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Architect of the Republic

There’s only one disappointment in the exceptional new show of 31 original Palladio drawings at the Morgan Library, only seen once before in the United States. It’s the disappointment that comes with all architectural drawings: not being able to see the actual buildings.

If it’s any consolation, the greatest American Palladian of them all, Thomas Jefferson, never saw a single Palladio building either. In 1787, he did a grand tour of northern Italy, visiting Turin, Milan, and Genoa, but he was recalled to his ambassador’s job in Paris before he could get to Palladio’s heartland, Venice, Vicenza, and the Veneto.

So the designs for Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, and his unrealized 1792 design for the White House were transmitted via paper only from Palladio’s drawings and books. (Monticello’s design and its name, which means “the little mountain,” were both borrowed from Palladio’s Villa Rotonda outside Vicenza.) That’s why the drawings at the Morgan are particularly significant: they are the means by which northern Italian ideas became American stone.

No wonder Jefferson called Palladio’s written works his Bible and, in his library at Monticello, he had two London editions of The Architecture of A. Palladio by Giacomo Leoni (1715-20 and 1742). His devotion was so great that in addition to the Palladian University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Jefferson designed a second Palladian home at Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1806. It has four octagonal rooms around a square top-lit parlor and porticos to north and south.

His quasi-religious devotion to the 16th-century Italian master was so great that Jefferson spent much of his fortune on Monticello. His building debts bankrupted the estate, consigning the house to a century of decay after his death in 1826.

But it’s not just Jefferson who fell for the genius of Andrea Palladio. America, more than any other country on earth, is a Palladian nation.

At the time of independence, Palladianism was the fashionable architectural style. By the late 18th century, British and European Palladianism had reached full maturity, so the American incarnation could absorb all the aesthetic and pragmatic lessons of two centuries of Palladian buildings across the Atlantic.

It helped, too, that the Founding Fathers admired the Roman Republic, and so also admired the Roman architectural principles that lay at the heart of Palladio’s buildings. The American love of Rome—or, more specifically, Roman Republican virtues—intensified with the birth of the American Republic after the Revolution. The Founders sought a virtuous model of government that could be separated from the monarchy they had just overthrown. The Roman Republic seemed at one and the same time pure, but not too dangerously democratic. Thomas Jefferson and the two John Adamses were particularly keen on the Greek and Roman idea of rule by the optimates—the best or, in Jefferson’s phrase, a “natural aristocracy” based on the most talented.

The fashion for all things Roman continued after the Revolution. George Washington’s triumphs and celebrity eventually meant that the passion for Rome deviated from ardor for Republican Rome to a cult of Imperial Rome. The first president, who did his best to limit the powers of his office, did not encourage the cult, but he could do little to stop it. A bust of Washington in the Met, by Giuseppe Ceracchi, shows him dressed like a Roman emperor—a Hadrian or a Marcus Aurelius—with a toga pinned at his right shoulder by the traditional rosette brooch. He could hardly look more Roman or more imperial. Gone is the usual wig, replaced by the fashionably short hair of Roman emperors. His wide, strong torso and the incised eyes are recognizable from ancient Roman sculptures. All that’s familiar from the famous Gilbert Stuart pictures are the lips, pursed with the pain of badly fitting false teeth.

But Washington and Jefferson’s Roman ideals were most clearly manifested to the world in classical buildings. In 1791, Jefferson advised Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the architect who designed the grid and diamond plan for Washington, D.C. and remodeled New York’s Federal Hall with its Doric portico, to follow classical designs for the Capitol: “I should prefer the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years.” A handsome plaster model of the Capitol appears in the Morgan show alongside one of Monticello.

The only problem was, ancient Greek and Roman buildings weren’t immediately practical in late 18th-century Washington. The solution was to borrow from the man who had already adapted classical buildings to suit modern living—Andrea Palladio.

The Founding Fathers appreciated the great Palladian buildings in Britain sponsored by the Whig aristocracy, not least Houghton Hall, Norfolk, the Palladian home of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister. Jefferson in particular was much taken with the Whig Enlightenment ideals of political liberty and republican civic virtue.

It’s no surprise, then, that all the iconic buildings of independence were Palladian. George Washington’s Mount Vernon home is a classic mid-18th-century Palladian villa. The great imperial architect of Washington, Benjamin Latrobe, who adapted the plans for the Capitol, indulged his love of Palladio elsewhere across the country. He was behind the first Catholic cathedral in America, the Palladian Baltimore Basilica, and, in conjunction with James Hoban, the White House. (The White House, by the way, was built on the banks of a little stream given the grand—and distinctly Roman—name of Tiber Creek.)

There was more to it, though, than mere slavish copying of Palladio. Latrobe was a great one for Americanizing his classical influences, taking the Corinthian capital and inserting corncobs between the leaves. For the capitals of the columns of the vestibule and rotunda of the Senate wing of the Capitol, he removed acanthus leaves and replaced them with the leaves and flowers of the powerhouse crop of the American economy, the tobacco plant. But for all these flourishes, Palladio lay at the heart of his work.

Over the next century, Palladian taste migrated from these iconic buildings across Washington—and America. Jefferson, when he was secretary of state, insisted that Washington’s federal buildings should be classical-cum-Palladian. The style then spread from federal to state level—from the grand, like the Massachusetts State House in Boston, designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1795, to the smallest courthouses. Practically every town in New England has a church with that familiar combination of a classical spire soaring straight up from the apex of a pediment below. The first example of this combination is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the church overlooking Trafalgar Square in London, designed in 1721 by James Gibbs, a British architect who straddled Palladianism and the Baroque. Jefferson’s library at Monticello also included a copy of Gibbs’s Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732).

Palladio’s own buildings—palaces, villas, churches, and even a block of four small domestic houses in Venice—enjoyed a range of size, cost, and function that was immensely adaptable to American conditions. Monticello and Mount Vernon were built very much on the same sociological and financial basis as Palladio’s best-known buildings in the Veneto: rural villas in hot, marshy climates, attached to a farm and estate, owned by affluent landowners with political and business interests in the nearest city. The way Palladio dismembered the elements of antique buildings and rearranged them to suit a later age was also borrowed across America. He had studied ancient buildings in Rome and combed the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius (80-15 B.C.) to develop a style rooted in antiquity but not slavishly derivative of it. The Morgan show includes rare Palladio sketches of the Emperor Trajan’s warehouses at Ostia, the Lateran Basilica in Rome, and Assisi’s Temple of Minerva, all rich in elements that Palladio adapted for his own buildings.

Infinitely flexible, Palladianism was the bridge from the classical language of architecture to its modern dialect—a bridge that stretched beyond 18th-century America into recent times. Late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings such as the Supreme Court—a model of which appears in the Morgan show—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the New York Stock Exchange all borrowed heavily from Palladio. Even modern minimalism has its Palladian roots. Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French minimalist pioneer, took a tour of Palladio’s buildings in Vicenza and Venice in 1922 and filled an album. There’s a fair degree of playful imagination in those sketches. One, of the Villa Rotonda, is drawn at a severe, raking angle, with the dome mutilated, one side of the building removed, and most of the classical elements stripped away.

Jefferson would not have approved of such sacrilege, but he would have appreciated how robust his hero’s eternal principles are and how easily they can be reinvented, in any part of the world, by any architect. 

Harry Mount is the author of Carpe Diem—Put a Little Latin in Your Life. Palladio and his Legacy—a Transatlantic Journey is at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, N.Y. from April 2 to Aug. 1

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