classicism

For the Renaissance humanists, religion and worldly knowledge were not yet opposed. One of their precepts was that divine will could be apprehended through understanding the underlying order of the world. That order manifested itself in harmonies which were revealed through mathematics. This immanent mathematical order could be applied to displines as diverse as physics, poetry, painting, and of course, architecture. Buildings that were based on mathematical “harmonies”1 were thought to be the most lofty, since they were governed by the same laws that divinely governed nature. (This was not lost upon wealthy patrons who wanted to express their own “naturally” lofty position in society.)

The architect Brunelleschi invented perspective, whereby objects in space could be represented and proportionally organized on a two-dimensional surface according to their distance from the viewer. Brunelleschi used these principles to design such churches as San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. This legacy was continued by other artists and architects of the High Renaissance such as Alberti, Leonardo, Bramante, and Raphael. However, by the time of Michelangelo and the subsequent Mannerists, these “natural” principles had already started to appear arbitrary and open to manipulation, if not outright violation. The fragmentation of architectural language that is symptomatic in architects such as Peruzzi and Serlio reaches its extreme manifestation in the 18th-century in Piranesi (and subsequently “suppressed” by the Enlightenment)2.

Retrospectively, Palladio’s place in this cortege is ambiguous. Some “authorities,” such as Rudolf Wittkover or James Ackerman3, uphold Palladio’s commitment to “classical” principles, his prolific output a “heroic” attempt to affirm their validity and vitality:
To many generations his architecture seemed the perfect embodiment of the classical tradition…The essential factor is a sense of order, of the relationship of parts among themselves and to the whole, that Palladio inherited from the great procession of Italian designers from Brunelleschi to Bramante and Michelangelo, and reformulated in a way that distills the Renaissance.4

Others, like Bruno Zevi, portray a revisionist Palladio as a melodramatically “tortured” Mannerist whose typological permutations pushed those same principles toward the breaking point:

The later work of Palladio is characterized by a virulent and profanatory anticlassicism which turns the elements of late antiquity to hyperbole, shattering their relations…His anxiety becomes torture and agony, and the buildings, enlarged, the architectural orders worn out, profane the cityscape. His is a monstrous and overwhelming revolt against society, against his profession or, perhaps, the human condition.5

And Lionello Puppi hedges by asserting that Palladio’s anticlassicism is in the end irrelevant because what matters is the historical weight of his “image”:

It is obvious that the programmatic classicism of the artist is belied by the formal concreteness of works shored by anticlassical elements, proposing solutions consisting of genuine anticlassicism. This stance is so dramatic in the last works that the very use of classical morphology seems to negate that syntactic order…This process (and in this consists the problem) had to evolve undramatically, or rather unconsciously, in any case always in concordance with the wishes of the men who commissioned the works…Besides, we have learnt from Gyorgy Luckas that "for our understanding of our present, and for history, the important thing is the image that a work gives us of the world, what it proclaims, while the extent to which all this accords with the opinions of its author is of wholly secondary importance."6

Needless to say, there are as many different interpretations of Palladio as there are personalities who examine him. This kind of hermeneutics is a continuation of the kind of creative misreading whose lineage extends back from present-day theorists to Palladio’s translators and contemporaries to Palladio himself with respect to both his own work and his “sources.” Not only did he alter his designs for publication in the Quattro Libri, the irony – perhaps only this is agreed upon by all “sides” – is that classicism itself was an invention based on an egregious misinterpretation of Roman antiquity. Available knowledge surviving then only through Vitruvius’ writings and a few ruins, the pioneers of classicism reconstructed their knowledge and values based mainly on what they desired to see. The ancient Romans were never as dogmatic in proportion and symmetry as the Humanists willed themselves to believe. (With respect to the villa type, even the compact-cubic configuration of the early Roman villa, the formal progenitor of the Renaissance villa, was much looser in its layout.)

What is important, vis-à-vis the Academical Village, is that the choice of Palladio was optimal both for what Jefferson wanted to connote (associated values) and denote (specific meaning). The use of iconographic Palladian elements (portico, temple front, barchessa, cubic forms) provided the desired “image” (classical, humanist, natural, rational); while the flexibility of the syntax allowed their deployment in an “idiom” particular to the sense or nuance Jefferson wanted to convey. Although Jefferson revered Palladio (and dismissed English Palladianism as a bastardization), his attitude was not doctrinaire and was willing to modify or “contaminate” Palladio in order to achieve his ends. This can be seen, for example, in the façades of the Pavilions where Palladianism is hybridized with Neoclassicism, and especially where the “classical” image belies a plan “astonishing for its formal liberty,”7 as in the Rotunda or serpentine walls. Jefferson, like the Neopalladians before him and the Neoclassicists – not to mention Palladio himself – worked with an existing vocabulary of forms to imbue them with new meanings.


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