Can a book on Palladio, released four years after the end of the fifth centenary of his birth, which brought scores of publications and exhibitions, still add something new to our knowledge of the architect? That is what Antonio Foscari, architect, Venetian nobleman, and descendant of the Doge Francesco Foscari (1373–1457) and author of Andrea Palladio: Unbuilt Venice asks in this concise and short text. He addresses the Italian master by focusing on the conditions which prevented the realization of three projects for major buildings dating between 1570 and 1577, namely those for the Doge’s Palace, the Piazza Latini (at the foot of the Rialto Bridge), and for the Church and Convent of Charity that, if realized, would have radically changed the look of La Serenissima. Foscari wrote the books, not as an historian, but as an architect, reconstructing, through innovative analysis and interpretation, the documents on the three projects.
Foscari is, so to speak, thoroughly Venetian, moving from the assumption that Venice is an ideal central location, the center of political decisions and ideological formulations of great historical importance. He traces Palladio’s (1508-1580) early history in the Veneto region during the crucial time of imperial occupation. And he describes Palladio’s career as an interpreter of its republican ideology: he builds “villas"—empty of ornaments, despite his masterful skill as stonemason, giving evidence of his ideological republican sympathies. In addition, these villas are built in open countryside with no defense, not even of a ditch or wall, giving another ideological statement. All the country in landscapes that we can recognize today in the paintings of Giorgione and Bartolomeo Montagna were symbols of the destruction of feudal civilization.
This is the starting point of Foscari’s work, which captures Palladio in his early years as spokesman for the Republic and operating the construction of the loggias of the Vicenza Basilica. It is the Giulio Romano period in Vicenza, which becomes decisive for Palladio’s formation, as will Cardinal Ridolfi.
The theme of the reconstruction of the Doge’s Palace, destroyed by fire in 1577, is the crux of this analysis: not only has no one ever managed to outline this unbuilt project, though Palladio left long written descriptions of the project in which he speaks about a covered square inspired by the ancient model of the Balbi crypt in Rome, which he had already used in the representation of the ground floor of the Basilica in Vicenza, but never realized. He talks of 14 pillars on each side—that held as many columns of giant order on a square plan—implying an image of the building as an overwhelming force facing toward Piazza San Marco. Foscari reconstructs the 14 columns using the pitch of the pillars of Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza, setting the giant order with its two levels, and stating that everything would be built in brick to facilitate the supply and the speed of reconstruction. Palladio was fascinated by the giant order and peripteral construction where columns are embedded in the wall: he attempted it with the Palazzo Valmarana in Vicenza, but only in the thickness of the wall pilasters; he tried again for the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, but without success. He is able to accomplish it in the Loggia del Capitanio, because it represents Venice and the authority of the State seat. In dialogue with the Basilica, this one in stone, the other in brick, the Loggia del Capitanio dominates with its giant order, the double order of the Basilica. Even here, unfortunately, it is incomplete as only three of the five planned bays were made. The giant order for Palladio is a dream to be realized that becomes almost a reality in the final phase of his life in his powerful proposal for the Doge’s Palace. Foscari covers almost all the work of Palladio, always with an eye to connect the architectural event to the history that, at times, is the history of the characters with whom Palladio worked or the milieu in which he operated. In order to impose his solution, of course, Palladio never defended the beauty of his project, but he listed all the “theoretical and scientific reasons” why his clients should change the current situation and proceed with another method. Why were these projects not realized? Because the government departments perceived them as vagaries and anomalies in the Venetian practice, a break with tradition. The design of the Rialto Bridge is a similar story which today is still unclear: an architecturally significant square with no shops, but evidently conceived for performances and shows. The third project, the Convent of Charity, is designed for the area where the Academia Galleries are located today, but twice as large. It would have been, with certainty, the largest building in Venice. But with sole access through the existing Late Gothic church and because of its very presence, the building would not have appeared on the Grand Canal. Foscari assumes that Palladio used the Baths of Agrippa as a model as they, too, had their own entrance on the longitudinal axis through a religious building: the reconstruction of a new temple like the Pantheon—in place of the existing one—would have been a very powerful image on the Grand Canal. The model that Palladio would have followed for this project is still the Ancient one.