The North Star of Architecture

Andreas Palladio, Die Baumeisterin Pallas, Oder Der in Teutschland entstandene Palladius, translated by Georg Andreas Böckler.

Nuremberg 1698, printed by the Endter publishing house

What do the White House in Washington, the Panthéon in Paris and the Parliament Building in Vienna have in common? They are a symbol of the rule of the people. And the designers of all these buildings chose a style of architecture that pretends to be directly linked to antiquity. However, not to real antiquity but to the image of antiquity created by an architect of the late Renaissance period: Palladio.

We are so used to these buildings that we can hardly imagine a metropolis without domes and temple façades. This essay deals with the architect who started this trend: Andreas Palladio. The MoneyMuseum recently acquired a copy of the first German translation of two of Palladio’s books on architecture written in 1698 from the antiquarian bookshop Müller in Salzburg. This essay examines the importance of the work: its background, the book itself and its legacy.

Probably the best-known work by Palladio: Il Redentore / Venice. Photo: Longs Peak, cc-by 3.0.

Part 1: The Author Palladio or the Background of the Book


Palladio: Humble Beginnings as a Stonemason

Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, known as Palladio today, was born in 1508 as the son of a miller. For about 28 years he led a life befitting his status: his godfather, a sculptor, made sure that his godson was also apprenticed to a sculptor. Sculptor, when we hear that word today, we think of Michelangelo and his David. However, Palladio probably learned other things during his apprenticeship: sculptor was another word for stonemason, a craftsman who learned how to build stone houses from scratch. Houses made of stone were not the rule at the time but rather the exception. Those who had such houses built often wanted their buildings to be decorated with eye-catching ornaments, and making them was also part of a stonemason’s job. They also drafted building plans. And it was stonemasons who designed and built the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. However, during the Renaissance, these craftsmen increasingly lost ground. Theorists began meddling in their business.

The Renaissance saw the emergence of a new understanding of the artist. While painters, musicians and sculptors had previously considered themselves to be craftsmen who completed a precisely defined job for a client in a workshop together with other craftsmen, humanists now admired artistic individuals and their creative spirit. To them, a true artist was not simply a painter, a sculptor or a musician. He was more than that. A true artist was expected to master all the arts. In addition, he was able to converse with the powerful figures of his time in a well-mannered, charming and elegant way and to write scholarly treatises or at least sonnets. High-ranking gentlemen considered themselves secret geniuses and surrounded themselves with artists and true masters of their field.

And then there was this gifted 28-year-old master stonemason from Vicenza, who helped to build the Villa Trissino in Cricoli in 1536. It is quite likely that he was not only muscular and tanned but also rather intelligent. Unfortunately, no depiction of him has survived to this day. But he must have caught the eye of his commissioner, Gian Giorgio Trissino, who was a humanist with excellent connections. (By the way, recent research has shown that humanists also lived the ideal of Athenian male friendship.) Anyway, Trissino had travelled a lot throughout Italy. We can only speculate about what he saw in the young craftsman. He began to foster his skills systematically.

Trissino taught mathematics and music to his stonemason and introduced him to the Latin classics. He also gave him a new name: Palladio. The name derives from the goddess of knowledge and its application: Pallas Athena. The humanist Trissino immortalised this name in his literary work. In his epic “l’Italia liberata dai Goti”, a handsome young man called Palladio appears as a heavenly messenger and the guardian angel of the imperial commander Belisar. Belisar had been sent by the Eastern Roman Emperor, who resided in Constantinople, to expel the Gothic army from Italy. Palladio, too, was given a task in this battle of civilization against barbarism: he was supposed to erect new types of buildings to free Italy from the bad, northern Alpine (i.e. Gothic) taste.

Double page of the commented translation of Vitruvius by Daniele Barbaro from 1567, illustrated by Palladio.

Theoretical Training on the Fly

Trissino opened his library to Palladio. Of course, he introduced him primarily to the books one had to read in order to discuss architecture with humanists. These included, first and foremost, the works of the Roman author Vitruvius. In 1416, Poggio Braccionlini found a complete copy of this work, which was of crucial importance for the Renaissance period, in the monastery library of St Gallen and brought it to Italy– at that time there was no cultural property law.

Vitruvius’ “Ten Books on Architecture” caused a great stir among leading humanists – and sparked a heated debate. The reason was that the work did not contain any illustrations, i.e. anyone who wanted to build like the Romans had needed to figure out for themselves what was actually meant by that. And many people wanted to have buildings in the Roman style, as is demonstrated by the fact that there was a high demand for printed copies of the manuscript. It was first published in 1486 in Rome. By 1521, an Italian translation was available – with illustrations. Of course, the depictions were not reconstructions based on scholarly findings but free interpretations of the Vitruvian rules by the architect Cesare Cesarino. His drawings do not look like Roman buildings to us. We recognise the typical shapes of the Renaissance period in them.

Palladio intensely studied Vitruvius’ work, very intensely. We know this because many of his illustrations were used for the commented translation written in 1556 by another of his patrons, the high-ranking cleric Daniele Barbaro. And this shows that the career of our stonemason had made an incredible step forward in the two decades between 1536 and 1556. After all, an illustrious clergyman of an important noble family collaborated with a former craftsman to publish his book! Although Palladio is not mentioned on the title of this Vitruvius edition he must have had regular contact with Barbaro, who was of a much higher status than him.

Why did all these humanists bothered themselves with a simple stonemason? The answer is simple: Palladio combined two strands of knowledge. He had completed the traditional training of a stonemason and, thanks to Trissino, had studied the theoretical ponderings of the humanists. He was a craftsman and a theorist – and mastered the art of educated conversation. In addition, he made research trips to all known ruins of Roman buildings. Trissino enabled him to do this, both financially and socially – in those days, travelling was only possible if you knew important people who welcomed you to their home.

Palladio explored, drew and measured the buildings of Rome and the ruins of Italy – and also went abroad. We know that he must have known the Maison Carrée in Nimes and the Temple of Augustus in Pula. He returned from his trip a different man. Anyone who wanted to talk to him about Roman architecture met a sophisticated and eloquent man who probably knew the written and archaeological sources better than anyone else – and who, moreover, had experience in the techniques that had been used to construct buildings since Roman times.

Therefore it was no surprise that he won a competition to redesign a central public building when he returned to his home town of Vincenza. That was in 1549. The building made him famous right away. It opened the hearts and the wallets of all the builders who lived in Venice, which was just a two days’ journey away. And many rich people in Venice were in desperate need of an innovative architect.

Villa Barbaro in Maser, construction work started around 1557. Photo: Wikipedia.

Farms for the Rich and Famous

Remember: Vasco da Gama had discovered the sea route to India in 1499; from then on, the trade routes began to change slowly but inevitably. The Mediterranean lost importance in long-distance trade in favour of the Atlantic, and this meant that the Venetian upper class had to find a new business model.

Most of them had invested in estates on the Terraferma, the mainland, at some point in their family’s history. From then on, these fields and vineyards, pastures and fish ponds suddenly assumed an actual economic function. When run professionally, the estates provided surpluses that could be sold to the surrounding cities of Northern Italy with a lot of profit. However, this often required the owner to be there regularly. But the rich and famous did not want to live in a run-down farm. They needed mansions, i.e. villas just like those the Romans had in the middle of their farms. Such a villa had to be beautiful, comfortable and prestigious. Palladio earned the reputation of being able to create exactly such buildings. He became the architect of these noble farms, which are known today as Brenta Villas and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Palladio became rich by doing so.

Despite the art historical importance of his buildings, we must not forget that Palladio made a living by creating them. He was a service provider, and customer-oriented. And the builders of Venice and Vicenza, who were in love with antiquity, probably loved him too: an excellent craftsman who, as an educated humanist, was almost on a par with them. The key word here is humanist, this group of intellectuals was of such high social status that they could pretend their intellectual wealth to be equal to the material wealth of their patrons. (Which, of course, was not true at all, but they all found the idea to be way too charming to say something against it.)

Thus it was a matter of image for Palladio to write and publish educated writings like fellow humanists. They gave him access to patrons that he would have never had as a simple stonemason.

In 1568 Vasari wrote about him in the biography of Jacopo Sansovino: “Among all the citizens of Vicenza, the architect Andrea Palladio deserves the highest praise as he is a man of unique talent and unparalleled judgement. This can be seen in many works he created in his home town and elsewhere [….], and if one wanted to give a detailed account of his beautiful and curious inventions and his unusual ideas, it would be an extremely lengthy story. And since a work by Palladio will soon be published […] I will say nothing further about him as this will be enough to make him known as the outstanding architect everyone who sees his beautiful works knows he is.”

The Four Books on Architecture by Andrea Palladio

In fact, at the time Vasari wrote about him, Palladio had already been working for many years on his opus magnum, which was to be the crown jewel of his extensive publication activities. Anyone who sees all the copper engravings will quickly understand that it must have taken decades to collect all the material.

It is remarkable and typical of the Renaissance period that Palladio positions himself in his book as an heir to antiquity and shows at the same time that he is capable of creating better buildings than his ancient predecessors. After all, the Renaissance was not the rebirth of antiquity but about the application of ancient knowledge to modern issues. Thus, Palladio’s “farms” were called “villas” like their Roman models, the Latin word for village, town, official house and country house. In late antiquity, these buildings were used by the communities of self-sufficient villages located around the main house of the owner and patron. But despite their name, Palladio turned the Roman villa into something completely new, a building from which our modern mansions, stand-alone single-family homes, evolved.

Palladio’s work was published in 1570, and there was probably a very practical reason for this: 84-year-old Jacopo Sansovino was dying in 1570. He had been commissioned to erect the public buildings in Venice for decades. Who was to be his successor? Palladio had to position himself. Perhaps he did this by means of the book published in Venice, which showed off his most beautiful works. And, indeed, when the procurators had to decide who was to receive the commission to construct the “Il Redentore” church in 1577, they chose Palladio.

We do not have to deal with Palladio’s buildings in detail here, after all this is not meant to be an art historical treatise. It is much more important to mention that Palladio’s books on architecture became a huge international success. They were not only bestsellers, but also longsellers – at home and abroad: in 1581, 1601, 1616 and 1642 new editions in Italian were published. In 1625 the first book was translated into Spanish, in 1646 all books were translated into Dutch and in 1650 into French. And these are just some of the early translations…

The MoneyMuseum was recently able to acquire the first German translation of Palladio’s work, which was published in 1698, i.e. well more than a century after Palladio’s death.

Georg Andreas Böckler, an architect and the translator of Palladio’s work.

Part 2: The Book


Germany around 1700

When this book came fresh off the printing press, the 30 Years’ War had ended exactly half a century ago. German cities, principalities and abbeys had recovered from their economic and personnel losses. They had regained prosperity, and were happy to show that by means of magnificent buildings. In other words: architects were in high demand. One of them was Georg Andreas Böckler, who wrote the translation of the first two volumes of Palladio’s work.

Georg Andreas Böckler was the son of a Protestant pastor, not just any Protestant pastor. Old Böckler was the last Protestant pastor in Cronheim, Franconia, before the town reverted to the bishop of Eichstätt in 1661. This meant that everyone who wanted to stay in Cronheim had to change their denomination and Pastor Böckler lost his job. Therefore, it was no surprise that Georg Andreas Böckler was strictly Protestant and rejected all sorts of Catholic pomp. He sought and found his clients exclusively in the Protestant sphere. Böckler was master builder for the (Protestant) Duke of Württemberg and worked in (Reformed) Brandenburg-Ansbach.

Why does the religious affiliation of an architect matter to us? The answer is simple: for the self-representation of a prince, it was of crucial importance whether his palace imitated the Baroque splendour of the (Catholic) Habsburgs and the (Catholic) Bourbons or whether it made use of other alternatives to contrast their style. And Palladio was such an alternative.

Therefore Böckler probably expected the translation of Palladio’s work to be a profitable business, and the publishing house of the Endter family in Nuremberg thought the same. Their products were targeted at Protestant readers. The so-called Elector Bible was the bestseller of the Endter publishing house. It was an edition of the Luther Bible that could be embellished with numerous copper engravings on the history of the Reformation. The Elector Bible is a wonderful example of how customer-oriented the publishing house was: the more a buyer wanted to invest, the more illustrations and maps he could add to the volume. Many of these illustrations did not deal with biblical events but with the glorification of Protestant history.

Briefly said: the Endter family knew exactly what their customers wanted. We can be sure that they would not have published the translation of Palladio’s work if they had not expected it to be successful in the market they dominated.

The Frontispiece: Instead of an Introduction

The German translation of Palladio’s major work is preceded by a frontispiece which – unlike it is usually the case – explains a poem. Our interpretation follows the structure of this poem.

The female personification of architecture is at the centre of the depiction. As queen of the arts, she wears a mural crown and holds the most important tools of an architect in her hand as attributes: a pair of compasses and a plumb line. She wears golden chains, which illustrates that architecture is not only about artistic but also about economic aspects. These chains were given to capable architects by their clients to reward them for their skilful work.

The robe of architecture is decorated with eyes and ears – the beauty of the building speaks for itself, and the architect should not listen to what people say. Her belt is embroidered with many numbers. The poem explains their meaning: Der Gürtel, der sie schützt, mit Zahlen wohl beschlagen, heißt Arithmetica, die alles überschlägt, was Auf- und Abgang sei, ob man auch könnt ertragen die Kosten, die ein Bau auf seinem Rücken trägt.
[Numbers adorn the belt that protects her, called Arithmetica. It calculates any expense may it be planned or unforeseen, so that she may determine whether one can bear the cost of a building.]
This means: clever architects used arithmetic to calculate whether a builder was able to afford his project – a question that should be of essential importance for every construction project to this day.

Every detail of the depiction has a meaning: the skirt of architecture represents the diligence required to build a house; tightly laced legs represent the solid foundation that support the building. A small swallow is sitting on architecture’s hand. This bird, which builds solid nests of clay that last several years, was considered the epitome of a devoted family and symbolised that a builder does not only construct a home for himself but for many generations to come.

To the right of the personification of architecture we can see numerous tools and machines that were used for construction: one can clearly recognise a wheelbarrow and a crane with a treadwheel, which was powered by animals or humans and used to lift heavy loads. To her left there are musical instruments, namely an organ and a harp. Due to its mathematical proportions, music was considered to be closely connected to architecture, which is only harmonious to the eye if its components are in perfect proportion to each other. The globe and the Corinthian column represent the fact that architects must travel through time and space to learn to master their art. Vitruvius, whose work lies at the feet of architecture, was still considered the basis of an architect’s knowledge at Böckler’s time.

A Handbook for Architects

Böckler and the Endter publishing house wanted to achieve the greatest possible commercial success at the lowest cost possible. Thus, they refrained from publishing Palladio’s third and fourth book. Although these books were richly illustrated too, they dealt with subjects that were not considered profitable. In fact, Palladio had dedicated his third book to town planning, i.e. to public buildings and infrastructure. Therefore there were not as many customers for such a book, just as for the fourth book, which dealt with the construction of churches.

The first book, on the other hand, was practically a manual for architects. And – after dealing with the most important qualities of a good architect – Palladio started his work with a treatise on various building materials. Wood, stone, sand, lime and metals: what quality do they need to have to be used as an ideal foundation for any type of construction? This is followed by the individual components of any building, i.e. the foundation, the walls and the roof. What possibilities are there regarding their design? What does an architect has to keep in mind?

Böckler made the book even more useful for the German area by adding comments to Palladio’s chapters. He converted Italian measurements to the German standards and helped reader to adapt the instructions, which had originally been optimized for architects in Italy, to the situation in Germany.

In his first book Palladio also deals with decorative elements, particularly with the columns that were adopted from the ancient style. In this chapter, the skilled stonemason indicated the exact proportions that the base, the column and the capital needed to have to create a harmonious whole.

For architects and their craftsmen, all the illustrations are even more useful than the text. You can find precise indications about the proportions for every component of a building. Palladio did not bother with exact measurements but gave the proportions instead. If you apply these proportions to the individual parts of a building, you will get a harmonious whole. In this way, any builder can reproduce the components drawn by Palladio in the size he desires.

Whether top view or side view, you can tell from the sketches how much experience Palladio must have had in explaining to his staff how to implement his specifications for the architectural details of a building.

Ideas and Examples

Palladio dedicated his second book to various buildings he planned. He provided architects with an extensive book of samples that they could use to get inspiration for their own projects. What is exciting for us today is that many of these buildings have survived to this day, and that we can compare their appearance with the plans Palladio once submitted to his clients.

One example for this is the Palazzo Antonini in Udine. Palladio started to build it around 1556 for Floriano Antonini. The book contains the stylized floor plan and Palladio’s annotations. In addition, there is a sketch for the front and the back of the building as well as other detailed plans and views.

As I said, it is the original plan and was not realised in every detail. In those days, too, architects made their plans and then had to adopt them to the desires of their clients. The fact that Palladio preferred to present the original plans and not the ones that were actually used shows how much pride the artist Palladio took in his work.

Villas, i.e. agricultural centres that included a central house and numerous other buildings, were Palladio’s specialty. As an archetypal model, he tried to reconstruct a Roman villa – although we know today that his buildings differed greatly from ancient buildings.

For the big picture it is important to understand that Palladio did not consider himself to be the architect of a single mansion, instead he designed villas as well as functional rural buildings located around it – barns, stables, workshops. That is why some plans show an entire complex of farm buildings, as in the case of the Villa Poiana. It was built for Bonifacio Poiana, who was known to be extremely thrifty, between 1548 and 1549. Poiana refrained from constructing the farm buildings in stone as Palladio planned. However, we may assume that several wooden buildings surrounded the villa that did not survive to this day.

Let’s conclude our review of Palladio’s designs in his second book on architecture with what is probably the most famous villa created by him: La Rotonda. Beautifully located on a hill, the building offered its inhabitants a magnificent panoramic view of the countryside. It was built between 1567 and 1571 for a high-ranking clergyman and considered the pinnacle of beauty. Many visitors were so amazed that they created buildings imitating it in their homeland. We know of five such buildings from Great Britain and others from France, Germany and Poland. The most popular of them is located in the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the young state in the New World, designed the Monticello mansion himself. And he used the design of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda to do it.

This was not a matter of taste but a political statement. At the time of Jefferson, Palladio had already become a role model for enthusiasts of freedom, equality and democracy. Find out how this came about in the last part of this essay.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Photo: UK.

Part 3: The Book’s Legacy


Inigo Jones and Palladianism

There are many reasons why Palladio had such a huge impact on modern architecture. One of them has nothing to do with Palladio’s aesthetics but with the place where the beautiful buildings of the architect were located: in Venice, the surroundings and in neighbouring Vicenza.

Let’s get back to early modern times. Anyone who considered himself an important man – nobles and rich merchants alike – sent their sons on a Grand Tour. A Grand Tour was something very different from today’s educational journeys. Although young men of the 16th century also did a lot of sightseeing, it was not about checking boxes on a list of attractions about educating one’s taste. Instead of taking selfies with their phones, young men drew sketches of the buildings they liked (or of those they were supposed to like according to their teacher) under the supervision of their mentor.

Venice was an integral part of any Grand Tour. An important reason for Venice’s popularity was that its entertainment program was so well-known that no young man wanted to miss it. Thus, Palladio’s buildings were situated in a prime location. Many future builders passed by his work.

One of them was Thomas Howard, the 21st Earl of Arundel. He was crazy about art and had Inigo Jones, who was already quite successful at the time, in his entourage. Jones was amazed by Palladio and built countless palaces and mansions in his style after his return in 1614 until his dismissal under Cromwell in 1642. Many architects imitated Inigo Jones, which is why a new style inspired by Palladio evolved in England, which is called Palladianism by art historians.

Palladianism was so popular in the second half of the 17th century that every corner of London, which had to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, was reminiscent of Palladio.  Palladio may even have inspired Christopher Wren to create the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and its entrance in the style of a temple. Palladio’s first book on architecture, which was first translated into English in 1663, was available to Wren. And the Italian architect retained his influence in the early 18th century as can be seen from the fact that his entire work was translated into English in 1715 – including the books on town planning and church architecture.

Symbols of Freedom

While French kings built their palaces in the luxurious styles of the Baroque and Rococo eras, the British preferred simple houses whose ground plans seemed to come straight from antiquity via Palladio. They used symmetry and clear shapes, which were easy to calculate by means of mathematics.

Clarity and mathematics – of course, this style attracted the attention of the great minds of the Enlightenment. Spaces designed according to geometric logic became a political statement. Enlightenment thinkers outed themselves by refraining from the playful Rococo style. They raved about Palladio, who had led architecture back to its ancient roots – at least in their view. And when they thought of antiquity, all scholars who had learned Latin with the help of Cicero’s elegant texts thought of the Roman Republic. It was considered the prime example of a successful democracy – just like Venice, where Palladio had built his villas. Venice had a complicated electoral system that was considered exemplary for achieving a long-lasting democracy.

We need not emphasize at this point that neither the Roman nor the Venetian Republic was a democracy as we define it today. On the contrary: only a tiny fraction of the inhabitants exerted political influence. But nobody considered that to be a problem at the time. After all, the admirers of these democracies belonged to the very same social class that had ruled during the Roman Republic and in Venice. Thus, it was an easy decision to command architects to use architectural elements to publicly express the democratic spirit of their clients.

Palladio’s stylistic features experienced a great triumph during Classicism, when no revolutionary building, no temple of the people could do without an ornamental columned façade and an impressive dome. The components of his style took on a life of their own and at some point, no one thought of Palladio anymore when they saw them.

The Academy of Athens, built in 1856 by Theophil von Hansen. Photo: A. Savin, cc-by-sa 3.0.

When we visit the Acropolis today, which underwent dramatic restorations in the 19th century, we should not forget that we are not looking at an authentic ancient building but at a space created by architects at the same time as the classical buildings of the city. Our ideas about ancient architecture are not really based on the findings of archaeological studies but rather on concepts that were developed by a simple stonemason who was lucky enough to build and publish his work in the right place at the right time.

The influence that Palladio’s architectural shapes have had on our collective visual habits today is irreversible.


Other Things That You Might Be Interested in:

Here you can download the complete German translation of Palladio’s book.

As a central cultural activity of mankind, architecture has also been featured on coins.

Find out what the Middle Ages came up with to improve the architecture of fortifications when walls alone weren’t enough to protect them anymore in this article.

How the baroque theater achieved architectural wonders on stage shows the current exhibition Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.