by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pino Guidolotti/CISA Andrea Palladio
Detail of the façade of Palazzo Barbarano in Vicenza

A New Italian Museum Pays Homage to the Architect Palladio

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA 22 November 2012


The first and most imposing exhibit of the new Palladio Museum at Palazzo Barbarano is the Palazzo itself, built by the architect in the 1570s for the Vicentine nobleman Montano Barbarano.

.The Palazzo was the most unusual that Palladio ever built, not least for its asymmetry. This was because his patron insisted on absorbing existing buildings into the new fabric and acquired yet another house next door that had to be incorporated into the scheme when Palladio's project was already under way, with the result that the grand main doorway no longer occupied a central position in the columned façade. The building was also unique in that Palladio lived to supervise the completion of its interior decoration.

Since 1958 Palazzo Barbarano has been the home of the International Center for Architectural Studies, or CISA, which has organized scores of exhibitions in the Palazzo itself and in 26 countries around the world.

'Above all I did not want to create a mausoleum to a dead hero,' Guido Beltramini, the director of CISA since 1991 and the curator of the new museum, said on the eve of its opening last month. And to avoid this static effect, the plan is to change the main displays annually, and to hold additional smaller exhibitions for shorter periods.

Thanks to an agreement with the Royal Institute of British Architecture in London, the displays will always contain a selection of original Palladio drawings (of which RIBA has the largest collection in the world), shown in rotation both for conservation reasons and regularly to renew the museum's content.

Symbolic of Mr. Beltramini's innovative approach to the entire enterprise is the appearance in the courtyard of Palazzo Barbarano of a fully grown mulberry tree. The significance of the tree becomes evident in due course inside the museum itself, which occupies the second-floor rooms of the Palazzo.

The initial display in the first room includes editions of Palladio's 'Four Books of Architecture,' both a practical guide to design and construction and a record of Palladio's works, built and unbuilt, and probably the single most influential work in architectural history.

Next year's version of this room will look at 'Palladians,' from the 16th-century Vincenzo Scamozzi up to the contemporary Renzo Piano, along with an interactive map allowing visitors to home in on Palladian-style buildings around the globe.

The museum's second room is devoted to the materials Palladio employed. This year the focus is on stone and its various sources in local and more distant quarries.

The explanation for the mulberry tree in the courtyard can be found in the third room, in which there is a transparent column containing live silkworms munching on the leaves brought up from the tree below. During the 15th and 16th centuries the production and export of silk made Vicenza one of the richest cities in Europe. Vicenza's grand families raised silkworms on their country estates and manufactured cloth in the silk mills that lined the town's waterways.

It was these silk magnates who financed the building of Palladio's loggias around Vicenza's medieval city hall, transforming it into a classical style 'Basilica.' They also provided him with his numerous commissions both for the country villas and the city palazzi that still bear their names. This room contains models of some key projects that were bankrolled by the profits from silk.

In the fourth room, the two-story-high Grande Salone, with its elaborate stucco and fresco decoration of Roman emperors and the exploits of Scipio and Hannibal, is an extensive display that traces the origins of the Palladian villa to its Roman sources - notably the remains of the Temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli, which the architect erroneously believed to have been an imperial villa - illustrated with examples of some of Palladio's most famous villas, including those commissioned by the Barbaro, Emo, Pisani, Sarego and Saraceno families.

In addition, projected on the wall, are a succession of photographic images by Filippo Romano of Palladio's villas as they are today: the ten enormous brick columns of the unfinished Villa Porto at Molina di Malo; the garden of Villa Thiene at Quinto Vicentino providing a pleasant space for a temporary open-air cinema; the Villas Cornaro and Gazzotti rising nobly above unsightly, encroaching modern buildings; and so on.

Palladio's Venetian buildings are represented in the following room by a display centered on what is regarded by many as Palladio's most perfectly realized religious building: the Redentore church on the island of Giudecca.

The current temporary exhibition, 'Genealogies,' is in the final space and is as surprising as it is engaging. Between 1977 and 1978 the American photographer Max Belcher traveled to Liberia, taking a series of images of Palladian-style buildings created by African-American immigrants to the new colony during the 19th century.

Arthington, which was settled by migrants from Georgia and the Carolinas from 1869 onward with the assistance of the English philanthropist Robert Arthington, was rich in these fascinating edifices, constructed of wood, corrugated iron and brick. Examples from elsewhere in Liberia include the house at Edina of the Liberian-born and thrice-elected President of the country Joseph James Cheeseman. Mr. Belcher's photographs are juxtaposed with images of some of the slave owners' residences that inspired them. (This exhibition continues through March 31.)

Tantalizingly little biographical information about Palladio has come down to us. Palladio was born in Padua and apprenticed there at 13 as a stonemason, before moving two years later to the busy Pedemuro workshop in Vicenza, the city where he spent most of his career.

Coinciding with the opening of the new museum, Mr. Beltramini has published a short but invaluable account of the architect's life, 'The Private Palladio,' expertly and elegantly translated by Irena Murray and Eric Orsmby.

Palladio's measured and harmonious architecture was created in a city that was the scene of violent, sometimes homicidal, conflicts. In 1545 Paolo Almerico, who was to commission the Villa Rotonda, spent several years in prison for murdering Bortolomeo Pagliarino, who had just commissioned Palladio to build a villa at Lanzè. And in 1577 the owner of one Palladian villa, Villa Godi, murdered the owner of another, when he forced his way into the nearby Villa Piovene and murdered his neighbor, despite the victim's attempts to take refuge in a wardrobe.

The architect was known for his good humor and affability but his family life not always a happy one. In 1569 Palladio's son Leonida was charged with stabbing to death the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair; he was acquitted on a shaky plea of self-defense. His third son Orazio attracted the attention of the Inquisition for his alleged heretical beliefs; and the youngest of the architect's five children, Silla, was a perpetual student, who failed to graduate after 14 years as a student at Padua University.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023