Is Palladio, then, more Greek than Roman?

Andrea Palladio, Villa Capra, Vicenza, 1566-1571

The non-linear connections between ideas in architectural history and theory that we have seen last semester and in Erika’s more recent discussion of Tafuri return when Etlin draws a convincing connection between Greek architecture, as epitomized by the Parthenon but as exemplified also by the 19th century discovery of the Temple at Paestum by Labrouste, and Le Corbusier.

Etlin describes Viollet-le-Duc’s euphoric discovery of Greek architectural merit. Whereas early in his career he had only advocated for the study of Roman precedents, Viollet-le-Duc later embraces the Greek which aligned more closely with his and French Hellenists’ idea that “everything in architecture had to be submitted to reason, ‘not to the dry and pedantic reason of the geometrician, but rather to reason guided by the senses and by the observation of natural laws” (271).

Greek architecture was already known to be strictly mathematical, but the Hellenists now discovered that it was also more attuned to the landscape and more sensitive to aesthetic concerns than Roman architecture was: it “[reflected] an indissoluble union between reason and poetry, with the most exacting application of reason being employed to create the most beautiful example of poetry in architectural art” (268). This discovery redeems architecture as both an art and as a serious calibrated discipline invested in solving pragmatic problems such as that of spatial configuration and circulation.

It is not surprising that this idea appealed to Le Corbusier who was a painter by day and an architect / architectural theorist by night. He was invested in both the poetry of such things as the ribbon window and in architecture’s role in mediating society and literally solving its problems: the last chapter of Vers une Architecture is titled “Architecture or Revolution”.

And so, I would argue, was Palladio. Although there is no real evidence of Palladio’s architecture as being in some way intentionally poetic or political (perhaps Tafuri has written about it, I don’t know), Colin Rowe has drawn a clear formal connection between the ratios of mathematical order in Palladio and in Le Corbusier. Palladio’s Villa Capra is decidedly more Greek than Roman because it was rotated 45 degrees to the cardinal points on the compass. Although many write that this was done so that sunlight could better reach all the rooms, the Villa Capra is situated on a hill and I would argue that, like the Parthenon, the rotation gives it an oblique view and access. It is therefore able to combine the effects of Roman frontality and the Greek relation to the landscape and approach. And it is through looking at Choissy’s work and that of Le Corbusier (and Etlin) that we are able to draw this very striking and non-chronological connection between Capra and the Parthenon.

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