University of Rochester Library Bulletin: I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura

Volume VIII · Spring 1953 · Number 3
I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura

Outstanding among recent purchases for the Art Library is the first edition of I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, published by Andrea Palladio in Venice in 1570. This work has had an almost incalculable effect upon architectural design in England and America, particularly in the eighteenth century.

Andrea Palladio (1518-1580) has been called both the last of the great humanist architects and one of the "mannerists." He was born in Vicenza, the son of a stonemason, and began his career as a stoneworker. The humanist Giovanni Giorgio Trissino became his patron, and Palladio probably studied the ancient writers in the learned academy founded by Trissino. It was Trissino who influenced Palladio to turn to a career in architecture, and of course these classical studies were to influence Palladio's architectural thinking. This patronage also made it possible for him to work in Rome from 1545 to 1547. The careful study of classical ruins led to the publication of L'Antichita di Roma in 1554. The measured drawings published here were not absolutely accurate, but were definitely superior to previously published drawings. The book became a standard guide to Rome and the model for many later guides.

The study of Roman monuments was not, however, the only influence on Palladio. Equally important, if not more so, were the writings of Vitruvius and Alberti. The Roman architect, Vitruvius, wrote a treatise called De Architectura Libri Decem, which survived in manuscript during the Middle Ages and was of course hailed by the architects of the Renaissance. Beginning in the 1480's many editions were published, eventually with commentaries and with diagrams to explain various theories. One of the most important theories was that the proportions of the human body should be revealed in the proportions of temples. The designs and writings of Italian architects show a wide study and application of this theory. It was this kind of codification of proportions that appealed to Palladio, and according to his own words, Vitruvius was Palladio's chosen "master and guide."

The Renaissance architect of whom Palladio thought most highly was Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote the first great modern treatise on architecture. In De Re Aedificatoria (published in 1485 after Alberti's death), he defined beauty as "the harmony and concord of all the parts achieved in such a manner that nothing could be added or taken away or altered except for the worse," and this harmony was a product of reason rather than of personal intuition. To this Palladio heartily agreed, and in advocating the round form for churches he said that it was the "man-made echo or image of God's universe and it is this shape which discloses the unity, the infinite essence, the uniformity and the justice of God." Such a train of thought leads back through the mathematical and musical theories of proportion in the Middle Ages to the Timaeus of Plato, which was certainly important in the academy of Trissino, and which Palladio may very well have known.

While Palladio may thus be considered as a humanist in his theories, certain elements appearing in his actual designs have earned him the designation of a mannerist. Two frequent motifs in his work may be cited: the simultaneous use of the single-story and giant orders, and the use of two superimposed temple fronts on his church façades. He also used for arcades a series of round-headed openings carried on colonnettes and flanked by slender openings on either side. This later became the familiar "Palladian window" of the eighteenth century. Another contribution was his characteristic plan for villas which consisted of a central block with wings extended far out on either side. Palladio was unmoved by the exuberance of the Baroque movement among his contemporaries. His designs are restrained by the requirements of his theories, and yet his interpretation of these theories made certain personal adaptations possible.

All of these elements of theory and design are to be found in the Four Books. Book I is devoted to the orders and basic problems of construction. Book II contains designs for domestic buildings, Book III designs for public buildings and town planning, and Book IV designs for "temples" or churches. Many editions were published in various European languages. The work was most influential in England, and via England, in the United States.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was the first outstanding English architect to find an ideal in Palladio. An edition of the Four Books owned by Jones and annotated by him is still preserved at Worcester College, Oxford. This interest was only a prelude to the great devotion to Palladio in the eighteenth century fostered by Lord Burlington (1695-1753) and the architects working under his patronage. Lord Burlington had a collection of Palladio's drawings. The first English edition of the Four Books was published in 1715 by Leoni, an Italian architect in the Lord Burlington circle. Then in 1727 another member of the group, William Kent, published drawings of buildings and supposed buildings of Inigo Jones, and some designs of Palladio were included in this work. Lord Burlington's own villa at Chiswick, designed by Kent in 1729, was directly inspired by Palladio's Villa Rotonda at Vicenza. This particular group of English architects was in revolt against certain extravagances in design which they saw among their contemporaries. The idea of a rational harmony appealed to them. So did the principle of extending the parts of a villa out into the landscape, for these English designers considered nature an expression of universal truth and found no discrepancy between the harmony of the landscape and that of reasoned architectural design.

Twenty years after the villa was built at Chiswick, a specific Palladian design was used for the Redwood Library at Newport, Rhode Island. The American builder, Peter Harrison, had in his library the Hoppus edition of the Four Books which had been published in 1736, and also an edition of Isaac Ware's The Designs of Inigo Jones and Others, (1735?) which included a garden pavilion by William Kent based on one of the designs in the Four Books. The inspiration for the façade of the Redwood Library clearly lies in either the Palladio or the Kent design. Here the superimposed temple fronts are used, their ultimate source lying in the churches of Palladio, such as Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The design for the rear windows of the Redwood Library comes from the Hoppus edition and was also used at Chiswick.

The "Palladian window" was especially popular in America. It may be found on houses, churches, and other public buildings built throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century. Asher Benjamin published it as a part of a design for a church in The Country Builder's Assistant in 1797, which was the first American architectural handbook. With more slender proportions the motif appeared in Early Republican or Federal architecture after the Revolution. Some early nineteenth-century examples have been found in which the center semicircular arch is replaced by a pointed arch in order to adapt the Palladian window for use in the Gothic Revival.

Thomas Jefferson was a later user of Palladian design, especially in his buildings for the University of Virginia and Monticello. The idea of specifically ordered principles would of course appeal to Jefferson, and he is known to have had five editions of the Four Books in his library, three in English and two in French.

These few notes on books and buildings can only sketch the extent, in time and place, of the influence of I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura. Palladio succeeded, as probably no other architect ever did, in recodifying the works of the ancients and his immediate predecessors into his own theory and style. Through publication his personal contributions have had enormous popularity and influence.