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One day early this week, as I was worming my way through a wad of closely-worded magazines, I came across the new Harper's, always a treat, thanks to the amusing collection of extracts at the beginning of each issue, and I decided that I had just enough energy to read editor Lewis Lapham's ten arguments against the still impending war. But don't worry, I'm not going to discuss any of that. Nor am I going to tell you how I responded to a make-my-day phone call from a friend who's on maternity leave without a computer at home, and who called to find out what I think of 'this war.' (If you're not a regular reader of this page, you can wallow in my opinions by clicking here.) Now that we can retire the word impending for a while (at least without respect to North Korea), there is nothing for a person with my lack of military expertise and experience (total) to say or do but hope for the best - and make the occasional plug for Howard Dean. I brought up Harper's not to evaluate Mr Lapham's reasons, but to mention that later in the same issue I came across art critic Dave Hickey's essay on Andrea del Pietro, the architect known to posterity as Palladio.
Left: Ground Plan and Cross Section of a Roman remain about which Palladio writes as though still standing. "This building is entirely brick and must have been veneered with marble, which is all stripped off now." He calls it "the greatest example of a round building in Rome after the vast structure of the Pantheon." Is this a reference to the round floor plan or to the dome? Can anyone tell me more about 'The Temple Popularly Called Le Gallucce'?
In 1570, Palladio published The Four Books of Architecture, a Renaissance update of the only surviving book of architecture from Roman times, Vitruvius's Ten Books of Architecture. The Vitruvius, which resurfaced in 1415, has long been available from the Loeb Classics, but Palladio's work has more recently been translated by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield (MIT Press, 1997; the edition is entitled The Four Books on [not of] Architecture) and handsomely bound up with all of the original woodcuts. Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, almost every educated Englishman (and American) with an interest in architecture and the money to build knew this work, and there are probably more 'Palladian' buildings in the United Kingdom and the United States than anywhere else on earth, Italy included. Palladio's classicism has survived at least two major architectural vogues, the baroque (and its pendant, the rococo) and the Beaux-Arts, that drew from the same antique elements but also went in for curves. By 'curves,' I mean lines that are neither straight nor arcs of a circle, the only roundness to be found in Palladio. The appeal of The Four Books of Architecture is tonic: Palladio's severity can be counted to restore jaded sensibilities.
The first book discusses the elements of architecture, seen from two very different perspectives, building and style. After a few chapters on materials, foundations, and the construction of walls, Palladio swerves into the analysis of the classical orders, or systems of pillar treatment, that govern all classical decoration. The Greeks recognized three orders: the simple Doric, the elegant Ionic, and the opulent Corinthian. To these, the Romans added two: the Tuscan, simpler than the Doric, and the Composite, in which the volutes characteristic of the Ionic crown the acanthus frond of the Corinthian. You already knew all this, didn't you? There's so much more. Palladio will teach you a raft of new words for the orthodox elements of the orders. My favorite is astragal (also called the tondino), a slim convex circlet, like a rounded wedding band, at the top and bottom of the column shaft, separated from it by a slimmer, flatter circlet called the cimbia. The minute I finished Dave Hickey's essay, I dug out the Four Books and promptly got lost in the thicket of details that offset the magisterially clear woodcuts. I spent a lot of time in Book II as well. This is essentially a catalogue of Palladio's designs, most of them executed and many still standing, a few in Venice and Vicenza but mostly in the countryside of the Veneto, where Palladio inaugurated the long career of the country seat. It has always been my dream to see at least a few of these houses, and with luck I'll be able to post my own photograph of one of them in this space next fall. The third book, concerned with public works, hasn't yet caught my fancy, and the fourth book, on Roman antiquities, hadn't either, until the other day, when I looked at it for the first time with the eyes of someone planning a trip to Rome.
My feelings about Rome are not unlike the feelings of the average foreigner about America. They verge between fascination and disgust. The object of the fascination is also the object of the disgust: greatness or arrogance, depending on which face shows itself at the moment. What surprised me, as I leafed through Palladio's hypothetical cross-sections of ruined temples, was the power of my sudden desire to examine the remains of the Roman forums. We have been building structures vastly larger than anything the Romans could have imagined for so long that it's easy to slip into the misconception that Roman buildings were small. I can think of only one way to correct that impression, and I don't care how many people have been there before me.
The images above come from the woodcut that accompanies Palladio's description of a structure that may or may not still exist; I can't for the life of me tell. He calls it 'Le Gallucce,' after the (then) popular name for its neighborhood, but the word doesn't appear in any of my guidebooks and I can't decipher Palladio's description of its location. What caught my eye was the tension between the severe cross section and the almost baroque ground plan, which looks like a fanciful spaceship crossed with a microscopic species of marine life. (Or, more disturbingly still, the head of a housefly.) I have got to know more about this mystery building.
Perhaps I ought to write a letter to Witold Rybczynski, author most lately of The Perfect House (Scribner, 2002), a book about Palladio's villas, and ask him. I will have to read the book first, though, and I've only just started. Thank goodness I don't have to think about whether we'll go to war any more! (March 2003)
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