Palladio the Pedant; (1) Homage: Chiswick House in West London, in the Style of Palladio (2) Architects' Architect: Andrea Palladio by El Greco. below Left, a Model of His Villa Rotonda outside Vicenza, a Construction That Was a Man- Made Complement to the Natural Landscape

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ANDREA Palladio was an architect of exceptional grace and skill. His villas and churches are balanced, confident, well made, well pitched. Weight and lightness are nicely tuned, and plainness and decoration, and brightness and shadow. They are well proportioned and sit on their sites, in North Italian fields, in city streets and on Venetian canals, as if they belong there.

Works such as the Villa Rotonda, poised and four-square on a little hill outside Vicenza, are man-made complements to the natural landscape. They are also full of ideas that became conventional but in the 16th century were brave and startling, like putting the pediment and colonnade of a Roman temple on the front of rural houses.

Palladio was practical and serious, not your usual perverse and moody genius.

He was not like Flaubert's description of architects as "all idiots, they always forget to put stairs in the houses". Apprenticed to stone-masons, he knew how buildings were built. He was concerned about controlling their costs, making them work and avoiding collapse or chunks dropping from over-ambitious cornices onto the street below. He thought about the best location for beds relative to windows, fireplaces and latrines, and developed engineering principles that lasted hundreds of years.

He studied, measured and drew ancient Roman buildings, not to copy them but to learn their principles. He even studied military formations, believing that a well-organised army was a better defence for a city than fortified walls. Unusually for an architect, he didn't think construction was the answer to everything. He was publicspirited and believed that a man "should not just be born for his own ends but also to be useful to others" and published books so that others could learn from his discoveries.

The Royal Academy, in pitching its meticulous and beautiful new exhibition of drawings and models, calls him "the most significant figure in the history of Western architecture". This begs to be challenged: how about Le Corbusier or Michelangelo, or Abbe Suger, the patron who launched Gothic architecture? Or Imhotep who, by stacking up burial mounds 5,000 years ago, invented the pyramid, and with it kicked off Western architecture altogether and, better than the peerages now awarded to leading architects, was made into a god? Palladio is certainly, to quote another historian, "the most imitated architect in history".

Almost every house built in England from the 1720s to the 1830s bears his influence, and libraries, museums, banks and parliaments the world over borrow his arrangements of columns, pilasters and pediments to lend themselves dignity. From the tsars' palace at Pavlovsk to the presidents' residence of the White House, to classically styled McMansions in Texas, mock-Georgian homes in Weybridge and the radiator grille of a Rolls-Royce, the motifs and ideas of the studious Italian are endlessly imitated.

When Michael Flatley desired a 60,000 sq ft house, the largest in Ireland, on Rossmore Island in County Kerry, the lord of Riverdance chose for it the style of the long dead Italian.

In England, Palladio was picked up with particular passion. Here he is venerated far more than in Italy, where he is seen as one of several great architects.

When Inigo Jones brought Italian Renaissance architecture to Britain in the early 1600s, it was in Palladian form. A century later, aristocratic connoisseurs collected his drawings, translated his books and launched the all-conquering neo-Palladian style of architecture.

Protestant Brits, nervous about learning from Catholic Rome, were more comfortable with an architect of the independent-minded Venetian Republic.

Palladio invented a brand without meaning to, and without knowing what a brand is. Its elements were cylinders, triangles and rectangles in certain classical proportions and arrangements, usually rendered in white or off-white. …