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Why a 16th-Century Italian Is a Key Influence on Today's Architecture

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A sparse glass-and-metal home may be complimented for its Miesian proportions, and any tower balancing on a curvaceous leg of concrete might get noticed for its debt to Niemeyer, but as far as the dictionary is concerned, just one architect is significant enough to be the official namesake of an architectural style. "Palladian," officially "of, relating to, or denoting the neoclassical style of Andrea Palladio," may not mean much to the common person, even though historians consider this 16th-century Italian one of, if not the most, influential architects in history. His legacy is the subject of a new exhibition, Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected, which opened at the Royal Institute of British Architects this week According to exhibit co-curator Vicky Wilson, assistant curator of the RIBA Drawing and Archives Collection, while his work deserves wider recognition, even those who know his life and legacy may not realize how ingrained it has become over the centuries since he passed away.

"We want to challenge the idea that Palladio is dead," says Wilson, in reference to her co-curator Charles Hind. "We want to show his legacy isn't always about obvious inspiration. It's not always about a copy, homage or pastiche of a classical building; structures can still be forward-looking and connected to Palladio."

Born a miller's son in Padua in 1508, Andrea Di Pietro della Gondola initially entered the building trades as a stonemason, creating decorative sculptures and monuments. But a series of commissions, and support from Gian Giorgio Trissino (a poet who gave him the name Palladio, a reference to the Greek goddess of wisdom, and funded his influential studies in Rome), established him as one of many Renaissance architects infatuated with temple architecture and the work of the Greeks and Romans. Why did this particular practitioner, who only worked on projects within his small corner of Italy, eventually earn the title of history's most influential architect?

According to Wilson, he's become a household name for design historians because of his re-interpretation and re-introduction of Classical styles to the modern world. The Paduan architect serves as a bridge from the classical to the modern, updating styles in a systematic way and popularizing features such as the classical portico, which he introduced into domestic architecture. It came from his sharp focus on proportions, symmetry and balance; for Palladio, the perfect building was a four-sided structure of equal proportions set squarely atop a hill.

"What's important is how he used those elements and aimed for perfect harmony," says Wilson. "He looked at a building as a whole. He made sure every single aspect related to one another."

While he built more than 100 buildings in northern Italy during his lifetime, including a series of villas in Vicenza that are protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, his true legacy isn't the number of structures he saw finished before he passed away in 1580, but the writings and sketches he did about that work. His most important book, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) from 1570, became a classic due to its accessibility. Written in the Italian vernacular, the treatise is filled with clear, precise illustrations and practical knowledge gained from his time as a tradesman, advancing the notion that the principles of Roman design could be applied anywhere. Now you know who to blame for all those columns.

Held in high-regard in Palladio's day, the book became even more important when it was rediscovered by British architect Inigo Jones in the early 17th century, who was so taken by his style and precision that he acquired a cache of Palladio's drawings. Jones, who designed the stately St Paul's Church in London, brought about the first revival of Palladian design, helping preserve his sketches and plans, still the largest surviving collection by a single Renaissance architect. Those drawings supplied templates and patterns for architects when the style became prominent again in the 18th century as a reaction to Baroque design in both England and America, where architects in what would become the United States adopted version of the style for nationally significant structures such as Mount Vernon and the U.S. Capitol. Thomas Jefferson loved the style, and it became part of the intellectual foundation of Neoclassicism.

"Palladian design was very popular in the United States before independence, so afterwards, it becomes the template for civic and political buildings," says Wilson. "In the southern states, the double portico becomes a very popular trend."

While the layout of the exhibition, done in the same color palette as his villas and decorated with scores of his sketches, strikes an historical tone, it doesn't end with the Italian's influence on Neoclassical architecture. Palladio's design DNA can be found in Modernist homes and Postmodern towers as well, according to Wilson, suggesting a much more connected architectural family tree than many may imagine.

"People will be surprised how varied the work based on his ideas can be," she says.

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