Palladio. An art historian looks at the architect through his writings and his buildings
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.