Palladio’s Modernity

June 15, 2011

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) hardly needs another book or exhibition to burnish his status as one of history’s most important architects. It was nonetheless exciting to see the show mounted by the Royal Institute of British Architects at the Stite Museum at Notre Dame last week. The university found itself custodian to the traveling exhibition–“Palladio and His Legacy–A Transatlantic Journey”–after the Milwaukee Museum of Art was forced to cancel its installation. “The Perpetual Modernity of Palladio,” a conference sponsored by the Notre Dame School of Architecture from June 9 through June 12, added to the excitement of the exhibition’s opening. I was fortunate to be among the lecturers and participants there, which also included Robert Adam, Leon Krier, Witold Rybczynski, David Watkin, and other luminaries.

What, we were asked to consider, was the relevance of an architect who worked in a small Italian town during the Renaissance to the complex, troubled world we inhabit in 2011? Armed with fresh research and facts gleaned from a study of 31 drawings by the master, the lecturers found numerous lessons and parallels linking the Vicentine architect to present day challenges.

Palladio was an urbanist who championed “civitas” or civic virtue among the citizens of Venice, a quality much to be desired in urban leaders today. He offered lessons to architectural educators about the skills and responsibilities necessary for the revival of our troubled profession. His famous treatise, the Four Books of Architecture, remains a model of architectural theory and scholarship, as we learn more about how it was conceived, planned and produced in 1570. Most important, his extraordinary buildings continue to enthrall and stimulate people from all over the world, no matter how their cultural biases and interpretations color their experience.

How “modern” is Palladio? In the broad sense, Palladio was one of history’s first modern architects because he worked during the beginning of the “long” period of modernization which had its end late in the last century. More importantly, this true Renaissance man worked within the universal tradition of classicism, still the most versatile and vital cultural canon in the West, and one that is increasingly relevant in an age of globalization. Where are the most recent Palladian buildings and urban projects being designed and constructed? In China, India and South America, of course.

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