A temple to the spirit of Rome

Richard Hewlings visits two exhibitions on Lord Burlington, who used an cient architecture as a response to moral problems
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Opening today at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of the drawings by Lord Burlington (1694-1753), the amateur architect, of his remarkable house at Chiswick, west London. Do not let this sideshow be overshadowed by the great Poussin exhibition i n the same building (Burlington House). For Burlington is one of Britain's most influential architects, whose name and ideas, hijacked since his death by propagandists in search of precedent and pedigree, have finally been returned to their proper settin g.

Since the Forties, he has been adopted as a prophet of the Modern Movement. In 1947, the architect Colin Rowe published "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa", claiming that the Modern masters - Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe among them - had drawn their principles of geometric composition from Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Italian architect. Rudolf Wittkower, the art historian, followed Rowe in 1948 with a series of articles identifying Burlington as Palladio's principal English interpreter.

Ever since - not least because Rowe and Wittkower's articles have been required student reading for 50 years - Chiswick House has been a shrine to the presumed Modernist tendencies of our periwigged and knee-breeched predecessors.

This would have surprised Burlington and those early visitors who flocked to Chiswick House and found it "more curious than convenient": hardly the stuff of Modern Movement functionalism. Queen Caroline and her daughters visited, as did Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Algarotti, who told Frederick the Great all about it; Frederick had two houses built in Potsdam from designs drawn direct from Burlington. In 1814, Frederick's grandson, Frederick William III, came to see Chiswick House with Alexander I of Russia. Charles James Fox elected to die in the house, as did George Canning, the Tory prime minister.

Why so much prolonged curiosity about a house that, today, seems little more than the familiar, if elegant, centrepiece of a public park squeezed between main roads?

Because, then as now, it is an extremely curious building. Its approach, flanked by herms and a door guarded by statues of architects, is unprecedented in England. The main entrance is a blank passage that opens straight into the main room. On the floor below, an even odder door was copied from those found in the pedestals of the columns of Trajan and Atoninus in Rome. The divided and subdivided interior stair is disproportionately large for so small a country house. To each side of the house, lengths of wall are extended, leading nowhere, attached to nothing else and flanking nothing. Rooms are heated by chimneys in the outside walls (normal practice in Palladio's Veneto but a practice long superseded in England); the chimney stacks are obelisk-shaped, common in Venice, unique in England. All these features aimed to shock; and the shock of the new drew the rich and fashionable here in droves.

An 18th-century enthusiast could read the house like a book of Roman antiquities: it had a stepped dome based on the Minerva Medica, a ground floor plan based on the Lateran Baptistery; its ornament was copied from the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Temple of Mars Ultor, the Maison Carre at Nimes.

Ancient architecture meant something more to Burlington than "classicism" does to fogeys and buffs today. It was not the answer to a problem of taste, as it is today, but a response to what he saw as a moral problem: England's commercial and political success was, as had happened with Rome, presaging a moral decline. Ancient art, through the use of symbols and myth, provided a language to men like Burlington through which to propagate solutions. Translated into the stones of Chiswick, this language was meant as a contribution to a moral and political debate. While this might seem odd today, it was understood by the cognoscenti in Burlington's day.

So the Modern Movement view of Chiswick House as some sort of platonic abstraction, some lineal predecessor of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1929-31), is false, overlooking the fact that this architecture is loaded with meaning. It is, in fact, a miniature model of the ideal city-state: it has gates, a rampart, a temple facing an amphitheatre; a garden building called the Bagnio is its bathhouse; it has its symbolic basilica and palatine (or acropolis). Those stone sphinxes and herms exclude disorder, while the stone architects flanking the door (Palladio and Inigo Jones) represent the interpreters of arcane mysteries who will guide the elect towards the true path of moral, political and artististic perfectibility.

Burlington's style as witnessed in his town buildings, too (a complimentary exhibition of these is on show at the Riba Drawings Collection, Portman Square), was immensely influential. In fact, he is the only architect whose name is synonymous with a specific style, Palladian, fitting neatly into conventional art history chronology between baroque (which he found grotesque) and rococo (which he would have found decadent).

But Burlington did not replicate Palladio's magnificent farmhouses; Palladio was simply the most accessible of the great Renaissance architects, not least because of his writings on the subject. Burlington's wealth enabled him to buy the major part of Palladio's drawings, but he bought those of many other Italian architects, too.

The Burlington exhibitions come at time when our view of 18th-century art and architecture is changing: the century's intellectual and political history is being woven into a story still seen in purely aesthetic terms. Such aestheticism would never have satisfied Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, Lord Treasurer of Ireland, Lord Lieutenant of the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, Captain of the Band of Gentleman Pensioners, Privy Councillor and Knight of the Garter: he was too earnest for that. It istime to look at Chiswick House for the first time since then with 18th-century eyes.

`The Palladian Revival: Lord Burlington and his house and garden at Chiswick', 2 February - 2 April, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1

`Lord Burlington's Town Architecture', Riba Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1, until 1 April.