Branko Mitrovic, Learning from Palladio, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. To order this book from Amazon.com, click here.
Reviewed by Kim Williams
If any architect in history has lessons to teach, it is Palladio, and few have made themselves more accessible, in terms of both the number of buildings built and still standing as well as a corpus of written work and drawings to study. One thing that makes Palladio so attractive to scholars of architecture as well as to the general public is the beauty of his architecture, a beauty of forms and composition that doesn't require narration or explanation to be appreciated. Palladio himself makes a charming teacher. Where architectural treatises of the 1400s were mainly literary and philosophical exercises, treatises of the 1500s were of a much greater practical usefulness. Palladio's intention in his Quattro libri was certainly to provide practical information to architects. Additionally, for those with eyes to see, his buildings provide lessons in the application (or sometimes non-application) of that information.
Branko Mitrovic, like Palladio, is also an excellent teacher, and one thing that I so appreciated about this present book is that he not only tells us what he will be teaching us, but he tells us why he is teaching it. In the Introduction, after the story of Palladio's life and career and a short description of the materials about Palladio available for study, Mitrovic tells us about two parallel trends in architectural history: one dealing with how architecture is designed and built, that is, questions related to visual forms; the other dealing with the role of architecture in culture and society, that is, questions of meaning. Mitrovic sustains that Palladio divorced formal elements from meaning for aesthetic reasons (in order, for instance, to be able to translate the triangular pediment from the Roman temple to a Venetan villa), thus the study of Palladio has to be concentrated on form and not on meaning. It is precisely the study of form that allows the modern, contemporary, architect to learn from Palladio in a way that can be of constructive use. Whatever cultural or societal meaning that was attached to Palladio's architecture in the 1500s can only be a metaphor for meanings attached to architectural forms today, while formal concepts lessons learned from Palladio are as relevant in the twenty-first century as in they were in the sixteenth.
The formal lessons in Palladio are apparently simple, involving
single elements (spatial elements such rooms, staircases and
courtyards, structural elements such as columns, and organizational
elements such as axes), sequences or groupings of elements, and
dimensional relationships both within single elements and among
related elements. But behind the apparent simplicity are found
a range of complex problems with which Palladio has grappled
that require careful analysis and detailed background.
Chapter I of Learning from Palladio addresses the buildings types and their compositional elements in Palladio's oeuvre. This involves the distinction between the palazzo and the villa, for instance, and between kinds of rooms (Palladio distinguished room type by size -- small, intermediate, and large -- rather as we would today by function). Once these basic building blocks are defined, we can begin to consider how they might be combined. In treating sequences of rooms in the Palazzo Antonini, Mitrovic provides the following verbal description: "circulation from one end to the other includes a narrow entrance, a sunny courtyard, a shady loggia, defined by a double grid of columns, another sunny courtyard, and a narrow exit." An architectural plan is, of course, already a form of abstraction, and rooms in plan appear as shapes in the plane, a kind of mathematical model -- in this case, a small narrow rectangle, a large rectangle, a square, another large rectangle, and a last small narrow rectangle. The relationships between the spaces are far from casual, however: they are related to each other sequentially, as well as by their common relationship to an axis, and they are further related to each other dimensionally. It is to the articulation of those relationships that the latter half of Chapter I, and all of Chapters II ("Proportions and Harmonies") and III ("Classical Orders") are dedicated.
Chapter II is a detailed discussion of the musical theory
of proportion, and the mathematical ratios of the respective
intervals of the various systems, including equal temperament
and the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic scales. Although the
theories are intriguing, and although they form the basis of
the accepted theory of Renaissance proportions as set forth by
Wittkower, Mitrovic argues that in the end Palladio developed
his list of preferred ratios empirically rather than in accordance
to a theory.
In Chapters II and III Mitrovic makes clear his expertise
in dealing with the formal technicalities underlying Palladio's
architecture. In Chapter IV on "Palladio's Platonism"
he takes on the metaphysical technicalities, which are no less
challenging. The question that Mitrovic raises is whether we
primarily perceive objects of architecture through our experience
of them, or as reflections of an ideal form (actually, the pertinent
question here is how Palladio perceived architecture). Here he
discusses the differences between Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies
and shows Palladio to be a materialist who believed in absolutes:
for instance, Palladio did not discuss optical corrections in
his Quattro Libri, and he preferred orthogonal architectural
representations to perspectives.
Ultimately I think most architects share Mitrovic's wonder
in the face of Palladio's buildings: his architecture is so perfect,
perfect for its time, perfect for its settings, perfect within
itself. What architect wouldn't want to design buildings that
perfect? (I admit, I'm writing this review at a table in the
sala of the Villa Cornaro, and it is very hard not to wax poetic.)
Does Mitrovic succeed at unveiling Palladio's recipe for perfection?
This book requires careful attention, and is not an easy read,
but ultimately takes us steps further in the right direction.
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Copyright ©2005 Kim Williams Books