Palladio revered the column. It was his favourite structural element and architectural ornament. Palladio also revered antiquity. He thoroughly documented the five orders in the first book of Quattro Libri, and devoted the fourth book to “the ancient temples” where columns are presented in their original settings. If we consider the symbolism and meaning inherent in the column, this may give us insight to why Palladio was so drawn to the architecture of Late Imperial Rome.
According to the scholar John Onians, columns are a material means of expression that helped formulate and develop man’s relationship with gods.[i] Their origins are in Greece, but they were codified in Italy. Columns are first described by Vitruvius (De Architectura, 25 BC), then by Alberti (De Re Architectura “On The Art of Building”, 1443), by Serlio[ii] (7 Libri in 1540), Vignola (The Five Orders of Architecture,1563) and finally by Palladio himself (Quattro Libri, 1570). Onians posits that it was only in the sixteenth century that written architectural theory, through treatises, became influential. He identifies Serlio’s treatise as the first “to seriously affect taste and shape responses to architecture, first in Venice and then in Europe as a whole.”
Another scholar, Gunter Bandmann[iii], posits that the power of the column lies in its double metaphor. Since the beginning of recorded history, the role of the column, in the middle of the dwelling, was that of support, devoid of any representational meaning. It only had a structural or tectonic role. Later, in Egyptian architecture, it signified a tree or plant image that stood beneath a roof symbolizing the heavens. The foliage capital was adopted in the Middle Ages, and eventually transformed into a symbol for a human being---“a meaning that had last borne fruit in classical speculations regarding proportion.”[iv] The column-as-person had in fact appeared centuries earlier, before the Christian allegory, with the caryatids of Greece.
Is this evolution of the column significant to our analysis? Perhaps. It’s conceivable that Palladio considered the column in two modes—structural and/or ornamental.
Gunter Bandmann cannot pinpoint when the column made the transition from a discrete object to ornament, which he called “the column-as-part-of-a-building”. However, Bandmann states “What is certain is that such a connection becomes possible only when the building deals with hierarchical relationships that can be expressed metaphorically.” This need to reference hierarchical relationships and bring order to architecture may in part explain why thought-leaders such as Vitruvius began to document and codify columns. It is probably around Vitruvius’s time that the column made that transition to “the column-as-part-of-a-building”.
However, there must be more to columns, beyond their structural and/or ornamental role. Palladio must have recognized the column as a bearer of meaning and a transmitter of values. This upholding of values would explain the driving force behind Palladio’s determination to extract everything that he could from the syntax of antiquity and incorporate it in contemporary forms.
Vitruvian and Palladian Values
Architects have always known that architectural forms can be exploited for political advantage. “From the time the orders were first given names which carried particular associations in ancient Greece, there was a continuous attempt to replace the meaning inherent in forms, with meanings attached by words. Architecture could be made to embody or express [values].”[v] This was well understood by Augustus who sponsored an agressive program of civic architecture, with the sole purpose of communicating Augustan values. Whether we attribute Palladio’s fascination with...