Faint Praise for History’s Greatest Architect

April 9, 2010

Exhibitions of the work of Andrea Palladio (1508-80) often seem as ubiquitous as performances of Mozart’s operas. That is as it should be, for Palladio is the nonpareil of his art, an architect of genius analogous only to Mozart among composers. One can quibble about the quality of each show, but it is fruitless to spill ink about the artist who defines perfection in building.

Leave it to Nicolai Oroussoff of the New York Times to whine about “endless vulgar knockoffs” of Palladio’s buildings while reviewing an exhibition which purports to treat the architect’s influence in history. The young critic’s grasp of architectural history has never been impressive, but his comments in today’s Arts section are even more pathetic than usual. Like many modernists, he assumes that Palladio’s architecture can be explained by comparing Renaissance Venice to other waning civilizations (like our own) that threw money at lavish displays of domestic architecture–villas and palaces. Hence the supercilious comment about “vulgar” houses that cheapen the “idealism” of Palladio’s art.

Charles Hind, a curator at the RIBA in London (an institute of architects, not “architecture” as Oroussoff believes), has mounted show of drawings and models at the Morgan Library that should attract anyone interested in how architecture is made. The RIBA has the largest collection of Palladio drawings in the world, and any opportunity to view them outside London is rare. Ouroussoff complains that not enough drawings made it across the pond because the Morgan is too small and the Brits ran out of money. Did anyone complain that there were too few Michaelangelo drawings at the Morgan’s blockbuster show twenty years ago?

I could go on about how lame-brained today’s review is, but Ouroussoff is already my bete noir. Suffice it to say that only a fool would try to paint history’s greatest architect as the victim of cash-strapped museums and venal mansion builders in Old Westbury. Architects like Jefferson and McKim revered Palladio for his sublime understanding of the classical tradition. Go and see the “Palladio and His Legacy” and you will too.

2 Responses to “Faint Praise for History’s Greatest Architect”

  1. David Brussat said

    Nicolai Ouroussoff and the late Herbert Muschamp are in equal parts ignorant and disdainful of traditional architecture, old and new. (No modernist critics ever have anything good to say of new traditional work, and whatever nice things they have to say about old traditional work aims to demonstrate a bogus objectivity.) The big difference is that Muschamp had a wacky sense of the imaginative in his writing that often made it a joy to read even in disagreement. Ouroussoff may be said to balance the ledger with his honesty – he wears his lack of objectivity on his sleeve. His predecessor famously pandered to a small set of starchitects. Nothing that Ouroussoff has to say of Palladio is the least bit surprising.

    • David: I agree about both Muschamp and Ouroussoff. I think it ought to embarrass the Times to publish the work of a critic who can’t even read the catalogs of the shows he reviews. Ignorance is no excuse in the case of Palladio.

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