A book closed to the heart

Deborah Howard

St John's College, Cambridge. È membro del consiglio scientifico del Centro dal 2012.

James S. Ackerman, Palladio, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966

I still treasure my copy of the first edition of James Ackerman’s Palladio, which appeared while I was an undergraduate student at Cambridge University. At that time we still used the Renaissance currency of £sd (pounds, shillings and pence, or lire, soldi, denari) and the book cost me twelve shillings and sixpence. The book was one of the first two volumes in a series entitled The Architect and Society, edited by Hugh Honour and John Fleming. Sadly very few volumes appeared and the series died out quickly, but for me the concept of seeing architecture within the matrix of history – social, economic, religious, material – was transformative.

The following summer vacation, at the age of 21, I set off with my younger sister on a tour around Italy to look at architecture. We borrowed my mother’s car, a very English-looking Mini ‘shooting brake’ with a wooden frame and double doors at the back. Italians were often surprised, or even shocked, to find two young girls exploring the country unchaperoned, but despite many adventures we came to no harm. We lived on 1500 lire a day each – 750 lire for food and 750 lire for accommodation.

Ackerman’s book was our guide to Palladio’s architecture. I annotated the map to help me find the villas, because they were little visited at that time. We would drive into a rural village and show the local people the small, black-and-white photo of the villa we wished to see. They would look baffled at first, and then call their friends and relatives to advise. Eventually they would point to a decrepit structure just up the road, wondering if that was really what we wanted to see. Usually it was!

We visited villas full of old refrigerators and live chickens, and wandered around overgrown outbuildings loaded with bales of hay. I still have my photo of the villa Badoer at Fratta Polesine with its portico boarded up. The idea that architecture was embedded in society seemed captivatingly vivid, but this felt like a society forgotten by time. I was entranced, and it was through Ackerman’s Palladio that I first came to know the Veneto.

Even after half a century, Ackerman’s book is still the best short introduction to Palladio’s architecture. It is lucid, thoughtful, rational and sensitive all at once. While recognizing the architect’s debt to the ancients, Ackerman rejected the timeworn idea of Palladio as just a ‘reviver of antiquity’. He argued that Palladio’s innate visual sensitivity metamorphosed the lessons of Vitruvius and ancient Rome: ‘Palladio was as sensual, as skilled in visual alchemy as any Venetian painter of his time. He loved modulating light and introduced unheard of colours and textures into architecture.’ (p. 184) It is hardly surprising that one young English girl found herself transfixed. I owe almost everything that happened later in my professional life to the experience of seeing Palladio with Ackerman’s book in my hand.

Deborah Howard