Open Your Eyes

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, February 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Open Your Eyes


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Palladio: His life and Legacy

Royal Academy, until 13 April

In a truly civilised society, a basic understanding and appreciation of architecture would be taught in schools.

After all, most of us spend a large portion of our lives in buildings. Yet you only have to look around you to see that architecture is dishonoured and despised in England.

How have we come to this? We have a good share of fine buildings scattered about the land, and even poor desperate built-upon London retains quite a few architectural marvels. Why then are we prepared to accept almost without comment acres of disfiguring ugliness? I refuse to believe that the English have no visual sense -- though this is often said of our triumphantly literary nation. No, I think it's more to do with using our eyes and forming our own judgments.

Somewhere we lost faith in our ability to assess the visual.

An exhibition of the quality and enjoyableness of Palladio at the RA should do something to reaffirm an interest in buildings. Most architectural shows are boring -- full of plans and elevations not always easy to decipher-- but this one is a feast. Not just because the drawings are clear and of a very high quality, but because there are a quantity of beautiful architectural models made from beech and lime with porcelain biscuit details, a number of fine paintings and, last but by no means least, the exhibition has been designed, by Eric Parry Architects, with a fitting elegance and clarity. I have only one quibble, though it's quite a serious one: the labelling is not always legible.

White lettering on a grey ground may look good, but it's not easy to read. This slightly mars the experience of visiting the show, but makes it important to sit down afterwards with the catalogue (another weighty tome, £27.95 in paperback), and think about what you have seen.

Actually, a much better short guide is available to the general public at £3.95 (while stocks last), and free to teachers and full-time students with an exhibition ticket. This introduction has been written with admirable concision by Kate Goodwin, and is an excellent aide-memoire to the show. As you discover more about Andrea Palladio (1508-80), and his great gifts for reinterpreting the glories that were Rome in a contemporary idiom, you begin to see his influence around you. It is immensely fitting that this exhibition should be at the Academy, as Burlington House is Palladian, or rather 17th century remodelled in the Palladian style. The restyling was carried out by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, a distinguished amateur architect who also built the eminently Palladian Chiswick House.

The exhibition opens with El Greco's quietly dignified portrait of Palladio, hung to the right of the entrance, with a fragment of Books III-IV of Palladio's own great treatise The Four Books of Architecture (1570), in a display case below. In this first room are a number of eye-catching artefacts and models, including a superb Istrian stone carving of the city of Padua. …

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