The Discovery Of Andrea Palladio’s Lost Literary Masterpiece

Andrea Palladio is considered one of the most distinguished names in the history of architecture.  His designs of villas, churches, theaters, and palaces have for centuries been held as exemplars of the High Renaissance genius for adapting classical styles and themes to modern purposes. 

Few details of his life are known.  He was born in Padua in 1508, which was part of the Venetian Republic.  His father apprenticed him to a stone mason at the age of thirteen; the arrangement apparently did not take, for like Benjamin Franklin, the young Palladio chafed against the oppressive regimen his master imposed.  His attempted escape to Vicenza was unsuccessful, and the young Palladio was forced to serve out the remainder of his contract.  His big break came at the age of thirty, when the humanist Gian Giogio Trissino hired him to renovate his villa at Cricoli; perhaps it was this experience that fired Palladio’s enduring interest in classical literature.  Frequent visits to Rome in the 1540s deepened his appreciation for the triumphs of Roman architecture and engineering. 

The most famous printed monument of his long career was his treatise Four Books of Architecture (I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura), published in 1570 and graced with glorious illustrations.  Antiquarian scholarship always retained a certain hold on him.  He tells us, at the outset of his Four Books, how impressed he was with Caesar’s engineering achievements in the Gallic War.  In 1575, he published an innovative edition of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (Commentaries).  Warfare seemed to fascinate many Renaissance minds, among them Da Vinci and Machiavelli; clearly the political turbulence of the period highlighted the need for its study by the era’s most perceptive minds.

Andrea Palladio

Palladio’s illustrations in his edition of Caesar went beyond battlefield maps, however.  His objective was to show the reader what ancient armies actually looked like in their tactical deployments; he precisely documents the circumvallations, bridges, encampments, battle lines, and cavalry movements described in the text.  Caesar’s book only whetted his appetite for a more ambitious project:  an illustrated edition of Polybius’s Histories that would bring the military aspects of the work to graphic life.  Polybius (c. 200 B.C.—c. 118 B.C.) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period whose sweeping history recorded the rise of Roman power in the Mediterranean.  Like many ancient Greek authors, Polybius was relatively unknown in the West during the medieval period, but was rediscovered in Florence during the Renaissance.  Greek scholars had started to migrate to Italy in increasing numbers as the doomed Byzantine state choked out its last gasps of life, and they brought manuscripts with them of works that had long been assumed to be lost. 

Palladio began work on the project soon after his edition of Caesar appeared.  In all, forty-two engraved plates for the edition of Polybius were prepared before the architect’s unexpected death in 1580.  The scholar Guido Beltramini, in his 2009 study of Palladio’s unpublished manuscript of Polybius, describes the significance of Palladio’s masterful illustrations:

Before [Palladio’s] editions of Caesar and Polybius, no Italian illustrated text on war had ever used a kind of image that was both “hot,” i.e., dramatic for the reader, and “cold,” in terms of the effective hard facts.  Palladio never shows the clashing of massed armies and the heroic deeds of the commanders, who are never recognizable in the images.  In this sense his views are diametrically opposed to the “painting of deeds”…His choice of a specific viewpoint provides the best way of seeing the deployments of troops in the field and the otography of the site, which is of crucial importance in winning battles.  [G. Beltramini, Andrea Palladio and the Architecture of Battle, with the Unpublished Edition of Polybius’s Histories, Venice:  2009, p. 54] 

Palladio’s engravings, notes Beltramini, are much like “film stills” of the ancient battles; our perspective is pulled back drastically, and we are able to witness the instruments of battle from the altitude of a detached bird’s eye.  This was something very new.  By bringing his experience in architecture to the world of antiquarian military history, Palladio had revolutionized the study of ancient battle.  It must have been a labor of love, for Palladio personally financed the costs involved in preparing the copperplate engravings. 

Title page of Palladio’s “Four Books On Architecture”

When Palladio died in 1580, however, his manuscript of Polybius mysteriously disappeared, along with all the relevant engravings.  For nearly four hundred years—three hundred ninety-seven, to be precise—Palladio’s masterpiece was thought to be irretrievably lost.  But then a miracle happened in 1977.  In that year, British historian John Hale was conducting research in the British Library in London, and came across an obscure work entitled Polibio Historico Greco:  Dell’Imprese de’Greci, de gli Asiatici, de’Romani, et d’altri.  The codex had been published in Venice in 1564, but Hale’s sharp eye detected something odd about it.  Someone had inserted into the book, in various places, forty-three engravings and six folio sheets with a long introduction.  Markings on the sheets, and the content of the etchings, led Hale to believe that he was holding in his hands Palladio’s lost unpublished illustrated edition of Polybius.  Hale later noted—somewhat dryly referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s detective tale The Purloined Letter—that manuscript had escaped notice for so long because it had been, so to speak, “hiding in plain sight” in an obvious place. 

A plate from Palladio’s “Four Books On Architecture,” showing Julius Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine

But how did the manuscript find its way to the British Library?  The fascinating story is related by Guido Beltramini.  The earliest complete biography of Palladio, the Vita di Andrea Palladio Scritta da Paolo Gualdo, was published in 1749 by Vicentine Count Giovanni Montenari.  This account, written by a contemporary of Palladio named Paolo Gualdo, disclosed for the first time the existence of the illustrated Polybius manuscript.  The book contained this sentence:

He [Palladio] did some very worthy work on Polybius, dedicating it to Francesco, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who showed he was very fond of it.

No one seemed to know what had happened to Palladio’s original.  We now know that the work was buried in the extensive collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith.  Smith was an enthusiastic collector of antiquities and books, but he did not know what he was holding.  We cannot really fault Smith for this oversight; his holdings were so large that it is unlikely he had the time to examine minutely every book he owned.  What is scandalous is why Palladio’s heirs did nothing to preserve or posthumously publish his work after his death in 1580.  Perhaps Palladio’s sons took no interest in their father’s legacy; or perhaps some other family member stole the work and, needing money, peddled the manuscript to a dealer.  Such things have happened before; we have in previous pages discussed the possibility that the precious manuscript for Cicero’s lost work On Glory may have been stolen by an acquaintance of Petrarch and sold for cash. 

All things considered, it was enough that Smith housed and preserved the manuscript for posterity.  If one lacks the means to do positive good, he should at least take care to do no harm.  Palladio’s manuscript had been in Smith’s possession since 1751, but arrived in London between 1762 and 1763, when Smith’s book collection was sold to King George III himself.  There the book remained hidden in obscurity, under mounds of the king’s papers and books.  In 1845, a scholar named Antonio Magrini, examining Renaissance documents, demonstrated conclusively the existence of the Polybius manuscript and engravings. 

The 2009 reprint of Palladio’s masterwork. published in Venice

And there things stood until Hale’s discovery in 1977.  But this is not the end of the tale.  In 1985, a Florentine rare book dealer put up for sale a 1564 edition of Polybius.  The book contained the same plates and introduction that Hale had found in London in 1977.  This copy was of higher quality than the one Hale had found; the engravings were much clearer and contained legends.  Scholars concluded that the 1985 Florentine edition was an original mock-up of Palladio’s text, while Hale’s 1977 copy was an inferior version made for preservative purposes.  In 2008, it was discovered that the London exemplar contained notes in Palladio’s own hand.  This discovery suggests that the London copy was perhaps a “working copy” used by Palladio to edit his work in its final stages. 

If one treasure can be so discovered, others can be as well.  Who can say what gems lie hidden among the dusty shelves of silent libraries? Perhaps Poe was correct when he noted, in The Purloined Letter, that “[D]iscovery depends, not at all upon the acumen, but altogether upon the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers.”  




Take a look at the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: