Saturday, June 22, 2024

How The Venetians Had Influence On St. Louis

In a follow-up article to my article about Leon Battista Alberti, I thought it would interest me to examine the impact of Renaissance architects on St. Louis’ built environment. We all know about Venice and its famous canals, Doge’s Palace, Basilica of St. Mark, and towering campanile. But there is more to the architectural heritage that Venice gave us. The Bissell Water Tower in College Hill is a reminder of the Venetian influence. But don’t forget about the debt that Compton Heights and Central West End owe Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio. The legacy of these two architects, one Florentine immigrant, and the other a native-born Venetian citizen left an indelible mark on St. Louis.

A little history is first. Venice, the youngest city in Italy is founded by migrants from the mainland after the fall of the Roman Empire. The idea that living in a saltwater lagoon would offer protection against attack was correctly derived by them. Residents survived on rainwater collected from basins. Because of its strong cultural and economic ties to Byzantine Empire, the city grew quickly in the Middle Ages. The now-defunct Church of the Holy Apostles from Constantinople inspired St. Mark’s Basilica. Our story is most important because Venice was a peaceful city-state– La Serenissima –governed by an elected leader known simply as the Doge. Architecture did not have to assume the fortified appearance of palaces and fortresses in Florence (Firenze), or other less politically stable Italian towns.

Florentine Jacopo Sansovino, a Florentine sculptor, moved to Venice in the 16th century. He had previously studied in Rome and was working on St. Peter’s Basilica. Sansovino was close to many important figures from the Venetian Renaissance including the painter Titian, and the author Pietro Aretino. The Triumvirate was a group of three friends who were well-known for their nighttime revelry. Sansovino was able to design a new mint building thanks to Venice’s political stability. As Michelozzo did in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, 15th-century Florence, Sansovino used heavy rusticated blocks for the first floor and then refined the stonework on its second and third floors. As it rises from Grand Canal, the Zecca becomes lighter in weight and airier. The first floor has arched entrances. While the upper floors have pedimented, lintels, Overall, the effect combines openness with stability.

Next, we will be looking at a Compton Heights mansion. Its stately facade shows a similar architectural organization. Buildings such as the Zecca, which is a sculptor’s masterpiece, are decorated with exquisite decorations. The later Library of St. Mark at the Campanile and the Loggetta is also heavily decorated. The central bay of our St. Louis house has elegant Renaissance-inspired pilasters, banded columns, and caryatids that emphasize the entrance. St. Louis, like Venice, does not need to protect its wealthy homes from attacks. These houses have a welcoming front facade that faces the street. The elite was provided with protection by the working class through the proliferation of private gates.

Andrea Palladio, a slightly younger native of Padua (a city on the mainland that was ruled over by Venice), was developing his style to appeal to wealthy landowners who cultivated the vast open plains in the Veneto. The Republic has long owned vast swathes of fertile lands north of the Apennine Mountains along the Po River. This was because it could not grow many crops in Venice’s lagoon. Palladio created the modern suburban home as a response to wealthy Venetian landowners who needed country homes (called villas) to live in when visiting.

The Villa Rotonda in Vicenza is perhaps the most well-known example. It shows the influence of ancient Roman architecture, as does almost all Renaissance architecture. It is a large, centrally planned building with four identical temple facades. Although the interior is small, the dome that crowns the house is very reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome and is quite impressive. Palladio can design a house that connects with the natural world from all sides, free from the constraints of Italy’s crowded and compact buildings. English architects would adopt the Venetian’s design, resulting in a style of architecture called Palladianism. The most well-known example of American architecture is Monticello, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson.

It is interesting to note that Palladio’s postmodern age has influenced the built environment in American suburbia more than he would like. A McMansion with a Tuscan column or Ionic column is most likely copying Palladio. However, I believe that Palladio’s lessons are lost if the corresponding understanding of harmony and balance is not taught. Western architecture succeeds when the proportions and symmetry of the building are correct. Not when an architect haphazardly uses a Tuscan column. This brings up a bigger issue: A Palladio-sized architect cannot control his legacy, for better and for worse.

St. Louis was blessed with some of the greatest of his influence.

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