Tumult and Order in the Architecture of Palladio

Photo of Rebecca Jagoe
12 July 2017

The Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 to 1580) is a key figure in the history of Western architecture, known for the classically-inspired Villas and Palazzos he created throughout Venice. Yet while his architecture receives much attention, little is known of the personal life of this man; nor is much written on his buildings’ inhabitants. Two books published by Lars Müller, The Private Palladio, and Tumult and Order, Malcontenta 1924-1939, address this omission.

Andrea Palladio needs little introduction. The Italian architect, who lived from 1508 to 1580, remains a key figure in the history of Western architecture, and his name has become synonymous with the ordered, imposing and dignified buildings he created in his lifetime. Palladio’s work is found only in Venice, yet the spread of his influence is global, thanks in large part to his publishing efforts; The Four Books on Architecture is a treatise that still holds sway today. Indeed, so important is the impact of this Italian architect that his name has entered the vernacular, with the adjective ‘Palladian’ determining his characteristic classically-inspired aesthetic.

Thus, it is of no surprise that along with Palladio’s own four books, numerous photographic tomes are available that document his legacy. These books offer the opportunity to appreciate his works outside of Venice, and are a celebration of the professional brilliance of the architect. Yet the coverage of his output is largely limited to its formal properties. Palladian architecture is a style marked by austerity, classical beauty, and symmetry. Nonetheless, they are buildings intended to be lived in. Their mathematical perfection would have to house the messy and dramatic lives of their inhabitants, and little is said on those who have lived in his palazzos or villas, often leading luminaries in their own right. Furthermore, for an architect so renowned, not much is spoken on his own life.

Addressing this imbalance are two books produced by Lars Müller Publishers. The first, The Private Palladio by Guido Beltramini, attempts to uncover his private life, that has previously remained shrouded in mystery and misinformation. The second, Tumult and Order, Malcontenta 1924-1939, focuses upon Villa Foscari (also known as La Malcontenta), which at the beginning of the 20th century lay vacant, only to be happened upon and reinhabited by three curious figures of European society: ‘an aesthete, an ebullient French baroness, and a talented designer’. Both provide a glimpse into the human side of the imposing structures, from two markedly different perspectives.

The small size of The Private Palladio may come as some surprise, given the word ‘Palladian’ connotes grandeur. Yet its modest scale reflects how little is known about his private life. Whilst the book is an attempt to uncover some truths and weave an accurate chronology of the life of Palladio, it is as much a catalogue of the errors and deceptions that have marred previous attempts to chart his personal history. It opens with the statement of a boatman claiming to be the neighbour of the family of Palladio (real name della Gondola; Palladio was a title the architect would assume early in his career). It seems to demystify the unknown location of Palladio’s birth, yet this statement, as Beltramini then states, is entirely false; one of many attempts to claim him as a native of either Padua or Vicenza. The book continues weaving a fascinating path through records, registers and personal accounts to piece together something of a biography of the great man.

One of the most interesting parts of the book comes in the latter half, when Beltramini seeks to discover a true image of Palladio. Several paintings have been falsely credited as being his portrait, and it is only one – a painting by El Greco – that remains a strong candidate for the role, yet it remains unconfirmed. It is not all a case of unsolved mysteries though, and several moments provide insight into his private thoughts and relationships. Most notably, after the death of one of his sons, a letter to the superintendents of a construction site reads:

‘…having lost my eldest son in such a fashion that I find myself so hindered and troubled both in soul and body, all the more so for having not yet been able to bury him, that I find neither the time nor the way to be able to do anything’

It is a poignant reminder that even such mathematical perfection has a human origin.

The second book, Tumult and Order, Malcontenta 1924-1939, provides a history of La Malcontenta in the 20th century, focusing on the heady period between the two world wars. It was then owned by Bertie Landsberg, a fascinating and slightly eccentric character. Along with his friend and mentor Paul Rodocanachi, and another companion Catherine (Baroness d’Erlanger), he sought to reclaim the palazzo from its state of disrepair, using unique and original criteria for its restoration.

Landsberg’s restoration was not founded on the idea of making the villa new again. Instead it was focused on preserving the aura around building. This notion conjures memories of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, when Gloria says, ‘Would you value your Keats letter if the signature was traced over to make it last longer? It’s just because I love the past that I want this house to look back on its glamorous moment of youth and beauty, and I want its stairs to creak as if to the footsteps of women with hoop skirts and men in boots and spurs.’ Landsberg believed that in his restoration of La Malcontenta he should respect its varied history and decline. He did not want to reinstate it to its former glory, and in so doing pretend that nothing had ever happened: rather, he sought to sympathetically adhere to the values of its architect and create a tribute to the man and the building, and its own troubled story.

This ambitious project, assisted and watched over by Rodocanachi, was carried out on an extremely limited budget, and Tumult and Order covers the various obstacles and pitfalls the two encountered along the way. Further, the ongoing work on the villa provides the skeleton structure upon which the main content of book is built: the various friends and acquaintances, events and parties that Bertie surrounds himself with. Cecil Beaton pops up more than once, as does Coco Chanel, Marquess Luisa Casati, and Le Corbusier, among many others. In certain anecdotes, the relationships and politics of this broad and fashionable group are illuminated to fascinating effect; for example, one learns of Diaghilev’s jealousy of Cole Porter, and Peggy Guggenheim’s letters seeking to purchase Villa Foscari are reprinted facsimile.

Tumult and Order is written by Antonio Foscari, who is – as the name would suggest – a descendant of the Foscari brothers, who commissioned the original building. In 1974 Foscari purchased Villa Foscari, and the post scriptum of the book takes the reader up to the point of him assuming its ownership. The author, then, has a clear personal investment in Palladio’s masterpiece, and the book reads both as a love-letter to the villa, and to this pre-war era of avant-garde intellectuals. Both books, whilst respecting the austerity of Palladio’s output, offer a humanistic slant on his works. Should you wish to educate yourself on the architecture of Palladio, yes, the ubiquitous photographic tomes are a good starting point, but these two books provide a unique alternative.

1. Villa Foscari, north façade, 1926 (photo: Oswald Boehm)

2. Tumult and Order, Malcontenta 1924-1939; The Private Palladio

3. Paul Rodocanachi, general plan of the garden of La Malcontenta, 1926

4. Bertie Landsberg at La Malcontenta in the winter of 1929

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