Palladio - The First Modernist

Inspired by upcoming travel plans I remembered and scavenged in dusty attic boxes for an essay I had to write for an architectural history class a couple of decades ago.

It was on Andrea Palladio’s sixteenth century Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy. As I read it again I was puzzled, how in the Renaissance Palladio was dealing with structural expressions and forms distinctive of the functions they housed. Attitudes of architecture I still explore today and that I was first introduced to by the work of modern architectural champ Ludwing Mies van der Rohe. (A shout out to him - today happens to be his birthday!)

Following a get-together with local architectural historian Paige Claassen and reading her blog class HAUS on modern architectural nuggets she visits around the country, I thought I should post the essay here.

I only changed the suggested edits of my professor and current interim Dean of the UNCC School of Arts and Architecture, Lee Gray. I also added the sources of the quotes I loosely threw around throughout the text. But I did leave all the other stylistic oddities of my budding understanding of the English language. (I also had to find a whole new set of images. This time online, since the sources past are no longer available to me.) Enjoy:

>> The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore might be called the most prominent spot in Venice, and as such one of the most extraordinary in the world. In 1566 Andrea Palladio was asked to rebuild the church for the Benedictine Monastery on this site. Both the setting and Palladio’s church create and unforgettable experience. “What visitor of Venice has not stood in the Piazzetta and admired that beautiful sight?” (Georg Madeja) It had inspired Monet to capture it on canvas and myself to propose to my wife. Reason enough for me to take a closer look at it, according to four principles delineated by Spiro Kostof in A History of Architecture, namely setting, oneness, community, and meaning of architecture.

San Giorgio Maggiore, Monet, Wikipedia

San Giorgio Maggiore, Monet, Wikipedia

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore marks the entrance to Venice from its seaside. Here the Canale di San Marco divides into Venice’s two major waterways, the Canale Grande and the Canale della Guidecca. It is situated at the eastern end of the southern most landmass, the Isola della Guidecca.

1704 Map of Venice, Wikipedia

1704 Map of Venice, Wikipedia

The Benedictine Monastery on the island of San Giorgio was considered to be one of the wealthiest and most famous in the city, “with the unique advantage of its magnificiant site on its own island, facing San Marco across the Bacino” .(Richard Goy) “The antiquity and setting of the church and convent of San Giorgio made it central to the history and ceremony of the city”. (Bruce Boucher) At the time of Palladio, the city was a world center that had flourished due to its trade by sea. It had close ties to Byzantium, the Arab countries, and Gothic Europe. This unique condition mirrored in its architecture: “Her architectural taste was as exotic and as prone to luxury as the cargo of her galleons. Venetian buildings went in for color, precious stones, carved ornaments , and lacy frills.” (Spiro Kostof)

In an act of donation in 982, a church that had existed on the island since 790 was given to the Benedictine Order, which was later enriched with the dilapidated body of Saint Stephen. Every year, beginning in the twelfth century, on the feast of Saint Stephen the Doge and government officials visited the church to venerate his relics. The church took on the dual function of the basilica for the Benedictine monks and as a parish church. The original monastery complex was extensively restored twice, in the thirteenth after and earthquake and again in the early fifteenth century in the late Gothic style. In the sixteenth century, during the raise of the Renaissance on the Italian mainland the last major remodeling took place. Giovanni Buora and then Andrea Palladio were hired to do the job. Besides a new Dormitory, a new cloister and a refectory, the most notable change was the church proper in 1565 by Palladio; “by this date the dilapidated nature of the old church would have been glaringly apparent, especially since the other main monastic churches in Venice had been rebuilt in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” .(Bruce Boucher) Planned by Palladio, the church’s construction was interrupted at his death in 1580 and completed under the supervision of Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1610.

The main body of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore is built in red brick, which was used at the time for lesser class dwellings, utilitarian structures, and neighborhood churches. In contrast, the gleaming white façade, which was finished thirty years after Palladio’ s death, sports expensive stone from nearby Istrea. Palladio solved the problem of facing the two-aisled basilica scheme of Christian churches with the classical language of the Renaissance, as encountered, for example, by Leon Battista Alberti in Florence, by overlying and merging two temple facades with individual bases.

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Wikipedia

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Wikipedia

They are proportioned to their differently scaled orders. The smaller, central front is fitted to the tall nave. It is lifted onto pedestals and protrudes from the façade. The pediment is held up with large unfluted, engaged Corinthian columns and topped with sculptures. The lower temple-front spans laterally across the entire façade and covers the lower two side-aisles. It is set back and reemerges in-between the columns of the central façade. Corinthian pilasters visually support its pediment. Both parts of the façade rest on a narrow base that is layered by three tires of stone. This Treatment of the façade corresponds to the spatial restrictions of the site and takes advantages of its relation to the city: “As built, the façade, combines the illusion of a portico when seen from across the water, together with a dynamic overlapping of engaged columns and pilasters, when seen from nearby” (Bruce Boucher) In The Four Books on Architecture Palladio writes further about this relationship to the city, as well as about the church’s function. “Temples must have wider porticoes and taller columns than those needed in other buildings, and it is appropriate that they should be large and splendid (but not, however, larger than the size that the city warrants) and that they be built with ample and beautiful proportions: because all grandeur and magnificence is required for devine worship”.

The façade of San Giorgio Maggiore serves, however, also as a precursor to its threefold interior. Hakon Lund suggest that “an examination … shows that the problem of how to attain the highest degree of correspondence between the front and the interior must have been of great importance to Palladio”. Not only the facade’s tripartite division, but also the proportions of the height and width of the nave and the aisles correspond to the interior. The main body of the church is conceived as a classical basilica, inspired by Palladio’s reconstruction of the Basilica Maxentius. the plan is a mixture of Latin and Greek crosses.

Floorplan, Blog Art 340

Floorplan, Blog Art 340

“A degree of centralization is thus adopted to meet the specific requirements of Benedictine liturgy”. (Richard Goy) The crossing is flanked with semicircular transepts and capped with a drum and a dome that spans forty feet. The drum is punctuated by large windows and accentuated with an accessible, balustraded gallery. The dome culminates in an oculus and lantern that in turn is topped with a sculpture. The dome, as well as the barrel vault of the nave, is stuccoed, creating a smooth uninterrupted surface.

Interior and Dome, Teggelaar.com

Interior and Dome, Teggelaar.com

The clear rhythm set up in the nave is picked up with thermal windows in the otherwise simple barrel vault, which create a hint of cross vaulting. Those thermal windows are repeated in elevation of the side-aisles.

Longitudinal Section, Teggelaar.com

Longitudinal Section, Teggelaar.com

The protruding cornice and pulvinated frieze separate the clear simple barrel vaults form the imposing clusters of Corinthian columns. The columns are unfluted, except for a pair that frames the high altar. The two side-aisles are not continued passed the entrance of the sanctuary. Behind the altar, which stands in the square chancel, four columns separate the congregation in the nave from the monk’s choir, which expresses the church’s dual function mentioned above. The choir is an oblong space ending in a semicircular apse. A band of alternating windows and niches, which house sculptures of saints, is wrapped around its parameter. Segmental and triangular pediments cover the windows. Below the band of windows 48 richly carved wooden stalls are situated. They are the work of Albrecht van der Brulle, 1594-8, and illustrate the life of St. Benedict.

Monk’s Choir, Teggelaar.com

Monk’s Choir, Teggelaar.com

Throughout the church there are only two constructional materials visible, stone and white stucco. The building’s dimensions are of a Roman grandeur. The Proportions are not only based on classical precedents, but also on a harmonic order. All these factors create a pristine interior of a simplistic aesthetic, which is quite different to the prevailing Venetian style.

Interior towards Altar, Teggelaar.com

Interior towards Altar, Teggelaar.com

It is “maybe the clearest in the city. The proportions … help to forget the enormous dimensions”. (Roswit von Bressendorf) Thus the interior serves well in framing famous paintings, such as the “Last Supper” by Jacopo Tintoretto. Another structural aspect might need to be mentioned. The entire church rests on one thousand oak pillars, contributed by the Venetian Senate.

The design of the greater part of the Monastery is attributed to Palladio. However, numerous other architects were involved in the complex as it stands today. Baldassare Longhena, for example, added the Library and great staircase. The campanile was designed by a Bolognese friar called Beratti and completed in 1774.

In 1951 the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which was owned by the State was given over to the Cini Foundation. After 150 years of depredation and abuse as army barracks and warehouses the foundation took on the task of restoration.

Today Benedictine monks still live on the island, secluded in a wing of the monastery, sharing the compound with the Cini Foundation and a vocational school.

Thanks to the restoration of the church and monastery, their breathtaking aura remain. In an article about the foundation’s work Renzo Zorzi describes his awe with the following questions: “ Can it only be the narrow strip of sea separating the island of San Giorgio from St. Mark’s Square and mainland Venice that creates this sense of detachment, this sudden feeling of remoteness, this impression almost of hushed withdrawal from the world of time? Can this alone produce the pervasive crystalline lightness and limpidity of the island air …? Or is it the pallor of the stone Palladio had transported here from the quarries of Istria for his church, on of his greatest masterpieces, that so powerfully evoke a vibrant Classicism that still seems to live and breathe on the island?” <<