Thursday, October 15, 2009

Magic Numbers

Andrea Palladio a/e Venezia
Museo Correr,

Old buildings were not built the way new buildings are. For one thing, they were built with the assumption they would stand forever, or at least for a very very long time.

The oldest buildings we have were all built on complex numerical systems, systems of ratio and proportion which were determined to be the right ones to create harmonious, meaningful interior and exterior space. When we call them perfect, we mean that literally. The numbers all add up. They are the realization of ideal form, whether its the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, or San Giorgio Maggiore.

But San Giorgio Maggiore is the one I know best, so it's the building I will stick with for the sake of argument.

The model for San Giorgio Maggiore was the Temple to Augustus in Pula, Croatia which was built sometime between 2 BC and 14 AD. Under the Byzantines, it was turned into a church, and like other pagan temples turned into churches, it survived where others were cannibalized for their marble.

Vitruvius -- Marcus Vitruvius Pollio -- was born and died before the Christian Era. He was a Roman soldier and architect, a man of exceptional brilliance sometimes referred to as the world's first engineer in the modern sense of the word.

Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, the Ten Books of Architecture that Palladio studied in the mid-1500s. He studied the books and, thanks to his patron Gian Giorgio Trissino, visited many of the sites, and measured for himself, to verify that the numbers, which had been run through the Vitruvean computer, were perfect.

They were.

The key measurement for understanding the proportions of the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore is the diameter of a large column at its base. It is the key, the 1 of a system of ratios such as 1:15 for the height of the major order columns.

Palladio's original design for San Giorgio didn't simply recreate the Temple of Augustus. He reimagined it for a new site, an island at the tip of Giudecca, in a new setting, overlooking St. Mark's Basin and the mouth of the Grand Canal, in full view of the Doge's Palace and the Basilica of San Marco.

You cannot stand back too far to admire the building. The space in front of it is short. One more step and you are in the water. It was meant to be seen across the water, rising up like a majestic dream. The pronaus -- the porch -- of the building was designed to thrust toward the basin, surrounded by free-standing Corinthian columns.

How the interior works with the exterior

The rich Bendictines who had hired Palladio agreed to his design, although it was thoroughly iconoclastic for many reasons. Palladio's personal tide was high in Venice at that moment, and they agreed despite he church's historic aversion to church buildings emulating pagan temples. That they agreed was partly an expression of the historic conflicts between Venice and Rome, and also a measure of the rising tide of the Renaissance which had flowed downhill to Rome earlier and even up hill, to Venice, by Palladio's moment. Up until that time the church abhorred free-standing exterior columns; instead, they were "engaged", stuck in the walls like a decorative motif. Monospaces were also abhorred. Cubic, rectangular, and especially circular spaces were distinctly "pagan." Proper Christian basilicas required a nave-and-aisle structure in the form of either a Greek or Latin cross.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Palladio had already brilliantly solved the aisle-and-nave problem at San Pietro di Castello, San Francesco della Vigna, and Redentore, by superimposing Roman facades. Flattened, their columns engaged, all space absent around them, are two perfectly proportioned Roman facades, one to accommodate the full width of the aisles, and one to majestically frame the nave. At San Pietro di Castello the central sectopm is based on a Roman triumphal arch, the Arco di Savi in Verona. At San Giorgio, Palladio pushed the envelope even further.

Palladio's design for San Giorgio with the Temple of Augustus as pronaus broke all the rules. The columns were free-standing. This was not a flattened approximation of a great Roman temple; it was the full monty, in three dimensions. But it was not round, it was not a monospace; behind the majestic facade was a Latin cross basilica that corresponded in every dimension with proportions of the major order columns. Palladio made the concessions he needed to build the building he wanted.

Unfortunately, Palladio died long before the completion of San Giorgio Maggiore, and upon his death the Benectines immediately retreated and ordered the pronaus pushed back into another superimposed facade. They would go no further than Redentore, a kilometer away. The full brilliance of Palladio's building was never realized; our loss.

But inside, Palladio has the last laugh. Majestic Diocletian windows light the porticos and arches and apses, the same porticos and arches and apses as the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, the most lavish of the public baths at the height of Roman decadence.

But back to the numbers...

The ratio of the diameter of the major order columns to their height is 1:15, which is the proper proportion for a Corinthian column (the Corinthian order is the slenderest) as laid out in Palladio's Four Books of Architecture based on Vitruvius's Ten.

The space between the inner pillars flanking the portal is a bit smaller than it should be but the space between the remaining columns is the two diameters it should be.

The 1:15 ratio is for height measured from the base to the crown of the major order columns. The Corinthian capitals have corresponding proportions of their own: the entire capital is 1-1/6 diameter, while the leafy crown alone is one even.

Like other precision- engineered designs intended to last, these structures are jigsaw puzzles of chiseled stone, everything breaking down into pieces carefully fit together. Palladio was a stone mason first; he understood stone and stone construction, down to the minutest details. The notches into which a stone tooth of pediment slots into a column was based on specific numbers also in ratio.

At the Palladio show currently in the Museo Correr, there is a video which shows the order in which the stones were laid for the entire facade, from the base to the peak of the pediment. The split-screened and superimposed images of San Giorgio, San Francisco, San Pietro and Redentore show the numbers.

It is a gigantic harmony machine, the numbers going back to Pythagoras and the Music of the Spheres. It is the soul music of Western Civilization, although most of us don't hear it.

Palladio certainly did.

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