Palladio’s Sister

Sally Levine

I always admired Virginia Woolf’s short 1928 essay, Shakespeare’s Sister. There, she postulates the struggles gifted women surely faced throughout history through a tale of an imagined sister to the famed bard. While a work of fiction, it illustrated an ongoing truth. In thinking about my profession, it occurred to me that the architectural parallel to Woolf’s essay would concern Palladio’s Sister—and that contemporary women architects represented the descendants of this imagined woman—whom we named Judith. This became the impetus for an exhibit that aimed to move the discussion of women and architecture forward.  

While women’s progress may be slower than many of us would like, we have made progress. There are more women architects than ever before and increasing numbers of female students and faculty. By contrast, the works of women architects are barely visible in architectural textbooks and monographs, nor are they shown as examples of design principles in architectural presentations. The exhibit Palladio’s Sister aimed to address this disparity in serious, academic recognition and consideration. Various female and male architects prepared analytiques (visual analyses) of significant works of architecture by women. These analytiques were printed on 12 x 36, 48 or 60-inch fabric, were hung with the help of garter clips, and were first shown at the National AIA Conference in Boston in 2008. The introduction to the exhibit started with this rewrite of the Woolf essay:

With apologies to Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own):

“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have designed the buildings of Palladio in the age of Palladio.

“Let us imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Palladio had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Palladio himself was, it is well known, a wild boy who apprenticed to a stonecutter in Padua when he was 13 years old and broke his contract after only 18 months. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in Vicenza. He had, it seemed, a taste for architecture. He was engaged by Gian Giorgio Trissino, one of the period's leading scholars, where he read Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti - and learnt the elements of art, architecture and design. Very soon he began designing villas and soon became a successful designer of churches. He lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practicing his art on the drawing boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the pope.

“Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she would not have apprenticed and not found a mentor. She had no chance of learning art, architecture and design, let alone of reading Vitruvius and Alberti. She picked up a portfolio now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and studied the drawings. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with drawings and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter - indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye. Perhaps she sketched some plans up in a tomato loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to Rome. She was not seventeen. The birds that built nests in the hedge were not better at design than she was. She had the keenest eye, a gift like her brother's, for the design of space. Like him, she had a taste for architecture. She stood at the studio door; she wanted to draw, she said. Men laughed in her face. The master builder - a fat, loose-lipped man - guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles sawing wood and women drawing - no woman, he said, could possibly be an architect. He hinted - you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for architecture and she lusted to feed abundantly upon the spaces that housed the lives of men and women and study their details. At last - for she was very young, oddly like Palladio the architect in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows - at last Nick Greene the architect-builder took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the architect/artist’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? - killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Roman Forum.

“That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Palladio’s day had had Palladio's genius.”