- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

By Witold Rybczynski
Scribner, $24, 266 pgaes,illus.

Witold Rybczynski turns his attention to the great and influential architect Andrea Palladio in "The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Architect Andrea Palladio." The 16th century Italian architect, who adopted antique Roman motifs and Classical orders expressed with a dash of local vernacular, became the first of his time to focus his considerable talents on residential projects. He also wrote "I quattri libre di architettura", ("The Four Books of Architecture"), a treatise that has influenced architects from Inigo Jones to Thomas Jefferson to Michael Graves and, indirectly, stills shapes our opinion about architecture and beauty. It's Palladio we have to thank for every pedimented entry and porticoed porch popping up on McMansions near you.
Author of "Home" and "A Clearing in the Distance," Mr. Rybczynski brings the same accessible and anecdotal style to this survey of Palladio's villas. The result is a book that is informative, with enough architectural criticism to satisfy knowledgeable readers. It is not as rich as the 1986 Philip Trager homage, which included essays by famed historian Vincent Scully and architect Michael Graves, but what it lacks in images it makes up for with an enthusiasm for its subject that is contagious.
The man we have come to know as Palladio was born Andrea di Pietro, in Padua in the year 1508. Thirteen- year-old Andrea, following in his father's footsteps, was apprenticed to a mason, Bartolomeo Cavazza, who specialized in architectural ornament. After serving three years of his apprenticeship, Andrea's family moved to Vicenza where, after some bickering over his commitments to Cavazza back in Padua, Andrea continued his apprenticeship at the Contra Pedemuro, a prominent stone carving workshop.
This seems to have provided a healthy background in construction for the young Andrea, who learned how to form door lintels, columns and portals, as well as experiencing first hand how buildings were put together.
Giovanni da Porlezza, co-owner of the workshop, often had to act as surrogate architect of building projects, since there were no formal architects in Vicenza at the time. Recognizing Andrea's talent, Porlezza began to have the youth assist him.
The story goes that out on a job, young Andrea caught the eye of client Count Giangiorgia Trissino, who took a shine to the ambitious young man, and began to groom him to become an architect. Trissino introduced Andrea to the writing of Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect. (Vitruvius' "Ten Books of Architecture," a treatise outlining ideals of order and proportion, was the pattern book for architects of the time.) It was also Trissino who catapulted Andrea into the academic and social circles that enabled him to transform himself into Andrea Palladio, architect; Palladio coming from the Latin palladius, derived from the goddess Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Palladio remains known today partly because of his talent and partly because of his own treatise, referred to simply as "I quattri libri." At a time when there was little formal training in an evolving field, he provided a means of analyzing and understanding the ineffable ideals of order, scale and proportion that are still the standard today.
There is something comforting, if potentially dangerous, in believing that beauty can be reduced, in part, to formulas of scale, modules and proportions. In the wrong hands it creates a false confidence. But Palladio laid these ideas out for others to study and follow, while perfecting them through his own accomplished works.
Mr. Rybczynski's format is to devote a chapter to each of 10 extant Palladian villas scattered about the Veneto. The visits are mixed with first-person musings; architectural criticism; local and architectural history; all infused with an obvious admiration and enjoyment for and of his subject.
"Palladio's architecture"' writes Mr. Rybczynski, "is a combination of mathematics, especially geometry, scale, and proportion. At the same time, a Palladio villa is not a theorem, or a poem or a painting it's a building. It is beautiful but practical, too. It is not an abstract creation; it is made of specific materials: smooth reddish "battuto" on the floor, scribed "intonaco" on the exterior … Perhaps that is Palladio's real secret: his equilibrium, his sweet sense of harmony.
"He pleases the mind as well as the eye. His sturdy houses, rooted in their sites, radiate order and balance, which makes them both of this world and otherworldly. Although they take us out of ourselves, they never let us forget who and what we are. They really are perfect."
And Mr. Rybczynski's "The Perfect House" reads like an engaging stroll through the Veneto with a knowledgeable friend, enjoying these perfect houses created by a master.

Ellen Sands is an architectural designer and critic.

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