Squaring the circle

The Villa Capra “La Rotonda”, near Vicenza, is probably the most influential house ever built. Its portico, its dome, its symmetry and its wonderful square plan centred around the domed rotunda that gives it its name have inspired houses across the world since it was completed at the end of the 16th century.

Its architect was Andrea Palladio (1508-80), whose influence was spread not solely through the buildings he completed around Venice and the Veneto (including the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice) but through the publication of his Four Books of Architecture (1570), which remained the standard book on how to do architecture with taste for centuries after.

Palladio’s genius was in his revivals of – and particular combinations of – the elements of architecture. Others before him – Alberti, Bramante, Michelangelo and their competitors – had laid down the rules of classical architecture and revelled in breaking them again but it was Palladio who recodified the art of building during the sculptural excesses of mannerism (and before the even wilder excesses of the baroque to come). The Villa Rotonda achieves its perfection because of its cocktail of antique elements. Houses used to have big thick walls but Palladio saw that something more was needed to signify the entrance. He imported the portico from Roman temple architecture, notably that of the Parthenon, domesticating a symbol of sacrality. The columns and pediment and the stairs that led up to them that once signified the sacred were adopted as a grand entrance.

But he didn’t stop there. This was to be a building with not one grand entrance but four. To begin to explain why this might have been thought necessary is to begin to delve into the ideas of humanism that were fashionable in the 16th century and that Palladio attempted to express in built form. One principal tenet was that of a perfectly ordered, mechanistic universe in which everything existed in symmetry and perfection – an idea of “as above, so below”. Earth was seen as a paler neo-Platonic reflection of heaven that could intimate, but not imitate, the nature of paradise above.

The dome of the central hall of the Villa Rotonda

If we think of the classical universal man (or “Vitruvian Man”, after the Roman architect) inscribed in a circle and a square by Leonardo da Vinci or Francesco de Giorgio, or of the perfect tripartite composition of Raphael’s “Crucifixion”, which hangs in the National Gallery, we might get some idea of the importance of the idea of overlaying geometric order on to art. The Villa Rotonda displays a perfect symmetry not just in two directions but in four and, like the Leonardo drawing, its architecture is about the reconciliation of the most perfect of shapes, the circle and the square. The circle was taken to represent God and perfection, and Renaissance architects examining Roman temples found that not only the Pantheon but the Temple of Vesta reaffirmed their belief in its ascendancy as an architectural representation of perfection. The square, meanwhile, represented earth but also the act of building. The circle is implied from the outside by the dome above the rotunda, although this is not quite as hemispherical as Palladio had wanted it. Vincenzo Scamozzi, another brilliant architect who was his successor on the job after his death, changed its shape. On entering the portico (pick a portico, any portico), the visitor is squeezed through a tight passage and then emerges blinking into the extraordinary central space with richly ornamented – though it transpires almost entirely trompe l’oeil – decorations. Even this – it seems to say – can only be a two-dimensional manifestation of the real thing. It is this entry and emergence into the circular centre that is everything. This is a building for show, for spectacle.

A 19th-century painting of Monticello (artist unknown)

But it was, nevertheless, a villa and it was a proper house. It is interesting to compare it with one of its successors, Chiswick House (1729) in London, which was more of a garden pavilion, a small house that is all entrance and no interior; almost as soon as you enter you feel you’re out the other side again. Chiswick House was designed by Lord Burlington and his architect William Kent. Burlington (who also built the house that is now London’s Royal Academy) was an avid Palladio enthusiast and bought up the Venetian architect’s drawings, which remain in London at the Royal Institute of British Architects. His interest helped to prolong Palladio’s time in the sun for another couple of centuries and one other architect manqué in particular had been impressed.

Thomas Jefferson took a keen interest in architecture and when he came to build his house in Monticello, Virginia, in 1768 he naturally turned to the humanist architecture of Palladio to express the liberty and spirit of the Enlightenment. That the house was the centre of a huge plantation worked by about 150 slaves who helped make Jefferson’s fortune was not allowed to impinge on its architectural espousal of Enlightenment American values and his keen abolitionism. It means the house, with its nearby slave quarters, is tainted by association.

Thomas Jefferson at Monticello

From without, the influence of Palladio is clear: the portico, the dome, how it sits in the landscape, even its Italianate name. Monticello is brick rather than stone and is less lavish but it belongs firmly in the same family as the Villa Rotonda and Chiswick House. Inside, however, there are some curious things going on. Firstly, Jefferson was none too keen on furniture, which he considered clutter, so his dining table was collapsible and was dismantled outside mealtimes. Beds, too, were considered a waste of space so he had them built into specially designed alcoves. But he saved his most extraordinary design for himself. His bed was positioned in an opening in the wall connecting his bedroom and study. It looks like it got stuck in a doorway. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Presumably it allowed him to wake up in the study or the dressing room as required and certainly it didn’t take up much space.

So impressed was Jefferson with Palladio’s masterpiece that when an architectural competition was launched in 1792 to design a new house for the US president, he anonymously submitted a design that was effectively a replica of the Villa Rotonda, one more authentic than the original as it was based on Palladio’s original designs rather than Scamozzi’s interpretation. Jefferson signed the drawings “AZ”. A decade later he would move into a newly completed White House (designed by the winning architect, James Hoban) as the US’s third president. The White House, at least, has a classical portico inspired by the Villa Rotonda.

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