Palladio. An art historian looks at the architect through his writings and his buildings

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DRIVING southward from Trent toward Venice, we had come out onto the dry northern edge of the broad Po River Valley. Lost, we scanned each sign-cluster for our destination. Suddenly, a surprise, not ``Venice'' there, but ``Piombino Dese.'' Silently, I scanned the fields beyond the roadside houses. A glimpse of what I wanted to see would be enough; we were late, and my companions were eager to find the autostrada. Where was Andrea Palladio's magnificent villa of 1554, designed for Venetian nobleman Giorgio Cornaro? Often studied, photographed, and even pictured in woodcut in Palladio's ``Quattro Libri'' (``Four Books'') of 1570, the villa's high horizontal block with delicate, two-story porch, or loggia, is known to stand tall on its Roman podium in the midst of the flat landscape.

Suddenly, right in the heart of the town, Villa Cornaro, its small green garden in front, glowed in the sunshine. Lesson primo (Palladio would have been glad): The site is all-significant. Palladio's villas float on the white pages of his ``Four Books''; but photographers crop the surroundings. Many times in his text, Palladio anchored his villas to their sites.

I should have remembered: It was the hilltop site of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, a descendant of Palladio's Villa Rotonda, that had stuck with me since I saw it at 12; it was the glory of the structures in their unrivaled settings that inspired Goethe on his Italian journey of 1786; and it was an ancient concern for salubrious sites that Palladio discussed in the chapter that led to the individual villas.

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If the love of the 18th-century English for Palladio sprang from the appeal of his beautiful books, the post-World War II international enthusiasm was aroused by his flexible solutions to problems of design, solutions evident when his buildings are seen in their environments.

In this case, the villa had always stood conveniently close to the common road: The double loggias act as sheltered dining spaces, and, for the house-bound women, a place to watch the activities outside.

So the fun of the architectural historian begins: in the presence of the building, to reconstruct the life, the functioning of the place. Imagine the broad fields, the long barn to the right along the road; the pergolaed gardens behind, and a dovecote in the far corner of the enclosed garden.

When we read Palladio's beautifully concise description of the Villa Cornaro, we seem to look through the windows of the woodblock image into the living spaces inside. By carefully reading the text, and noting Palladio's flexibility in manipulating plan and fa,cade, the historian begins to reconstruct Palladio's own vision of his work. He speaks to us perhaps the way he designed, beginning with the central reception hall, located far from the heat or cold of the outdoors, and then tells us how he aligned its four supporting columns with the end columns of the loggias outside.

Simply because ``villa'' derives from vigna, the whole vineyard estate with farmhouse, the elegant Villa Cornaro did not have to be isolated in the fields. Palladio designed a farmhouse in the new antique vocabulary popular in the culture of the citified Venetians, who were turning to mainland investments after the loss of their sea empire.

The Villa Cornaro stands, not a giant among the grasshoppers, but a good neighbor, friendly with its open loggias, the colonnade parted slightly to allow for passage through the middle, dignified but not forbidding, the warmth of its bricks shining through the thin protective coat of stucco.

Time stood still for me: Face to face, we ``connected'' across the centuries.

AN earlier encounter with another Venetian villa had a slightly different twist. My arrival was intentional, (by taxi, the ``only way'' to make it by 9 a.m., according to Carla, my pensione receptionist). As I looked beyond the changed approach to the villa, its color, scale, and textures came alive.

After my weeks in libraries, the fragrance of the land was overwhelming, epitomized in enormous bowls of dried rose petals inside the villa. The stillness of the country morning spoke of the quiet boats that brought Palladio and the Foscari brothers a few miles up the Brenta Canal from Venice to their retreat.

But now, from the road, long willows almost hide Malcontenta (a name given to the marshy area long before the building) and wrap it in mystery. The reverse, however, is what Palladio intended and what the Foscaris enjoyed.

In the 1550s, Villa Foscari raised its temple-front porch to greet city folk traveling the bustling water-highway between Venice and its university town, Padua. The more freely designed garden face sported a pediment broken with an arched ``thermal'' window, and stucco incised like rusticated blocks - for the traveler from the country.

The frescoes inside have been restored from the whitewash that covered them when the building served as a hospital in World War II. The space is bathed with their soft colored light. Although neoclassical historians, who have in part shaped perceptions of Palladio, emphasized the Roman whiteness of his designs, his books are full of his appreciation of color in the landscape and in his buildings.

Palladio's short text praises the painters, the patrons, the proportions. He also (having, after all, started out as a stonemason) gives high praise to the molded brick cornices that embrace the the villa and form the pediment.

How different the reality from the photographs! Not cold neoclassical bits tacked together, but a natural whole, built of the brick of the land, columns growing up from their bases with a curve like the bases of trees. Missing are the ladies on the loggia watching the activities on the Brenta. But trompe l'oeil, life-size figures emerging from trompe l'oeil doorways, repopulate the quiet spaces.

There, on the scene, one understands the incomparable scale: grand but not so big as to diminish one's own stature; generous - the large cross-shaped central reception room (sala) with three rooms flanking each side; and infinitely gracious - the fresco of Philemon and Baucis over the front door hinting at the hospitality that the large allegorical figures in illusionary architecture seem to extend.

A hundred years before Palladio, at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in architecture, Alberti proposed that the proportions of buildings could correspond to those of music. Palladio, tremendously influenced by this theory, designed this, the most harmonically proportioned of all his villas, to correspond to the musical interests of his patrons.

Returning to Venice by the route the Foscaris would have taken, one sees that things have changed. Only sea gulls stand as timeless sentries, flying off one by one from the tall posts that mark the passage across the lagoon as the noisy boat passes.

Lunch was to be served until 1:30. Running down the Zattere (a waterfront walk which had not even been constructed in the 16th century), past the neighboring pensione (a 1960s fa,cade that says Ruskin worked there), I reached an incredulous Carla.

One could forgive her: She had been certain the only way to get to Malcontenta was by taxi; she had called the taxi (son-in-law of the third-floor chambermaid, as it turned out); she had arched an eyebrow when asked to hold lunch for a noon return.

So there has been intrigue in present-day Venice (solved), as there had been mystery at Malcontenta (dissolved). Now, new bonds exist with those villas, as they do with Carla. Her messages, too, reflect an unselfish pleasure in witnessing small triumphs over barriers of time. When asked for the train-schedule book, Carla produces it with a shared-secret look: ``Going to Verona and back before lunch?''

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