Giacomo Leoni

Giacomo Leoni

Giacomo Leoni (also known as James Leoni, 1686 – 1746) was an Italian architect.


Leoni was born in Venice in 1686. He was a devotee of the work of Florentine Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, who had also been the chief inspiration of Andrea Palladio. Leoni thus served as a prominent exponent of the Palladian revival in English architecture, beginning in earnest around 1720. Also loosely referred to as Georgian, this style is rooted in Italian Renaissance architecture.

Having completed designs for the Elector Palatine, Leoni arrived in England in 1714 aged 28. His fresh, uncluttered designs, with just a hint of flamboyance, brought him to the attention of prominent patrons of the arts.

Between 1716 and 1720, Leoni published a four-volume translation of Palladio's "I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura", a huge success that went into multiple editions in the following years ("illustration, left") and was a main vehicle for translating the essence of Palladio's manner among British designers through the patrons who employed them— for these expensive volumes were out of the reach of most builders, who could consult them only briefly in a gentleman's library. This was followed by the ten-volume translation of Alberti's "De Re Aedificatoria" ("On Architecture"), the first modern book on the theories and practice of architecture. Giacomo Leoni illustrated the book with his own 'Designs for Buildings Both Public and Private'. It remains one of the truest translations of this important work and has been a valued architectural textbook to generations of aspiring architects.

Leoni was not the first to import Palladian Architecture to England; that accolade belongs firmly to Inigo Jones, who had designed the Palladian Queen's House at Greenwich in 1616 and the more ornate Banqueting House in Whitehall in 1619. Nor was he the only architect practising the concept during the Palladian revival. William Kent designed Holkham Hall in 1734 in the Palladian manner; Thomas Archer was also a contemporary, although his work tended toward the baroque style that had been popular in England prior to the Palladian revival. Palladian architecture was able to flourish in England though, as it was suited to the great country houses being built or re-modelled; because unlike the French, the British aristocracy placed primary importance on their country estates.

Giacomo Leoni's skill was to adapt Alberti and Palladio's ideals to suit the landed classes in the countryside, without straying too far from the principles of the great masters. He made Palladian architecture less austere and more 'user friendly'. He adapted his work to suit the location and needs of his clients. The use of red brick as a building component had begun to replace dressed stone during the William and Mary period. Leoni would frequently build in both, depending on availability and what was indigenous to the area of the site.

In the early 1720s Leoni received one of his most important challenges: to transform the great Elizabethan house Lyme Hall into an Italianate palace. This he did so sympathetically that internally, large areas of the house remained completely unaltered, and the wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons were left intact.

The transformation at Lyme was a success, if arguably a little spoilt later by English architect Lewis Wyatt's 19th century addition of a box-like structure surrounding the centre pediment. This squat tower is in place of Leoni's intended cupola, rejected by the owner. Leoni broke with one Palladian tradition at Lyme, probably in consideration of the northern climate: he provided a grand staircase to the principal floor or 'piano nobile' inside, placing the main entrance on the ground floor. However, Lyme Park, with its massive Ionic portico and matching wings resting on their rusticated basement, plus the internal courtyard, is one of the purest Palladian buildings to survive from that era.

In 1730 Leoni was commissioned by the 2nd Lord Onslow to build what is probably his masterpiece, Clandon Park. Inside and out the house is an architectural triumph. Now developing his own style, Leoni mixed Baroque and Palladian styles. The house was built of a fiery red brick, with the west front dressed with stone pilasters and medallion ornamentation. The interiors contrasted with the exterior: the huge double-height marble hall is in muted stone colours, to provide a foil for the magnificent colours of the adjoining suite of state rooms. The house today remains largely unaltered. The interiors were altered slightly later in the 18th century, but here the house was fortunate; the changes were made in the style of Robert Adam, so were sympathetic to Leoni's original intentions. The marble hall is one of the most important 18th century architectural features in England, as are the magnificent plaster work ceilings.

However Leoni's "user friendly" reputation came unstuck when he designed for clients clearly unaware of the intricacies of Palladian architecture. Leoni had been commissioned by Edward and Caroline Wortley to rebuild the decayed Wortley Hall. A magnificent residence arose. However, in 1800, the Wortleys complained they were unable to move in, as the architect had forgotten to build a staircase. One hundred years later, a Duchess of Marlborough made the same complaint against Sir John Vanbrugh's Blenheim Palace. Both owners had rather missed the point of a house built on a 'piano nobile' design. A piano nobile is the principal floor, usually above a lower floor or semi-basement. It contains all the rooms necessary for the grandees who inhabit the house. It usually consists of a central salon or saloon (the grandest room beneath the central pediment); on either side of the Saloon (in the wings) are often a slightly less grand, withdrawing room, and then a principal bedroom. After that perhaps would follow a smaller more intimate room, a "cabinet". The point both the Duchess and owners of Wortley had failed to grasp was that the owners lived in 'state' on the 'piano nobile' and had no need to go upstairs, hence only secondary/back staircases would reach the floors that were occupied by children, servants and less favoured guests. Indeed, these houses often did have a grand staircase, but it was external - the elaborate flights of stone steps to the main entrance on the piano nobile. From photographs of Wortley Hall, one can see the large, tall windows of the 'piano nobile' on the lower floor, and the much smaller windows of the secondary rooms above. It did not require a 'grand' staircase'. Wortley Hall survives today as an hotel; the owners still tell the story of the forgetful architect.

Among Leoni’s other designs is Alkrington Hall, Middleton, Rochdale, Lancashire.

Giacomo Leoni did not only design grand mansions. His lesser designs included: an octagonal garden temple at Cliveden for Lord Orkney, in 1735; an elegant arch in purest Palladian tradition, at Stowe, for the Marquis of Buckingham; and a Portland stone bridge at Stone Court, Carshalton. Leoni is thought to have designed a new church when working for the 8th Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall, Essex. The original church had been swept away to make room for the new mansion he was designing there.

Today Leoni's style of architecture seems quintessentially English; the fact that it was regarded as purely Italian at the time of its inception is now largely forgotten. So indigenous to England does it seem, that when in 1913 – a time of huge pride in all things British – Sir Aston Webb's new principal facade at Buckingham Palace, apparently inspired by Leoni's 'Italien palazzo' at Lyme Park, was constructed, it caused no raised eyebrows. The latest BBC adaptation of that most English of books, Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", took place in the shadow of that same Italian front at Lyme.

Giacomo Leoni died in 1746. By this time his work had been an inspiration to a whole new generation of British architects, including Robert Adam. It could be argued that the designs he championed have been taken up today by the arbiters of good taste; although his impressions of the modern neo Georgian housing estate cannot be imagined. His influence is there however, because rich and poor both like his style as much today as they did three hundred years ago.

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