Along with Calder Loth, in his latest essay for the Classicist Blog at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, I mean no disrespect to Andrea Palladio, the 16th Century architect and teacher of classicism. His influence on architecture has been enormous and enormously beautiful, in his own work, in his famous book, in the work of architects who have since drawn inspiration from both, not excluding the classicists of today who struggle to raise architecture from its doldrums.
But according to Loth, drawing from the work of a later, French investigator of the Roman ruins that Palladio drew and from which he was inspired, the great man was not immune to over-hastiness (I imagine) in transcribing the details of Roman classical ornament onto paper. He used assistants to take some of the actual measurements, but the drawings were his, and their occasional inaccuracies are elegantly pinpointed by the young architect Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728). Here is a passage describing the capitals of the Temple of Vesta, quoted by Loth:
Palladio draws the capital quite otherwise than it is; he makes the bottom and top leaves of one height, as they usually are, and puts five olive leaves to each division; he makes the channels of the stalks twisted, ties the volutes together, and puts a small reversed leaf over them; he makes his volutes ascend into the abacus, whereas they touch only the bottom of it, he puts a flower to bear the rose in the middle of the abacus, and makes not the rose as it is [, and] he cuts off the angles of the abacus.
You don’t need to know the definitions of the words he uses to perceive that Desgodetz has an equally sensuous perception of the work both architects are drawing. (A volute is the scroll-like element of some column capitals, or tops, especially the Ionic but in this case the Composite, which mixes the Ionic with the Corinthian; the abacus is the platform upheld by the flowery ornaments of the capital.)
Aside from his beautiful writing, Desgodetz gilds the lily, it seems to me. He has got Palladio by the short hairs, and his illustrations are more precisely detailed, not to mention accurate, than those of Palladio. (I urge readers to click on the Classicist Blog link above to get a better idea of this.) But in the wider scheme of things, does it really matter that Palladio got some details wrong? His work and book inspire beauty to this day in spite of the fact that his drawings of Roman ruins are sometimes inaccurate.
And, indeed, it is difficult to know for sure whether Palladio’s inaccuracies are really mistakes or rather more in the line of being unable to rein in his innate creativity from improving on the Romans – even if he was there to copy them as instructive to his own work. Certainly our reverence for Palladio is not diminished by his mistakes in transcribing Roman classicism.
In fact, I thank Palladio for his mistakes, and I thank Desgodetz for going to such gorgeous lengths to point them out, because without both error and correction we would not have Calder Loth’s beautiful essay on this subject, so easily at hand by the click of a button.