It’s a wonder that artist Giovanni Giaconi wasn’t born with Andrea Palladio’s drafting quill in his hand.
Giaconi, 42, is a native of Vicenza, the northern Italian town transformed by Palladio, the influential 16th-century architect who brought classic Roman proportions to Renaissance buildings. His parents were early proponents of historic preservation and live in a renovated apartment that was in ruins when they purchased it. Giaconi first developed his affinity for Palladio in the eighties, while helping to restore one of the architect’s monumental arches in his hometown. “I got to climb the scaffolding and see everything up close,” he recounts. When Giaconi got an important exhibition catalogue of Palladio’s drawings, he was hooked.
In his early twenties, while studying architecture in Venice, Giaconi discovered he had a passion for drawing Palladio’s buildings according to the master’s meticulous style and technique. By 1998 his reputation as a draftsman was such that New York antiques dealer Gerald Bland gave him a solo exhibition at his Madison Avenue gallery. “I liked his work because it went so well with my things,” says Bland, who then specialized in English and American furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. “It sold very well. I still have six of his drawings, charming sketches really, that people are always trying to buy from me, but I won’t part with them.”
In 2003 Princeton Architectural Press published The Villas of Palladio, Giaconi’s renderings of all 32 rural retreats Palladio created in the mid-16th century for the Veneto’s emerging land-holding elite. Rather than leaving his images to live on only in the pages of the book, Giaconi decided to offer his Palladio drawings, prints, watercolors, and photographs for purchase online, setting up a business venture that keeps him occupied no matter where his architectural wanderlust takes him. While original drawings by Palladio—who worked in pencil, ink, and sepia—sell for tens of thousands of dollars when they come on the market, which is rare, Giaconi’s watercolors range from $1,500 to $4,500. (Poster-size reproductions can be had for $35.)
Over the last several years Giaconi has begun accepting commissions for house portraits, applying the same technique to other kinds of buildings. Among his most recent projects was a drawing of a distinctly Palladian town house designed by architect Brian O’Keefe for a couple on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. O’Keefe gave the piece to the owners as a Christmas present. Other clients have had invitations and holiday cards made from Giaconi’s pictures, which can also be used on postcards, posters, and prints.
In another case, Italian wine mogul Gianni Zonin turned to Giaconi to capture the architectural heritage of his family’s picturesque Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia. Located near Charlottesville, the property bears the ruins of a structure designed by Thomas Jefferson who, fittingly, was also influenced by Palladio. In fact, without Palladio, there would have been no Jefferson the architect, no myth-clad family seats in England, no southern plantation architecture. All took their cue from the Neoclassical palazzi, country estates, and churches across Italy that brought Palladio his fame.
But don’t get Giaconi wrong—contemporary architecture lends itself just as appropriately to his skills as anything more traditional. (Among his heroes are modernists like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Alvaro Siza, winner of the 1992 Pritzker prize.) “You don’t have to own a Palladian villa,” Giaconi says. “Whether it’s a castle, a town house, a country place, a city home, I can draw it.”
A commissioned portrait starts at $3,000, and from beginning to end, the process takes 100 to 150 working hours. Created with pencil, ink, and watercolors, Giaconi’s renderings are exacting in every detail and drawn precisely to scale. He photographs his subjects, taking snapshots to consult when making drawings as well as more formal compositions for archival purposes. “I always take one photo in the morning and one in the late afternoon for the contrast,” he says. His camera and drawing tools go with him on his travels, but he completes his works in his studio, a section of his apartment, which overlooks Vicenza’s medieval city walls.
In New York, where he spends part of the year, Giaconi has made a habit of living in architectural gems, often town houses or brownstones that he has helped renovate and recorded in drawings. He started his career doing renderings for Italian architect and designer Flavio Albanese, first in Vicenza and then in New York, and he later worked primarily with the firm Richard Allon Architect & Associates. He has even played location scout on movie productions.
These days Giaconi is finishing a second volume of drawings, of the rest of Palladio’s architecture, and working with local artisans on prototypes of a Palladio-inspired series of accessories and tableware. Last year Giaconi’s work was part of a show that toured from Richmond, Virgina, to Boston to Los Angeles in celebration of the architectural master’s 500th birthday. Palladio may have lived five centuries ago, but for Giaconi, his vision and artistry are very much present today.