From national parliaments to the countryside piles of dodgy tycoons, the stately architectural language of colonnaded porticoes and swag-laden pediments, ubiquitous around the world, can be traced back to one man: the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.
His unparalleled influence on the built environment over the past 400 years has been put under the spotlight in a compelling exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, which charts his immutable presence across cultures and continents.
The proliferation of Palladianism can be traced back to two books, which both celebrate their 300th anniversary this year: Giacomo Leoni’s English translation of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture, first published in 1570), and Colen Campbell’s 1715 survey of English architecture, Vitruvius Britannicus.
“They paved the way for a flood of pattern books,” says curator Charles Hind, “a deluge that diluted Palladio’s ideas somewhat, but that made it universal. His ideas of proportion and symmetry trickled down into the fundamental DNA of the building trade.”
The seminal villas Palladio built around his native Vicenza in the 1500s (synthesised from his own reading of Roman temples) may not have been seen by many architects of the day first-hand, but they were the basis of a style that would dominate for centuries – all due to these books.
Among the many drawings and models on show, one particularly revealing document is the subscriber list from the second edition of the Four Books, hastily printed in 1721 due to hot demand. While the first edition attracted such architectural worthies as Wren, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor and Gibbs, as well as distinguished earls and lords, the buyers for the second edition shows how far Palladio fever had spread down the ranks. It includes masons, carpenters, joiners, plasterers and bricklayers, all eager to pick up on the latest trend and get the Palladian know-how.