artistic creativity that has been unsuspected." The drawing is what architects call an interior elevation, a view of one of the walls of the sala, the west wall opposite the serliana. It shows the frescoed architectural elements -- pediment, pilasters, niches, dado. The entrance door and a ventilating grille are skillfully integrated into the composition (the east wall has a frescoed version of the same grille). The area for the figurative painting (Zelotti's Rape of Europa) is blank, and the statues in the niches are likewise left to the painter's discretion, but detailed notes specify the character of the surrounding decorative elements: "military trophies," "festoons," "gold frames," "cornice similar to the other [wall]." This drawing, in Palladio's hand, is conclusive evidence that the trompe l'oeil architectural framework frescoed on the walls of the Villa Godi is, in fact, his design. Since there is a record of eight comparable payments, it appears likely that he made similar drawings -- since lost -- for the other rooms. The frescoes, far from being extraneous, are an integral part of the architectural conception.
Palladio, who must have been inspired by Alvise Cornaro's endorsement of frescoes as a practical alternative to tapestries and wall hangings, probably recommended Padovano, who was part of Cornaro's Paduan circle. Nor is there any doubt that Palladio was pleased with the results. "This gentleman [Godi], who has the most exquisite taste, has entirely ignored the expense and chosen the most gifted and remarkable painters of our time," he wrote. Per redurla a quella eccellenza & perfettione, che sia possibile: "In order to make it as outstanding and perfect as possible." And so it is.
Copyright © 2002 by Witold Rybczynski
Meet the Author
Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance. His latest books are The Biography of a Building and The Mysteries of the Mall. The recipient of the National Building Museum’s 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
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