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Andrea Palladio

31 January - 13 April 2009
Royal Academy

The Church of San Giorgio MaggiorePalladianism? Worse, Neo-Palladianism? Isn't this just the stuff of dry-as-dust academics wedged in the past? Such questions are abundantly answered in this ravishing exhibition.

In the 1530s, Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, as he was then, became a pupil of Trissino of Vicenza, a humanist scholar who named him Palladio after one of his own fictional characters. Trissino took Palladio to Rome where he studied the ancient ruins, bonding with them to forge his own style. Trissino guided him in studying Vitruvius, the first-century engineer whose book De Architectura laid down the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian classical orders, stating that buildings should be strong, useful and beautiful. Palladio's own work encapsulated 'Vitruvian man': the idea that architecture should echo the proportions of the human body.

Palladio's new, classically-inspired architecture was sought for civic buildings in Vicenza such as the Palazzo Chiericati and the Basilica. But the creation for which he is celebrated the world over is the Palladian villa. In the more peaceful times after 1517, rich landowners around Venice wanted the prestige of private projects, and state assistance allowed the building of unfortified farm-houses. It was a ready-made market for Palladio, whose studies made him believe that while architecture should be based on rational principles, it should be humanly and emotionally pleasing, and improve the quality of life. He also wanted to democratise it, making farm buildings, barns and dovecotes part of a unified design. Palladio tried to keep his customers satisfied but stuck to his own agenda, to achieve a uniquely human, feelgood architecture: in the words of a much later admirer, Le Corbusier: 'a machine for living in'.

His attention to clients' needs was not superficial. As the curator Howard Burns says, 'Monumental effects at low cost was one of Palladio's preoccupations'. He'd have gone down well in the credit crunch. Those tall, cool columns which adorn every Palladian portico are deceptive. Constructed from wedge-shaped bricks and rendered with plaster made from marble-dust, they look for all the world like stone.

On Trissimo's death, Palladio got his first church commissions. Faced with the challenge of marrying classical inspiration and ecclesiastical tradition, Palladio came up with two of the most iconic buildings in Europe: the Cassinese Benedictine refectory at San Maggiore and its church, San Giorgio Maggiore; and the Church of the Redentore - both on the Venice lagoon, both immortalised by Canaletto. In 1565-66 Palladio completed the Villa Rotonda. This house is an exercise in pure form - the cube and the sphere. Its sober but splendid porticoes have entered the DNA of architecture, especially in Britain. Part of Palladio's immense influence is due to his publication, in 1570, of the most accessible architecture book ever, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). Disciples who have pored over it include Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington (in whose Neo-Palladian creation, Burlington House, this exhibition takes place), to Thomas Jefferson and Catherine the Great.

The exhibition is rich in artefacts, from the exquisite, sepia-tinted Palladio originals to such treasures as Inigo Jones's personal copy of I Quattro Libri, lovingly adorned with his own drawings. But my own favourite is a small, coin, stamped with an image of the Temple of Concord in Rome and labelled 'Sestertius of Tiberius Mint of Rome AD36-38' Great as is my admiration for Palladio, the most admirable and most thoroughgoing of Renaissance humanists, it could not compete with the excitement of realising that I was seeing a coin which Jesus himself could almost have handled.

Pat Harvey