LATELY — 7 March 2009

Palladio at the Royal Academy


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.