Skip to content

Palladio and Pattern Books

Colonial America offered no schools to train builders or architects. In the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, the passing of knowledge and know-how from builder to apprentice contributed to the relative stasis that characterized America's early colonial architecture -- styles and techniques brought over from England were maintained and re-used. The occasional arrival of a new architect or builder trained in England would provide new information and perhaps an updating in style.

By the mid-18th century, however, the increase in publication and availability of architectural books not only meant that American builders and designers had increased access to readily-imitated designs, but also that they could feel themselves connected to the new architectural trends in London. Fueled by a growing interest in the works of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), many architects strove to create a more classical, national architectural style in England, as opposed to the Continental Baroque most clearly represented by the churches built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. English architects such as William Kent, with the sponsorship of gentleman scholars such as Lord Burlington, began to study both the works of Palladio, and the first English architect to have been influenced by Palladio's work -- Inigo Jones.

The books that reached American contained few faithful reproductions based on Palladio's 1570 work Quattro Libri dell' Architettura. Instead they featured illustrations of adaptations of Palladio's ideas and designs, and their manifestations in London. Thus, buildings in America influenced by these books are more correctly identified as Anglo-Palladian rather than Palladian. The most influential of these books were the "translation" of Palladio, Four Books of Architecture, by the Venetian Giacomo Leoni (1715); Vitruvius Britannicus by the Colen Campbell (1715); The Designs of Inigo Jones by the William Kent (1727); A Book of Architecture by James Gibbs (1728); Palladio Londinensis: of, The London Art of Building by William Salmon (1738); and The City and Country Builders and Workman's Treasury of Designs by Batty Langley (1740).

According to architectural historian Leland M Roth, in addition to providing motifs and elevations to be copied, these architectural treatises upheld and supported a coherent set of design principles that could be emulated in any region of the colonies. These included bilateral symmetry about a center axis; clearly articulated entrances, windows, and edges; proportional relationship among the building's elements; and ornamentation that derived from classical antiquity.

Later in the 18th century, new architectural treatises provided information on the progress of the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and encouraged a more exacting, archaeological interest in the styles and structures of classical antiquity. This lay the foundation for America's participation in the Neo-Classical movement, which centered on the works of the English architect Robert Adam, and the Greek Revival in the beginning of the 19th century.