by Bruce Boucher, Director, U.Va. Art Museum
The Lawn of the University of Virginia is one of the great architectural masterpieces of America. It embodies not only Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the power of knowledge, but also the symbolic form in which it could be manifested in a university setting. He employed the classical orders to embody a hierarchy of knowledge on the Lawn, from the colonnades to the pavilions, and, of course, the central Rotonda (Rotunda). In doing so, he also indulged in a degree of “creative misinterpretation” about his sources.
An amateur architect, Jefferson never visited Rome or saw the majority of classical buildings that he esteemed; hence, his knowledge of ancient architecture was acquired largely at second hand. As a consequence, he had to rely upon the interpretation of earlier sources for much of his information, and he turned particularly to a classic treatise of the Renaissance, Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (1570), as a guide to the best models of ancient and modern buildings. Jefferson did not own an original copy of Palladio’s book; instead, he owned an eighteenth-century English edition of Palladio’s book, which altered some of Palladio’s original designs, much as Palladio had employed guesswork in reconstructing the fragments of Roman temples into coherent illustrations for his book.
Adding to this creative mix was Jefferson’s collaboration with his younger colleague Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe had been architect of the Capitol in Washington while Jefferson was president, and he provided crucial advice to Jefferson in 1817 when he reviewed initial plans for the Lawn of the University of Virginia. Latrobe suggested two new ingredients lacking in Jefferson’s design: a central Rotunda and the use of large and small orders of columns to animate the design of the Academical Village. Latrobe based these suggestions upon a creative misunderstanding of Roman architecture that had been perpetrated by Palladio himself, namely the relationship between the Roman Pantheon and the Baths of Agrippa. Palladio and archaeologists down to the nineteenth century believed that the Pantheon was the focal point of a large thermal complex, begun around 25 B.C. and rebuilt in the second century A.D. Many scholars in Jefferson’s day also believed that the Pantheon was not intended to be a temple, but rather a secular building devoted to libraries and public discussions, which took place in the baths. The link between the Pantheon and the Baths of Agrippa is now known to be false, but the visual connection, as bodied forth in Palladio’s reconstructions, obviously struck a chord with Jefferson and played a role in drawing together the strands of his thinking about the university into a coherent whole.
This talk will be presented on September 1, 2012 at More Than the Score