Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy. Royal Academy, London
31 January-13 April 2009
‘The stately homes of England
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand…’
Noel Coward sings The Stately Homes of England
This is an exhibition about the man who invented those houses. English aristocrats making the Grand Tour of Italy in the eighteenth century were stunned by the country villas that Palladio had created on the mainland near Venice. The visual impact of this show makes you appreciate how it happened. Huge models of his villas, churches and palaces, many cut open or hinged in sections, are in every room. And so, if like me you find plans and elevations tricky to imagine as the finished article, the work has been done for you. Palladio’s drawings are things of unimaginable beauty in themselves. There are also glorious paintings by the likes of Canaletto, El Greco and Tintoretto to make this a feast for the eye as well as the imagination.
Palladio was the first person to marry the forms of classical architecture with the country house. Until Palladio came along, they were just big farms. Suddenly, these working estates reflected the graceful palaces that noble families had become accustomed to in Venice and Vicenza. Palladio designed those too. When they went to church on Sunday, they entered his adaptations of Roman temples. Or visiting the town hall, they would find themselves staring in wonder at Palladio’s transformation of a muddled medieval market into a public building straight out of ancient Rome. This is the astonishing Basilica in the centre of Vicenza, and a vast model in this exhibition shows how Palladio’s genius turned it into a vision of harmonious proportions. He cheated, by fiddling the dimensions of the openings so that the wonky streets inside the market appear to be aligned.
Palladio changed the face of Europe. Just look around. At the Royal Academy itself, the National Gallery, or the Banqueting House in Whitehall. And throughout England we still have those stately homes, even if they prove that it is now the National Trust that has the upper hand…