It's an inexorable law of art appreciation that vague rhapsody will drive out sturdy practical fact. Take Palladio, for example, the subject of The Perfect House: the Life and Work of Palladio, and a useful case study in the vapourising effects of fame. He is, we were told at the beginning, "the world's most influential architect", certainly an arguable case, even if Mies van der Rohe has been eating into his lead over the past half century. But he began not as an hallowed "ism" but as a stonemason's apprentice, learning his trade from the bottom up. BBC4's film had some enchanting film of Italian stonemasons at work, tracing the outlines of the designs on to raw blocks and chiselling their way towards a finished perfection, and it suggestively reminded you of the solid practical roots of his architecture. Some of this got through. With one of his big early designs in Vicenza, Palladio delivered premium appearance on an economy budget by building the pillars in brick and then coating them with a plaster mixed with marble dust. That kind of concrete detail, though, was always going to struggle to prevail over the lofty effusions of Palladio enthusiasts. Among other things, The Perfect House was a fine demonstration of the Italian readiness to wax lyrical in the presence of a piece of national patrimony. "It was like a great voice that spoke in the desert," said one enthusiast about the imposing Villa Foscari, by which he essentially meant that it was bigger than anything else around it.
Still, if you can't wax lyrical about a Palladian villa, what can you wax lyrical about? They looked absolutely gorgeous here, framing verdant chunks of the Veneto or just resting there in the sun, commanding prosperity rendered in stone and stucco. No wonder Palladio's architectural recipe books – ingredients and method obligingly itemised – proved so influential, even if his conviction that the Romans had temple fronts on their villas was just so much 16th-century fantasy. Palladio, to turn the conventional praise of genius on its head, was very imitable indeed, even though a lot of the imitations are rather boring and entirely miss out on the fact that, in his time, he was as radical as Van der Rohe. The Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza starkly declined to blend in with the buildings that surrounded it and had he been alive at the time Prince Charles would probably have denounced it as a carbuncle. Given enough time, though, and Palladio's mash-up of classical detailing and rigid rules on proportion became the house style – rather literally – of the English ruling classes. It must be absolutely lovely to grow up in one, like the Italian contessa here who revealed that her imaginary childhood friends had all been painted by Veronese, but if you wanted a comment on the adaptability of Palladio's grand style to more modest incomes, it was eloquently provided by the nasty flat-pack Palladianism of the executive starter homes shown towards the end of the programme. The villas are wonderful, but the theories don't really scale down for mass production.
In Willie's Perfect Chocolate Christmas, Channel 4 offered a kind of yule-log encore of their four-part series about Willie Harcourt-Cooze's attempt to get a grand-cru chocolate business off the ground. I bought some of Willie's chocolate in the supermarket just the other day, so presumably he's still in business, but I hope very much that his product doesn't have as many artificial additives as this programme. I know that Nigella has set the bar very high in this regard, with those "casual" dinner parties in which all the guests appear to have come straight on from a Benetton poster shoot. But I do wonder why they bother to pretend so much rather than just give us the recipes and tell us to get on with it. Here, for example, we were supposed to believe that we were watching the real preparations for the Harcourt-Cooze's own Christmas Day, which would imply that Willie's expressed desire to spend more time with his wife and children had come a poor second to having a television crew around and working through the holiday. The Christmas fair the family attended in Bath and the foliage on the trees suggested that it had been filmed fairly close to Christmas, either this year or last, but it still felt completely ersatz. Most embarrassing was the ring-ting-tingling interlude where the family larked about in a winter wonderland. Perhaps it's something to do with the micro-climate where Willie lives, but they have very odd snow down there. It looks exactly like the stuff that comes out of a nozzle.
"I've got one final surprise that I'm really looking forward to," Willie said towards the end, after the oven-pit-roasted lamb had been disinterred and the chocolate-stuffed turkey consumed. Presumably, it was going to be the moment he turned to the children and said, "The good news is that we get to do it all again for real in two months' time."Reuse content