May 03: Palladio is Boring. There, I Said It.

2016/05/03 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1577 the cornerstone of Il Redentore was laid.

The church is one of the two biggies that Palladio built in Venice along one of the canals (they keep changing names, so who can really keep track).  And, you know, it’s Palladio, so we’re meant to be excited, and reverent, but if you are expecting panegyric praises, please read some other blog.  Heaven knows there are plenty of folks out there sobbing over themselves to find some new way to express Il Palladio’s greatness.  Frankly, we’ve never been touched by it.  And especially in Venice, it falls as flat as a cheek block.

Don’t be angry; we’re not haters.  Palladio was definitely skilled with proportion and ornament, could handle a chisel as well as he could handle a pencil and we respect that.  He was also good with the maths.  And he certainly must have had some sort of personal charm to attract a patron as fabulous as Trissino, and architects should know, that’s like 85% of the challenge to being great: having a great person pay the bills.

BUT we find Palladio’s stolid Classicism just, well, boring.  The Muse loves her some Renaissance–be it the flat, simple, Florentine manner of Brunelleschi, the fuller Roman mode of maestro Bramante, or the wacked-out ragùs served up by Michelangelo.  But Palladio just sort of weighs down the middle of the Renaissance (sort of like the big gangly bird), super-accomplished but overwhelmingly predictable.  Only once in a while is there something unexpectedly cool and fun in a detail; certainly when he hired a great fresco painter the interiors could be downright lively.  But then there’s the rest of it: blurg, yawn, snore.

Those are all villas, of course, and it’s worth considering the distinction, since when he wasn’t in the country house rut, he was better.  Palladio is best where he was forced into creativity by unusual situations or functions–thus the coolness of the Teatro OlimpicoPalazzo Chiericati and the Basilica in Vicenza, each of which takes the tradition to interesting new places and makes us say: Oh, Classicism!!! (rather than: oh.  classicism.).

The other stuff, chiese & ville del boilerplato, only stand out when they have no competition: the big lumpy Villa Rotonda can lord over its terrain because the landscape can’t really put up a fight.  What else are you going to look at?  But in Venice, well: that is a feast for the eyes, as they say.  Layer upon layer of addition and deletion, building up, scraping down, in brilliant warm stucco and brick, tarnished metal and well-worn stone, patina upon patina, illuminated by the brilliant sun, dappled by the reflection from the ever-present water, cast into deep shadow by heavy overhangs and the narrow dimensions of tight alleys.  It’s all visually dazzling, intellectually challenging, overwhelmingly charming, confusing–even downright absurd, that this watery location was selected for a city in the first place, and more and more people keep coming to visit it over and over again (people living there are another story).  Against this completely unique and incredibly diverse visual experience in the world, the overwhelming regularity of a Palladian church does not stand out; it gets drowned out.  Palladio’s good proportions and a simple language are but a whisper within the glorious cacophony of Venice.

Poor Palladio.  Really, a Muse can’t help but feel a little sad about being bored by such a faithful suitor.  But maybe that’s his problem.  Clio can’t help but enjoy that thrill of hanging out with the bad boys–she’s just a girl looking for fun, after all.

Image: sneaking around, somewhere in Venice, with Palladio nowhere in sight (Clio’s)


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You are currently reading May 03: Palladio is Boring. There, I Said It. at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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