Waiting for Palladio


Before long, I may even post a review of the Royal Academy’s fascinating if sporadically frustrating Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy, celebrating (only one year late) the quincentenary of the birth of the Paduan architect who, however indirectly, did more to shape Britain’s built environment than anyone else.

Until that moment arrives, however, here are two Palladio-related distractions.

The first is a new Palladio and Britain website, launched this week by the RIBA, currently enjoying their own 150th anniversary. Remarkably, over 80 per cent of Palladio’s extant drawings and personal collection of books is held by the RIBA — an indication in itself of the long shadow Palladio’s vision cast over this colder, less generous landscape — and the website tells this story in some detail, which is fun for anyone having a sort of Francis Haskell-inspired, history-of-taste sort of moment, as the website is also informative on the subject of Palladian architecture in Britain. Although the website is clearly a work in progress, it’s already a source of considerable pleasure, at least for harmless if slightly worrying minority of us who quite like lingering over photos of good looking buildings on the web.

Lest anyone start feeling too cheerful, though, faced with so much apparently timeless beauty, here’s the antidote. Elevation drawings and plans are all very well — Palladio’s autograph drawings, on show at the RA, are actually both beautiful and often moving, too — but the theoretical harmony expressed therein only comes to life in the buildings themselves, which is to say, in the play of light on surfaces, in decisions of scale and positioning, in the counterpoint played out between these structures and their surroundings, in the way the buildings have been decorated and furnished and used by the generations who have admired or, alternatively, callously mistreated them.

In the Veneto, at present, the powers that be seem capable of doing both these things at once. On one hand, they preen themselves on Palladio’s legacy — prestigious World Heritage Site, productive tourist cash-cow — while at the same time, destroying the landscape in which these buildings are sited. If you can bear it, it’s fascinating — in the same way that, say, watching a car crash is apparently quite fascinating — to go to the Save Britain’s Heritage site, select the ‘Veneto in Peril’ e-report, and work your way through the grisly 89-photo series, showing various horrible, irreparable things that are being done, right now, to Palladian villas in the Veneto region.

True, there is a great deal of injustice in the world, horrible things happen all the time, and human suffering matters far more than mistreated buildings. Doubtless, there are plenty of better targets for outraged complaint. Yet on the other hand, how better to acknowledge our ongoing debt to Palladio than by seeking to rescue his villas, so firmly embedded in the landscape around them, from the onrushing tide of motorways, messy suburban sprawl, out-of-town shopping centres, scrappy light industrial buildings, warehouses, factories, quarries, plus of course credit-crunch-blighted building sites of no particular purpose?

Grumpy emails may, of course, be sent to those responsible. The Save Britain’s Heritage site supplies relevant links.

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