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Despite the richness of the country’s architectural heritage, museums devoted exclusively to architecture are rare in Italy; equally infrequent are exhibitions dedicated to understanding the building processes and principal protagonists responsible for shaping Italy’s historic landscape. The Palladio Museum in Vicenza is a notable exception. Since its establishment in 2012, the museum has proven itself to be an institution of international importance, promoting the study of Andrea Palladio—one of the most important architects of all time—and staging exhibitions of profound cultural impact.
From September 2015 through March 2016, the splendid halls of the piano nobile of the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto were not dedicated to Andrea Palladio, but rather to one of his greatest American disciples, Thomas Jefferson. Entitled Jefferson e Palladio: Come costruire un mondo nuovo (Jefferson and Palladio: Constructing a New World), the exhibition was of value for those interested in the architectural background of the third president of the United States. Jefferson was not only skilled in the practice of the ars aedificatoria, but also well aware of its ideological potential with regards to his reformist politics. Organized in collaboration with the Fondazione Canova, Possagno, and the Stiftung Bibliothek Werner Oechslin, Einsiedeln, and curated by Guido Beltramini and Fulvio Lenzo, Jefferson e Palladio was the first exhibition to bring Jefferson’s architectural designs into active dialogue with the innovative, Palladian-based spirit that animated them. The exhibition’s principal thematic narratives—creative innovation and social and cultural impact—allowed the curators to actively compare the two architects across time and space without falling into the trap of anachronism. Viewing each architect within his own time, the curators succeeded in demonstrating how both men prefigured a new world through their novel conceptions of the built environment and its symbols.
Almost as if through a game of reflections—literally evoked at the exhibition’s entrance through a series of mirrors that kaleidoscopically reflected busts of the two protagonists—Jefferson e Palladio aimed to elucidate the multifaceted relationship between Palladio’s universally significant heritage, Palladianism, and its reinterpretation within the context of early American democracy. Designed by the architect Alessandro Scandurra, the exhibition artfully unfolded in individual sections distributed throughout the palace halls, in effect becoming a theater of historical narrations and engaging installations. Architectural treatises, building models, sculptural maquettes, and drawings took center stage. The addition of well-conceived multimedia displays provided contextual materials for both specialists (as exemplified by the wonderful video Monticello: Self-Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the Form of a House) and more general visitors, who likely enjoyed the entertaining fictive dialogue between the silhouettes of Palladio and Jefferson.
In its greater narrative, the exhibition began with the aftermath of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. As if shadowing Jefferson, the visitor was confronted with two of the most salient issues then facing the new Union: the definition of a territorial grid through the National Survey (1784), a system inspired by ancient Roman models of regularity, and the creation of Washington, in 1791, as the nation’s new capital. In both of these major planning initiatives, Jefferson played a crucial role.
The subsequent section was dedicated to Jefferson’s tormented, almost autobiographical process of building his Monticello residence in Virginia, which extended throughout his life and was marked by frequent interruptions and project modifications. Despite the home’s explicit reference to Palladio—the name monticello, or “small hill,” recalls the site of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda as described in his Quattro libri dell’architettura (1570)—Jefferson’s design was more closely related to English eighteenth-century models (for example, the works of James Gibbs and Robert Morris), as well as the Parisian hotels that he admired during a long stay in France. Nonetheless, the imprint of Palladian schemes on Monticello, which are most evident in Jefferson’s adoption of the concept of the barchessa as a space for agricultural equipment, was cohesively demonstrated in the exhibition’s comparative use of architectural models (including one of Palladio’s Villa Saraceno at Finale) and engravings (among others, a print of the Villa Mocenigo at Marocco from Giacomo Leoni’s English translation of Palladio’s Quattro libri, which Jefferson knew well). The exhibition also brought alive the domestic spaces of Monticello. This was accomplished through a pastiche of copies of objects from Jefferson’s collection of naturalia and works of art, as well as through a highly effective section on Jefferson as a builder and his various technological experiments. Several instructive models tracing the genesis of the Monticello dome, which Jefferson devised by combining Palladian models with solutions proposed by the French architect Philibert de l’Orme, allowed the visitor to appreciate Jefferson’s innovative, if not irresolute, approach to structural design. Equally compelling was the to-scale reconstruction of his so-called rooflets, ingenious devices for the construction of flat roofs, which provided an idea of the high level of technical competency he possessed as an amateur architect.
Jefferson’s creative, Palladian-inspired inventive abilities were explored in the central part of the exhibition. This section included models for his Poplar Forest and Bremo villas—the former, his second residence as president of the United States, and the latter, an example of his work as an architect-consultant—as well as a reconstruction of the villa in Barboursville (destroyed by a fire in 1884), which he designed for his friend James Barbour according to schemes already adopted for Monticello. The focus of the room, however, was Jefferson’s involvement in the design of the President’s House, which later became the White House. As relayed by the curators, Jefferson first considered modeling the home after a French royal palace, but later, as an anonymous participant in the official design competition, he decided to submit a domestic villa project “for a head of state who is not a monarch, but rather ‘Mr. President.’” In illustrating this projected presidential residence—a version of Colin Campbell’s reinterpreted Villa Rotonda at Mereworth (1725) topped by an innovative dome with skylights inspired by the Halle au Blé in Paris—the curators displayed a range of printed sources, reproductions of original drawings, and scale models realized by Ivan Simonato specifically for this show.
In creating a vision of a new world, Jefferson did not rely solely on the authority of Palladio, but also tapped into the creative well of yet another great Italian artist, Antonio Canova, who received a commission to make a statue of George Washington for Raleigh, North Carolina. This important public sculpture, completed in 1820 and lost in a fire some ten years later, was illustrated through three splendid maquettes lent by the Fondazione Canova. True gems, these plaster models document the sculptor’s creative process in depicting the United States of America’s first president—initially imagined in imperial vestments and later represented in the guise of Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator who voluntarily transferred his power into the hands of the people, thus serving as a model of political humility.
The final section of the exhibition focused on Jefferson’s greatest public building projects, of particular importance due to the intrinsic representational and symbolic value they carried. The first of these structures—the Capitol Building, or “temple for democracy,” that Jefferson designed for Richmond, Virginia—was elucidated with models and drawn reproductions, which explained how Jefferson used the ancient temple model (specifically, that of the Maison Carrée at Nimes) in designing the symbol of American civil power. In its revised form, Jefferson’s “temple” was a place of new democracy, adhering to the theories of Montesquieu regarding the separation of the three powers of the state.
Jefferson’s second great public construction was the University of Virginia. The third American president wanted to be remembered not only as the author of the Declaration of Independence and a promoter of the law of religious freedom, but also as the father of a great public university. The University of Virginia, located just several miles from Monticello, was to serve as the prototype for future American universities. Promoting a new kind of instruction, Jefferson’s university was not confined to an austere palace, but rather conceived as an “academic village” and immersed in greenery. Instead of taking the form of a single building, it was a complex of discrete pavilions, identical in their dimensions but following different typologies. In the exhibition, this plan was presented in chronological and typological illustrations, which successfully articulated the complexity of the project. It was probably inspired by French Baroque models such as the Château de Marly, but was also deeply anchored in the world of Palladio and, through it, Roman antiquity. The university was to serve as an ideal for community reform and as an image for the future of the nation.
To provide a contemporary context for the historical material presented in the exhibition, the curators relied on the recent photographs of Filippo Romano, which document the ways in which Jefferson’s surviving buildings are used today. They allow the viewer to think about the transformation of these buildings over time and their current state of conservation. One might have hoped that the first European exhibition dedicated to Jefferson as an architect would include some original documentary materials, in particular Jefferson’s architectural drawings, which he often executed on graph paper to aid his inexpert hand. In the absence of such items, and especially because photographic reproductions are frequently the primary visual material used in architectural exhibitions, Jefferson e Palladio would have benefitted from higher quality reproductions, facsimiles created with the most sophisticated digital technologies. Such reproductions would have allowed the audience to appreciate the visual and material dimensions of the original drawings to a greater extent.
The catalogue accompanying the show, published in both English and Italian by the Officina Libraria, is an important scholarly contribution that brings together essays by the two curators, as well as those by eminent scholars including James S. Ackerman, Bruce Boucher, Catherine Maumi, Richard Guy Wilson, Giovanna Capitelli, Mario Guderzo, Damiana Lucia Paternò, and Travis C. McDonald. The richness and complexity of topics covered in the catalogue requires a separate review.
Associate Professor of Architectural History, Università di Bologna, Dipartimento di Architettura