POLITICS
AND THE PALLADIAN IDEAL

The following essay is by an old friend of mine, Barrance C. Lespine. When he and i first met back in the 1960s, we found that we had a lot of obscure and specialized interests in common -- and because we had few other acquaintances with whom to discuss these topics, we remained correspondents for many years. Now, through the internet, i am able to contact dozens of others who contribute to the field of interdisciplinary studies, but Barry still holds a special place in my world because through three decades of sharing books and news clippings, he singlehandly had the greatest influence on my own explorations into the subjects of sacred architecture, archaeoastronomy, neo-Platonism, archaeology, and "all that stuff."

In this piece he considers the political implications of the Palladian ideal as brought forward in a fairly obscure book by Reinhard Bentman and Michael Mčller -- or, to put it another way, he asks the architects of the sacred the same question that Percival was supposed to ask the Grail King, but failed to utter: "Unto whom is it served?"


LORDS OF PARADISE

by Barrance C. Lespine

In 1970, two young Germans, Reinhard Bentman and Michael Mčller, wrote a book called "Die Villa als Herrschaftarchitektur" [Surkamp Verlag], which was translated into English by Tim Spence and David Craven under the title "The Villa as Hegemonic Architecture" [Humanities Press International, 1992]. In this volume, Bentman and Mčller analyze the the 16th century Italian villa as a social and political institution expressing in its architecture ruling class aspirations and assumptions of social authority. In doing so, they reveal what they believe are a set of beliefs and myths that form the ideological foundation of villa architecture. The most far-reaching part of the dialectical approach of their Marxist analysis is their identification and examination of competing "utopian" and "counter-utopian" models of social organization.

The cycle of the opposition and synthesis of utopian and counter-utopian organizational models postulated by the authors has implications that reach beyond the limits of the book's modest goals, which are to describe and analyze the basis of Italian villa architecture and some of its adaptions by the upper classes in other parts of Europe. The dialectic theory they propose can also be used to illuminate the dynamics of a great body of charismatic social theory which has had a powerful influence on western culture since the Renaissance. By extension, their theory is also a particularly useful tool for examining aspects of popular culture in the 20th century.

The authors' dialectic presents the concept of utopia as primarily the literary vision of an idealized urban environment where everything would be ordered so as to achieve the greatest common good. Existing social ills would be resolved, particularly those affecting the poor and working classes. "Utopia" takes its name from a book written in 1516 by Sir Thomas More. While not the first of the type, this book has given its name retrospectively to an to a entire genre of literature and its accompanying philosophy, including "The Republic" by Plato and the theocratic model set out in St. Augustine's "City of God" in the 5th century, which had a powerful influence on thought in the middle ages. Against these urban utopias, the authors set the model of the villa culture of the 16th century Venetian Terra Firma agricultural region, where new capital from international trade pushed the established feudal landholders aside. The authors characterize what the villas represented as the "counter-utopia," not because it stood opposed to the creation of an ideal world, but because of how that ideal world was organized and who controlled it.

The ideal world of the villas embodied a vision of an earthly paradise as well, but for the rich, not the poor; for the few, rather than the many; esoteric rather than popular. The counter-utopia was autocratic or charismatic rather than democratic. Its setting was rural rather than urban, arguing that rural life is closer to man's natural state. Its culture self-consciously patterned itself after an idealized Roman villa culture which itself had been patterned after an idealized Greek model. As such it sought revival of lost glory rather than reform, and it looked to pagan antiquity as a model for timeless stability, while the urban utopia looked to the future for change.

The inclusion of neo-Platonic elements in villa architecture was part of the contemporary exaltation of pagan antiquity in general, and within the context of the era, ways were found to make these concepts support rather than challenge Christianity. Arcane metaphysical systems that comprised the substance of neo-Platonism support a hegemonic rather than egalitarian world view in the opinion of the authors. It is interesting to observe that in subsequent centuries power elites appeared to cling to the material forms of the classical and imperial tradition while the neo-Platonic spirit became part of the liberal humanist's urban utopian vision.

Andrea Palladio is possibly the best known of the architects whose work embodied the aspirations and ideology of the Villeggiatura. Palladio knew little of the Greeks and had derived his theories from years of measuring Roman ruins. He believed that the ruins contained, "a universally applicable vocabulary of architectural forms" which the Romans had developed. His belief was that, Othrough careful study and judicious use, these forms will result in "Beauty" which is "also rooted in historical correctness." The enduring influence of this movement's architecture is linked to the ideological assumptions at its core, and in which it enshrined the philosophy of its builders and the occupants.

The union of art and science was the Palladian ideal. According to Bentman and Mčller, "this was the central maxim of the humanist Giangeorgio Tressino's Vincentine Academy, which so impressed the young Palladio." It also determined the direction of the Vincentine Academy Olympica, which Palladio co-founded in his later years. There, mathematics was the basis of the curriculum for all the arts and sciences. Courses included the study of proportion, symmetry, and spherical trigonometry, as well as the relationship between music and architectural form as propounded by the Roman theorist Boethius.

In the Palladian era the concepts "verita, belleza, e virtu" (truth, beauty, and virtue) and their mathematical basis were promoted as a coherent system in art as well as science. In turn this system was part of a body of evolving hermetic and neo-platonic thought concerning the mathematically ordered harmony of the universe with its attendant hierarchical models of organization. A related cosmological model promoted by Claudius Ptolemy, the Alexandrian astronomer, also found favor. His image of a hierarchy of planetary spheres reinforced the image of a corresponding social hierarchy as intrinsic to the cosmos. Therefore, by the logic that its principles were extracted from the laws of truth, beauty and harmony, architecture styled itself as one of their emanations and attempted to project itself as a moral force. In time this belief motivated social reformers and guided their architectural impulses.

The underlying issue from a hegemonic standpoint is that the architectural forms represented in the villas by Palladio and his colleagues appropriate the forms of Roman temple architecture. To the extent that they are symbols of god in his temple surrounded by the divinely ordered fabric of the universe, they imply the hierarchical power relationships that derive from this model of its organization. The Venetian patrones literally enshrined themselves. They appropriated the privileged position in these hierarchies and played at classical kingship with its claim to divinity, god descent, and ultimately god consent. In the authors' view maxims like "as above, so below" or "on earth as it is in heaven" are not simply invocations of divine harmony, but are loaded with hegemonic implications as well. Similar dynamics apply in the appeal of Inigo Jones' Palladian designs. His work on the great country houses of the English nobility in turn set the standard for colonial plantations throughout the English-speaking world. In time their hegemonic imagery reached beyond the purely Greek and Roman forms and aspired to claim the outward architectural forms of other ancient empires -- Egypt, Babylon, and Byzantium -- as well.

The discovery of the New World provided unparalleled opportunity for the projection of utopian fantasy. This continues to the present day in the form of what is loosely called The American Dream. Though colonial america was far removed in time and space from Rennaisance Italy, the dynamic between utopian and counter-utopian models identified there continue to develop according to the established pattern. The early successful settlements in America were by small spiritual communities, but the counter-utopian forces -- those who would be kings -- quickly established themselves as large-scale landholders on the old model.

Among these men, one of the most influential, at least in architectural terms, was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who dreamed of america as a nation of independent small farmers, owned of one of the first copies of Vitruvius' "On Architecture" brought to the New World. With his home at Monticello and his designs for the campus of the University of Virgina, this signer of the declaration of independence gave the stamp of approval to neo-classical design as the "official" format for institutional buildings in America. After Jefferson, every college became a counter-utopian Arcadia.

As the nation grew, westward expansion of the United States became so entwined with the pursuit of utopian aspirations that the ruins of the Old West now function as a nostalgic Arcadia of their own, just like those of Greece or Rome -- the repository of mythic virtue and traditional values. It is worth noting also that when the vernacular wooden architecture of the rural Old West gave way to more permanent structures of government and commerce, the style symbolizing hegemonic control was the familiar neo-classical Capitol and its companion, the Bank-Temple.

With the dawn of the industrial age, the dream of a large-scale urban utopia seemed possible. A new century gave the excuse to plan a new civilization. The 1892 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, showcased a neo-classic counter-utopia as a model for the future, complete with overtly Greco-Roman architecture. This was to be an industrial Arcadia ruled not by crass capitalists but by the moral values of a genteel cultural elite.

Instead, as the new century unfolded it was clear that the hum of the well-oiled machine had replaced the music of the spheres. Technology was expected to liberate the masses. Utopian fantasy merged with the glorification of mechanical progress. Marxist socialist art reveled in the heroic imagery of workers toiling to build the bigger and better hydro-electric plants of the worker's paradise. But utopia needed architecture and design. The industrial designers supplied it.

In Germany, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus offered an early utopian vision of the unification of style with mass production. During the 1920s the American art historian Jay Hambidge inspired some of the best known American architects and industrial designers of his time, including Claude Bragdon, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Edward B. Edwards, to re-examine the mathematical basis of classical forms. While avoiding any historical references, they extracted from these mathematical models a variant on Art Deco. The bold geometry of proportional masses, clean lines, curves and angles came to be known as Streamline Style. At the New York World's Fair in 1939, where the Streamline style received its greatest exposure, it was clear that the new look of the utopian dream -- "The World of The Future" -- was a superb marketing tool. Thereafter in the capitalist countries consumerism became inseparable from the future.

Sometimes planning for the greatest good took the form of arrogance. Following the devastation of World War II, Europe attempted to rebuild its ravaged cities. The avant garde architect Corbusier, who had offered to redesign Paris for Hitler, proposed Swiss-watch like centrally planned urban designs upon the messy ruins of the past. U.S. policy makers experimented with similar solutions to the outward aspects of urban decay. Large housing projects inspired by the International Style were imposed on the untidy poor and the politically disenfranchised. In time these designs with no roots in local culture or history were a spectacular belly flop.

By mid-century, utopia had developed a long list of critics.Their activities form an extensive history all its own. Since the late 19th century a succession of small spiritual communities had carried the counter-utopian banner. As before, they embodied a belief in the virtue of rural life. Following World War One, new groups attempted to establish their own symbols of counter-utopian hegemony. They competed ideologically by appealing to competing visions of higher order. Politically they were socialist rather than capitalist and spiritually they tended to exoticism. Following the pattern, they re-surveyed the ancient world looking for material to appropriate. They cast a wider net than had the Palladians, by-passing Greece and Rome. The Theosophists, whose inspiration came from India rather than pagan Europe, led the way here. They built communities in California and other places. Less religiously-motivated reformers, such as Ralph Borsodi drew on the traditions of transcendentalism and glorification of the rural life to establish communal retreats during the Great Depression. For the most part, these elitist visions were shattered by World War Two.

Following the war a new counter-utopia appeared that was to have great social impact. In the late 1960s an amorphous and idealistic youth culture sprang up which was not impressed with the urban industrial construct of the previous era. The primary architectural expression of this group was to occupy and renovate the decaying relics of pre-war boom eras that were ignored and out of favor. Particularly desirable were ornate Victorian houses and other decorative styles that bucked sleek modernism on the one hand and suburban blandness on the other. These also had space for extended families of friends to help make the rent. Participants in the rural form of this counter-culture sought out large farmhouses, which had similar practical value and evoked both nostalgic aesthetics and reinforced socialist images of the extended family as a cooperative economic unit.

Counter-utopian prophets like Tim Leary promoted the esoteric brotherhood of the turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. In an increasingly populous world, his message was to turn toward the wide open spaces of the inner world and there experience the hidden structure of reality. Meanwhile others, including Stewart Brand, the publisher of "The Whole Earth Catalog," encouraged a return to rural living, independence from the mass culture, and self-sufficient technology, with low tech preferred over high tech. Brand's philosophy was demonstrated by the work he and his associates invested in researching and publishing the names and addresses of firms which continued to manufacture 19th century technological aids like hand-cranked grist-mills.

The late 1960s saw a Jeffersonian exaltation of the natural man. Part of the same package was the eating of so-called natural foods, and the wearing of natural fibers rather than refined or synthetic products. All this formed a body of hegemonic tokens for the counter-utopians. Vanished and vanishing civilizations in every part of the world were paraded and romanticized as the sources of lost wisdom and social harmony during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although plans for numerous pre-industrial era styles of dwellings, including tipis, log cabins, and yurts, were published by members of this movement, they did not generate a conspicuous new architecture until Brand began to promote the work of the aging industrial designer Buckminster Fuller.

It took Fuller to give this period a counter-utopian architectural symbol, the inexpensive and easy to build geodesic dome. The dome was promoted as an ideal living space, but in the end there was nothing cheap, simple, or easy about building domes. In its time the dome came to symbolize an image of the technology of the machine age in the service of a multi-faceted global consciousness. The design of the dome itself was influenced by the exoskeletons of ancient sea creatures and could be said to have extended the concept of historical nostalgia to the floor of the Pre-Cambrian seas! Regardless of its lack of practicality, the vision of the rural dome as ideal dwelling space was an attempt to unify mass production with organic forms. Its conception was essentially similar to the way in which the Palladians had tried to create a design scheme based on the structure of the universe.

Post-Modernism appeared during the 1970s to re-survey the legacy of the industrial era and its design movements. Ultimately Post-Modernism developed into a new architectural face for the next wave of the mass utopian consumer culture. From a post-modern re-appraisal of Palladian neo-classicism emerged a contemporary adaptation which gained increasing acceptance as a power-architecture for mass produced luxury homes. Similarly, Neo-Palladian stage sets are common in advertisements for luxury cars and other high-priced products. This suggests that the adapted style is being marketed as a status symbol with associated elite hegemonic implications.

The emerging culture of the internet has parallels with the established counter-utopian pattern; its advocates appear to be organizing a structure for a new mass paradigm. Leary and Brand both saw the extension of their visions in the personal computer revolution. There is no need for physical retreat to a rural setting; every home office becomes a virtual villa from which the user can journey to frolic in a digital Arcadia, sharing carefully structured hierarchies of linked web sites with a world-wide brotherhood of equals. Reality's most exciting parts are gathered and accessible for survey and interpretation by the cognescenti. Mastery of emerging information technologies provides a powerful hegemonic position, but -- as with the early counter-culture of the late 1960s -- a direct architectural expression of the computer society has not yet emerged. Perhaps it will only exist in virtual form, as the need for command of the actual landscape lessens.

The point of all this is to recognize the historical continuity of competing social visions from the Renaissance down to our own time. Likewise, it is possible to use this model as a tool to examine the internal logic of social movements, their symbols and rhetoric, and how they organize themselves. As the world moves into the post-communist era with its fantasy of global free market capitalism, while industrial giants promote the computer as the centerpiece of mass consumer lifestyle, it will be interesting to see whether the established dialectic patterns reappear along with the issues and symbols around which they crystalize.


I would like to add a personal note to Barry's essay:

I was a member of the 1960s - 70s rural counter-culture movement. I come from a family of counter-culturists, for my mother resided briefly at Ralph Borsodi's rural commune in the 1930s and later co-founded an anarchist commune in northern California. I was not merely one of those who used the hand-cranked grist-mills that Stewart Brand promoted, i -- along with my then-partner Peter -- was a reviewer for "The Whole Earth Catalog." We were but two of many who, in Barry's words, "sought out large farmhouses, which [...] evoked both nostalgic aesthetics and reinforced socialist images of the extended family as a cooperative economic unit." When my 15 years of neo-19th century living in Washington, California, and the Ozarks played itself out, i worked my way forward through time, as many of my peers did, to the cuspal era between the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Deco. I now have running water. And electricity. Hurrah.

I still live in an old farmhouse, but instead of the farmhouse-as-commune that i idealized (and realized) at Tolstoy Peace Farm and Equitable Farm and The Garden of Joy Blues, my current home is, to borrow Barry's terminology, a farmhouse-as-villa. Of course, there is very little about the structure itself that accords to the neo-classical Palladian ideal of a villa. Its sternly Victorian kitchen barely accomodates my sleek 1920s gas range and 1930s refrigerator; its vertical 1875 exterior is only slightly modified by the encircling 1910s-style rose-covered pergolas that wreath it. But architectural design aside, my home is a villa in the political sense: it is, to quote from a letter Barry wrote to me, "not organized around common areas and utility and access to the workplace for great numbers [but rather] around the image of central authority." My authority, in this case. Or perhaps my cat's.

A few years ago, in recognition of my hegemony, i had a very large, flat river rock engraved with the words "ET IN ARCADIA EGO" and placed beside the back door of my house. Nearly every time i walk the path that passes by that monument to my vanity, i see the old tabby cat Ptera sitting on the stone, the undisputed Mistress of all that she surveys. Hegemonic architecture indeed!

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