The art history books put Andrea Palladio somewhere at the end of the Renaissance, but really, the architect sits rather uneasily in such a place. The narratives for painting and sculpture reach their crescendo with Titian and Michelangelo, and then they suppose that everything tails off for a while, at least until Annibale Carracci reboots the Florentine linear form at the start of the seventeenth century. But Palladio sits right in that age of elongated forms once labelled mannerism, even though there is not much about his art that could be considered mannered. Palladio is clear evidence that the Vasarian trajectory is not quite right.
The exhibition is dry. There are many drawing, prints and crinkly artifacts, which probably don’t do much to excite those new to architectural history. Neither will the beige models of his most famous buildings, however intricate and well proportioned their creation, fire the imagination. There was one innovation – a digital construction of Palladio’s rather heavy design for the Rialto bridge; but still how architecture shows cry out for more imaginative use of technology.
Andrea Palladio, conjectural drawing of Baths of Agrippa, Bath
But if you are prepared to invest some time in them, the drawings are fascinating, intricate yet precise. His drawings of the Roman Baths of Agrippa convey a sense of the building’s architectural brilliance, but without any concession to flashy stylistic devices. Equally, the plans for his own buildings convey precision and grandeur without any added devices – Palladio lets the architecture speak for itself.
Andrea Palladio, drawing of Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza: part elevation of the entrance facade and portico, 1550s/60s
In his studies, publications, observations and measurements Palladio belongs to a intellectual narrative different to the artistic spine constructed by Vasari and repeated with many variations by art history. Palladio seems to look forward to a more rational age; the impulses to study, measure and communicate makes me think more of a creature of the enlightenment. This is emphasised by his focus on the antique and the relative lack of religious motifs, thus divorcing Palladio the architect from the familiar religious context (the Council of Trent, the Catholic Reformation) of the time.
It’s also worth comparing his sparse clean designs – so different from the glamorous confusion of the baroque, a movement about to ferment further south in Italy. It’s not clear from the exhibition I don’t now how much spiritual passion Palladio had, but the clean grand lines that inform or even the interiors of churches, such as San Giorgio, seem a world away from the coloured marbles and gold leaf that would cover the churches of the succeeding centuries.