Palladio the Erroneous

Student measuring the Temple of Castor and Pollux (detail), in Rome, by Henry Parke. (John Soane's Museum, London)

Student measuring the Temple of Castor and Pollux (detail), in Rome, by Henry Parke. (John Soane’s Museum, London)

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.)

Corrected drawing of the Vesta capital by Desgodetz

Corrected drawing of the Vesta capital by Desgodetz

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.

Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728
Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728),
Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728),
Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728),
Antoine Babuty Desgodetz (1653-1728),

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Palladio the Erroneous

  1. C. W. Westfall says:

    Calder perhaps misspoke himself. He tells us this at the end of his piece of Desgodetz and Palladio: “However, if one wants exact reproductions of specific ancient details, Desgodetz is the source to use.” In other words, if you want to be neoclassicist rather than a classicist and get it “right” rather than make it beautifully made, then be accurate and factual in what you reproduce. Desgodetz was an accomplice in the French program of replacing the search for truth with the collection of facts, and his effort was in line with Claude Perrault’s, which dismissed universal beauty with mere custom and taste, the position that allows modernists to do as they wish and name the results satisfactory or wonderful and so on (having excised beauty from their vocabulary). Desgodetz used large, etched plates to publish measurements that the material being measured could not possibly have yielded. They are very impressive. Palladio’s beautiful book uses woodcuts and adheres to Aristotle’s understanding of beauty, which requires judgment to make something beautiful from something factual.

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  2. Nir Buras says:

    Calder’s discussion is of three separate depictions of orders: Roman, Renaissance Italian and Enlightenment (or Romantic) French.

    I wonder whether the real point is at all that of accuracy, because the Roman designers themselves delineated the orders individually and personally to begin with; and that being the fact, the point may be the discourse more than a specific measured facet.

    Having worked directly with Palladio’s orders I can attest that there is a “there” there beyond an idea of canonization or accuracy; and I am sure any practitioner has designed his or her own version of the orders as circumstances dictated.

    The wonderful thing about Palladio and Desgodetz is that they are part of a discourse at the heart of which lie the most precious values and ideas of humanity; and that you and the readers engage in a discourse central to the well-being of humans in the built environment. Thanks for this fun article.

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  3. Rick says:

    Fascinating article and beautiful illustrations. I was admiring some capitals in New York the other day and thinking, again, how odd it was that architects design them, apparently, for themselves, since people can rarely see the details from the street (if indeed they even look up). I used to work in an historical building in Boston and my window looked out right over to the top of another historic building (Boylston and Tremont), where (only) I could see what the architect or designer had originally put on paper. Just as fascinating, I’m sure this is the first time anyone has ever referred to Palladio’s “short hairs”. Good for you, David. Always entertaining.

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