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Last year marked the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio's birth. Arguably the most influential architect of the Western world, Palladio exercised his craft in Venice and its surrounding territories until his death in 1580. He specialised in domestic architecture, which combined a sure grasp of the classical orders, with an imaginative recreation of ancient buildings' appearances. Palladio distilled his genius into a major handbook, Quattro Libri or Four Books of Architecture (1570), a work that has kept his designs and fame alive.

The anniversary has generated a predictable crop of books and symposia, not least a splendid exhibition that will run at the Royal Academy from 31 January to 13 April. Last December, I had the honour of participating in a creative celebration of Palladio's architecture, namely an evaluation of design projects by undergraduates at Notre Dame's School of Architecture. Notre Dame is a bastion of postmodernism, rooted in traditional architecture as championed by Léon Krier and Quinlan Terry. Students had been asked to design a chapel dedicated to St Andrew, Palladio's namesake, and to draw inspiration from his buildings. The projects ranged from the ingenious to the pedestrian. By and large, the references to Palladio were little more than skin deep - here, the temple façade of Palladio's Redentore; there, the interlocking large and small orders of San Giorgio Maggiore. Yet the interiors were generally simple boxes or circular in plan and almost all of them unrelated to the subtly shifting volumes that make Palladio's buildings such an entrancing experience. Palladio still enjoys a mystique, and anyone who has glanced at his drawings or treatise will realise that his achievements were grounded in years of hard work and arduous study. His style is easier to describe than imitate, and his reputation has fluctuated surprisingly over the past 200 years.

Palladio reigned supreme among classically-minded architects until the 19th century. His vision of antiquity seemed more coherent and persuasive than any of his contemporaries or successors, and its essence was reduced to flexible, modern formulae through his book. But around 1800, a reaction developed against Palladio as gatekeeper of architectural good taste. Travel broadened the knowledge of classical architecture, and the once-despised gothic received new advocacy as the natural medium for religious buildings. Then, too, architects and connoisseurs discovered that the reality of Palladio's work was rather different from the printed versions.

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