Palladio’s Legacy Lives On in Washington Architecture

Posted September 14, 2010 at 4:28pm

His influence is all over Washington. From the White House to the Supreme Court to the Capitol, it’s difficult to go far in this city without seeing a building that would look very different if not for Andrea Palladio.

The National Building Museum is honoring that influence with an exhibit displaying 31 rare drawings by Palladio and three-dimensional models of Palladian-influenced American landmarks.

Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator with the National Building Museum, said that while Palladio is not the most famous Renaissance architect, he is certainly the most influential. His “Four Books on Architecture” was revered by Thomas Jefferson, who owned several copies and called them “his bible.”

Palladio is credited with reviving the ancient Roman style of monumental architecture. Early in his career, he traveled to Rome to study ancient ruins. He was by no means the first person to do this, but Palladio studied the ruins more intensely than anyone before him, drawing the buildings as they originally looked to the tiniest detail, according to exhibit co-curator Calder Loth.

He based the “Four Books on Architecture” on his studies and his designs, intending for them to serve as a canon for other architects, Loth said.

When Palladio’s book was translated into English in the early 1700s, his style, featuring temple-front porticoes and five-part villas, became the height of British fashion. This Anglo-Palladian movement, now commonly recognized as part of Georgian architecture, spread to the American colonies and stayed in the United States following the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson’s decision to base his design for the Virginia Capitol on a Palladian drawing set the precedent for American public buildings being built in the Palladian style, Broikos said.

Now public buildings — from national monuments to local post offices — have Palladio’s influence in every corner.

The National Building Museum’s exhibit was originally supposed to be composed of drawings and just a few models. But when the exhibit traveled through Europe, curators found that the public also enjoyed seeing the models, Loth said.

“Architecture, of course, is a three-dimensional art,” Loth said.

Adding a dozen models allowed the curators to give Palladio’s exceptional line drawings depth. Models of the New York Stock Exchange building, the White House, the National Gallery of Art and other distinctly American structures allowed them to put the Palladian influence into an American perspective.

And yet despite Palladio’s huge influence, “very few people know his name,” Broikos said.

That’s something Joe Grano wants to change. For more than two years, Grano, a D.C. activist, has been petitioning Congress to recognize Palladio’s posthumous contributions to the U.S. in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of his birth in 2008.

Grano said he was first exposed to Palladian architecture 12 years ago when a former student’s family showed him around the Veneto region of Italy, including visits to villas designed by Palladio. Grano was mesmerized by what he saw.

This isn’t Grano’s first effort to have Congress recognize an Italian’s contribution to the U.S. In 2005, he successfully petitioned Congress to recognize artist Constantino Brumidi.

The Palladio resolution, penned by Loth, has been in the House of Representatives since March 25, when it was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) in July and was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Support for the resolution goes beyond Congress. The Italian Embassy is also in favor of having Palladio recognized, hopefully in time for the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification next year.

“The ambassador really supports this initiative and wants to make another connection in the relationship between Italy and America,” said Renato Miracco, cultural attaché for the Italian Embassy.

“Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey” will be on display at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, until Jan. 9.