As a mathematics professor at Sweet Briar College, Steve Wassell doesn’t have to look far to see work inspired by the man he calls “the most influential architect of all times.”
Although designed in the early part of the 20th century by well-known architect Ralph Adams Cram, many of Sweet Briar’s structures are Palladian, a style named for Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
One of Palladio’s masterpieces is the subject of a book Wassell recently co-authored with architectural historian Branko Mitrovic, “Andrea Palladio: Villa Cornaro in Piombino Dese.”
Located about 30 minutes by train inland from Venice in the town of Piombino Dese, Villa Cornaro was listed among the top-10 most influential buildings by Town & Country magazine in 2003.
It is owned by an American couple, Carl and Sally Gable, who use it as a vacation home and offer tours by appointment. “It’s in excellent shape for a building five hundred years old,” Wassell said, adding that the Gables were “enthusiastic” about the project.
The oversized book contains more than a dozen fold-out 17-by-24-inch drawings of Villa Cornaro along with essays written about its design. It hits shelves in June, and will be available through Amazon.com and the publisher, Acanthus Press.
Beginning in 2003, the team — made up of Wassell, Mitrovic and two of Mitrovic’s former students, Tim Ross and Melanie Bourke — measured Villa Cornaro using laser technology. They compared their measurements to those recorded by Palladio in his treatise, known in English as “The Four Books on Architecture.”
“[We] measured every nook and cranny of the building, basically,” Wassell said. “This book presents that survey through a complete set of architectural drawings, plans, elevations, sections and details. Then, based on the survey results, we also have four essays in the book analyzing Palladio’s design methodology.”
One of the essays details the team’s quest to determine one important detail: What constituted a “foot” in 16th-century Italy? “At that point, there were different feet in different regions of Italy,” Wassell said. “We had to determine to the best of our capability what [Palladio’s] foot was.”
After performing a series of measurements — which included comparing the dimensions of the home’s main “salon” and the exterior columns — they settled on 34.8 centimeters, give or take a half millimeter.
“That’s seemingly preposterous accuracy,” Wassell said. “This building was built five hundred years ago.”
Although Wassell has degrees in architecture and mathematics from the University of Virginia, he partially credits SBC colleague and well-known art historian Christopher Witcombe with cultivating his interest in the “mathematics of aesthetics.”
“[Chris] taught a course many years ago in sacred geometry and asked me to contribute to the course,” Wassell said. “The idea is this: From prehistoric times, simple geometries were imbued with meanings, and that tradition was passed down through the centuries, so that by the time the Renaissance came around there were all sorts of geometric symbols and proportional traditions which artists incorporated into their art.
“Starting with these conversations with Chris, I got more interested in math and architecture, and that’s how I got into this research field. … I must say, I’m quite happy that research path has led to this book.”
Wassell expects his book to end up in the hands of architectural historians, universities and libraries. Calling it a “serious architectural history book,” he said, “I couldn’t have hoped for anything more than this type of product to come out of my research.”
— By Suzanne Ramsey
, SBC staff writer