Palladio at the Royal Academy

7 March 2009

Last week I went to see the Palladio Ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal Academy. It hasn’t re­ceived very good reviews, and I have no reason to dis­agree with the reviewers, but one of the things that bugged me about it though was some­thing I’ve not seen men­tioned in the reviews: the really poor writing and explanations. I would say most recent ex­hi­bi­tions have disappointed. (One happy ex­cep­tion was Olafur’s Eliasson’s artist state­ment at the be­gin­ning of the boat tour of his NYC Waterfalls project–I don’t re­mem­ber the details of what he said, but he managed to convey a whole lot of why and how (including a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for why public money should be spent on the project) as well as deepen my ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what he’d done and the art itself.)

Anyway, here’s the com­plete text of one panel from the Pal­la­dio ex­hi­bi­tion (Palazzo Chiericati, 1550), in­ter­spersed with some comments:

In 1546 Giro­lamo Chier­i­cati in­her­ited a few old houses on a narrow site on the west side of the Piazza dell’Isola, in the east of Vicenza. The open area, which was bounded on two sides by rivers, ac­com­mo­dated the city’s river port and its cattle and timber markets. Having ad­vo­cated Pal­la­dio as the ar­chi­tect for the Basilica, in 1550 Chier­i­cati com­mis­sioned him to build a new palazzo on the land.

What do you mean “accommodated the city’s river port and its cattle and timber markets”? “Accommodate” means “to hold without crowd­ing or inconvenience.” (At least I think this is the way “accommodate” is being used.) And it’s typ­i­cally applied to animate things, or at least things that can move. You can ac­co­mo­date (some number of) guests or ships; you don’t ac­co­mo­date single things that can’t move, like a port or a market.

Palladio’s design made a virtue of an unpromising, se­verely con­strained site, and he even­tu­ally de­liv­ered a build­ing that demon­strated that he had reached full maturity.

The “eventually” is unnecessary, as well as being in­ac­cu­rate since, as de­scribed below, the build­ing wasn’t com­plete until over one hundred years after con­struc­tion commenced–well after Palladio’s death. And in what was did the build­ing demon­strate that Pal­la­dio had “reached full maturity”? How about just one example of his maturity, or ev­i­dence that this is a widely held belief?

In order to gain ad­di­tional res­i­den­tial space, Chier­i­cati petioned the city council for per­mis­sion to use a strip of land 4.64 metres wide in front of the site, for the portico of his new building.

Irrelevant! I don’t care that Chiericati’s ma­noeu­vring opened up more space at the front of the building. The his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance of the build­ing has nothing to do with plan­ning permission.

On the piano nobile (first floor), ad­di­tional space was gained for the grand sala, which was flanked by two loggias; while on the ground floor, a public fa­cil­ity was provided, a colon­naded walkway opening onto the piazza.

Where did this “additonal space” come from? Is it some­thing to do with the portico? How is walkway a “public facility” and what does this mean anyway? (Especially poor punc­tu­a­tion in this sentence, as well.)

The double-order loggia topped with a row of statues, derived in part from re­cently pub­lished re­con­struc­tions of the Roman Forum, com­bined with the pro­ject­ing sala on the piano nobile, con­firmed the design of the palazzo as en­tirely innovative, and demon­strated Palladio’s knowl­edge of ancient Roman pro­to­types and his recog­ni­tion of the im­por­tance of the new urban palazzo.

What a bad sentence. What was “derived in part”? The statues themselves? The idea for a “double-order loggia topped with a row of statues”? The “confirm” in “confirmed the design of the palazzo…” is wrong-headed. In this sense, “confirm” means to remove doubt about some­thing be­lieved or sus­pected to be true–but in this case there is no doubt, no theory. If this par­tic­u­lar feature is innovative, say that! Finally, I don’t see how this feature pro­vides any ev­i­dence for or against Pal­la­dio recog­nis­ing the “importance of the new urban palazzo.”

With its view from the first floor of the loggia to the coun­try­side beyond, Palazzo Chier­i­cati also made ref­er­ence to the sub­ur­ban villa, which Pal­la­dio was later to address at the Villa Foscari (‘La Malcontenta’) on the Brenta and the Villa Almerico Capra (Villa Rotonda) outside Vicenza.

Really awkward. Pal­la­dio “made ref­er­ence to the sub­ur­ban villa” with a view to the countryside? Huh? And what is Pal­la­dio addressing, exactly? You can only address an issue or problem, which a house isn’t.

Giro­lamo Chri­er­i­cati died in 1558. His son, Valerio, chose to halt con­struc­tion with only the first four bays on the left of the struc­ture built. The palazzo re­mained un­fin­ished for over a century but it was pub­lished as com­plete in the Quattro Libri, leading sub­se­quent stu­dents of Palladio’s work, such as Inigo Jones, to be shocked to find it un­re­alised when they visited.

“Subsequent” is unnecessary. Saying “published as complete” either wrong, or too casual for aca­d­e­mic writing: books are published, palaz­zos (the ref­er­ent of “it”) aren’t. What’s wrong with “described as complete”, or “listed as complete”? Finally, if the build­ing is so great, why wasn’t it completed? Maybe lack of money is the reason, but there could be other–and some­what in­ter­est­ing reasons.