Builders For A Golden Age

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Not long after Jefferson returned home from his trip up the coast, he started to build himself a house. He was already steeped in Palladio when he designed the first version of Monticello. It was typical of his radical and personal approach to everything he handled that he immediately worked his way through the superficially fashionable elements of English Palladianism and came to grips with the basic problem.

He wanted a manor house that would afford airy rooms and plenty of windows through which to look out on the big Virginia hills and the blue plain that moved him as much as music. He wanted a manor house which would combine under one roof the barns, storehouses, harness rooms, butteries, pantries, kitchens, tool sheds, stables, and carriage houses that were essential to the functioning of a plantation.

Palladio’s villas were a combination of dwelling house and barn.

There must be proper covers made for everything belonging to the Villa in proportion to the product of the Ground and the number of Cattle and contiguous to the main house [wrote the sixteenth-century Italian (this is Leoni’s translation)] that the Master may easily go everywhere sheltered, without being hindered from minding his business by either Snow or Rain or the scorching heat of the Sun. This will serve also to shelter the Wood and other numberless country provisions, which too much moisture of the Air, or die heat will spoil: besides that such Piazzas will make the Building look much greater.

When the style was adapted for the British noblemen (of whom Jefferson’s schoolmaster James Maury had written that their vast annual revenue ranked them with, “nay set them above many, who, in other countries, claim the royal Style and Title”), the practical features that attracted the frugal Italians were forgotten.

Jefferson’s design for Monticello went back to PaIladio’s practical villa, which was essentially a farmhouse flanked by sheds; and by skillful use of his hilltop managed to go Palladio one better by establishing the working part of the building in the wings built into the hill and lighted by loggias—roofed open galleries—which could be used to shelter his equipment. Their roof he used as a terrace from which to enjoy his unobstructed view.

Thus Monticello embodied in its structure the basic plan of his life, and of the lives he wanted for his friends and neighbors: a combination of practical American management of plantations large or small with the freedom enjoyed by the British noble, which warranted (to quote again from Maury’s letter)

his indulging himself in the Enjoyment of that calm Retreat from the Bustle of the World, of that studious Leisure & philosophical Repose which furnish him with the happiest of Opportunities, not barely of making transient visits to, but even of fixing his Residence, within those sacred Recesses, sequestered Seats & classic Grounds which are the Muses’ favorite Haunts.

Jefferson threw into the building of Monticello all his capacity for original planning and for meticulously detailed work. Whether or not he had already designed the porches at Shirley and the Randolph-Semple house at Williamsburg, as Thomas Waterman suggests in his Mansions of Virginia, by the time he tackled the plan for the first version of Monticello late in the 1760’s, he was enough of an architect to make innovations in his own right.

The war, public service, his beloved wife’s death, the difficulties of a widower trying to raise a brood of small girls—everything took Jefferson’s mind off architecture during the stormy decade that followed. It wasn’t until 1785, when he was established in Paris as American minister, that he found the leisure to study the art that “showed so much.”

Outside of the diplomatic grind, he had been entrusted with two commissions that gave him real pleasure to execute. One was to find a sculptor worthy of carving a statue of Washington, and the other was to furnish Virginia with plans for a new capitol.

For the sculptor he immediately picked Jean Antoine Houdon, whose seated figure of Voltaire was already famous. Houdon at 44 was undoubtedly the best sculptor in Europe. He had won the grand prize at the Beaux Arts at eighteen and hurried off to Rome and Winckelmann. After ten years of studying fragments of Roman copies of Greek fragments, through which artists were beginning to re-imagine the cool purity of the Attic style, Houdon carved a Diana so thinly draped that she caused great scandal when she was exhibited at a salon in the Louvre. Catherine of Russia, who was the patron of the avant-garde arts of the time, carried the naked lady off to St. Petersburg. As a result Houdon found himself with orders from all the “enlightened” European courts.

When Jefferson went to see him, he consented to leave the statues of kings unfinished and to make the hazardous voyage to America to do a head of the greatest man of the age. They agreed it was absurd to try to work from a portrait when the original was at hand at Mount Vernon.