Monday, February 9, 2009

Lost in wonder at Palladio at the RA

The Royal Academy’s exhibition celebrating 500 years since the great Italian’s birth is a must-see

By Robert Adam
30 January 2009
Andrea Palladio: His Life And Legacy
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1
January 31-April 13

At the new Palladio exhibition at the Royal Academy, the last small room is labelled “The Mind of the Architect”. This should be the title for the whole show. Here, the hand of the great man on drawing after drawing, sketch after sketch, reveals his soul. The chance to see this collection of drawings and models should not be missed by any architect.

As we look at more and more computer-rendered images today, we lose that vital link between the creative mind of the architect and the finished building that only a hand drawing can deliver. This collection of Palladio’s drawings, many from the RIBA’s incredible collection, is like a beam of sunlight entering a dark chamber of modernity lit only by solitary screens.

Among the collection are the fine rendered drawings for presentation that display the draftsmanship of Palladio, his assistants and other, later architects. But it is the pages from sketchbooks, the muddled combinations of images and the rough notes that take us much deeper.

As a designer, I find it refreshing to see the 17 quickly sketched versions of the plan for the house of Camillo Volpe in Vicenza, each one a minor variation of the other. This is not the cool proportional mathematician of legend who has fooled so many later architects into thinking that a magical combination of proportions delivers greatness; this is the real and fallible designer struggling for the right answer.

You will see Palladio’s enrolment in the Guild of Stonemasons in Vicenza in 1524 next to drawings by architects he admired and portraits of his patrons. Among his drawings is a slightly off-perspective rough sketch of the Arch of Jupiter Ammon in Verona with a measured detail of the cornice. Designs of the City Hall in Brescia are on the same sheet as a casual sketch of Palladio’s left hand, presumably drawn in an idle moment. A letter has designs for a palace and an arch, alongside a series of plans for a terrace of humble dwellings in an uneven city centre site.

This is a working architect engaged on small and practical projects while lost in admiration for the remains of the ancient world all around him. His fascination with classical decoration is shown by the way he abbreviates classical detailing — something all classical architects have to do as they design. While the cornices, architraves and bases are just roughed in on the corners, each identical capital is lovingly drawn.

Drawings are ranged around the edge of the galleries in a cool display of mixed frames of different sizes and little white card models interspersed with occasional contextual paintings and objects. To get to look closely at these images — and look closely you must — you have to pass by a splendid series of large wooden cutaway models of his buildings. This series, started only in 1971 by Franco Albini in Vicenza, has the character of antique models and is a delight.

Eric Parry, who designed the exhibition, has created what he tells me is the “fast lane” through the centre of the show, going past these models. You can stroll through the models and objects on the tables before peeling off to peer at the evenly lit details of drawings and pictures on easel-like panels.

Parry has created a theme for each of the three main galleries. They’re in a chronological sequence, and each tells a different story. The first is brilliantly lit and the walls above have simplified paintings depicting fragments of ruins set against a blue sky.

The second is quite different, with an abstract, deep red striped background taken from a sciagraphic projection of a skewed section through the wall of the famous Venetian Church of the Redentore, which is displayed in model form in the centre of the room.

The third room is “about theatre”. At the exit, occupying nearly the whole wall, is an abstracted, bottom-lit rendition of the frons scenae of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, designed by Parry and painted by his nephew, a set painter. A clever idea — a theatre set turned into a theatre set. The gallery design has little enough of Parry not to spoil the show and just enough to be interesting.

The fourth room is small and plain, and has a card by the door identifying it as “The Mind of the Architect”. Its contents are a delight, but that’s where we came in.