by Trish Smith, Curator of Historic Architectural Resources
The year is 1492, and the writing is on the wall for the Venetian Republic. For centuries, their strategic location at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea has allowed Venetian galleys to dominate trade across the Mediterranean. But new long-range seafaring galleons are crossing the Atlantic and opening up a world of new opportunities for Western European countries, severely diminishing Venice’s importance in the process. Its dominance over international trade receding, Venice turns its eyes from the sea to the mainland, where the fertile lands of the Veneto make agricultural pursuits the new economic focus. With their sights firmly set on the Veneto, the Venetians need a network of impressive country houses across the region to serve as business centers, stately homes, and working farms. Enter Andrea Palladio. Born in 1508 in Padua, this Italian architect arrived on the scene at the perfect time in the perfect place to begin designing a network of villas that would ignite a passion for classical architecture which spread from Italy to England and then to the British colonies, where John Drayton would build the first and best Palladian house in North America.
Now, let’s skip ahead a few hundred years to present day Italy—Piombino Dese, to be exact—where a Drayton Hall curator steps off a bus onto the sidewalk in front of her very first Palladian villa and tries to maintain some semblance of curatorial aplomb despite the overwhelming worlds-colliding feeling that can only come from standing in front of a remarkable building that directly inspired another remarkable building two hundred years removed and almost five thousand miles away.
For seven days, I toured villas, palaces, and basilicas, studying the work of Andrea Palladio with a group organized by the Decorative Arts Trust. The trip began in a beautiful mountain town called Asolo (AZ-olo), which has an interesting connection to Villa Cornaro. This villa, whose stacked portico directly inspired the iconic portico at Drayton Hall, features full-figure statues of prominent members of the Cornaro family. Among them is a statue of Caterina Cornaro, the last queen of Cyprus. In 1489, the Venetian Republic set its sights on the island and sent Caterina’s brother to persuade her (with a fleet of war ships) that she should trade the island of Cyprus for a court in Asolo, which she did, holding court there until 1509. I regret that I learned this story after touring the villa. Had I known before, I would have been searching the faces of the family statues for hints of pent-up familial rage.
From Asolo, we progressed to Vicenza, where Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico was the first stop of the day. Though designed by Palladio, it was completed after his death with the help of his successor, Vincenzo Scamozzi. Scamozzi has a Drayton Hall connection as well, which you can see in our Ionic capitals. Scamozzi turned the scrolls of his Ionic capitals forty-five degrees so that you can see them better from any angle, a design choice that John Drayton evidently appreciated and adopted for Drayton Hall.
The influence of Palladio’s villas is easy to recognize at Drayton Hall. From the portico to the carefully proportioned rooms, his designs are around every corner. So, you might imagine what a treat it was to seek out these connections from a new angle. In every villa, my eyes were constantly roving, finding familiar details—a shell motif at Villa Malcontenta, arcades connecting flanking buildings at Villa Barbaro, a raised basement at Villa La Rotonda. I also wondered about architectural features at Drayton Hall that didn’t survive. Might the ceiling of the portico have once resembled the beautiful coffered ceiling at Villa Emo, or were the bare joists exposed as at Villa Barbaro?
Mingling with this overwhelming sense of familiarity was something else though, something that nagged at me the whole time. Everywhere you look, Palladio’s villas are dripping with ornament—fruit and flowers, heavy architraves and pediments, gods and goddesses—beautiful, over the top, mind-boggling ornament is everywhere, and Palladio wanted none of it. As soon as he rolled up his drawings and left a project, the painters were on site, ready to make frescoes. Plaster was molded into architectural details, and gilding was applied with abandon. But when you strip it all away to get back to the house that Palladio built, the interiors are exceedingly plain.
How is it, then, that Drayton Hall, which by most accounts is a pretty faithful representation of Palladio’s ideals, has so much elaborate ornamentation? Since Palladio’s designs came to North America by way of Great Britain, I think the answer must lie with Lord Burlington and the Anglo-Palladians. Clearly, another trip is in order to find out. Who wants to come with?