Jefferson’s Artful Eye
Even the pouring rain during spring break college visiting can’t dampen the enthusiasm for the architecture of Monticello and the University of Virginia. The architectural genius and polymath who sketched these designs and some 600 in total during his lifetime was the most accomplished visual thinker of all U.S. Presidents. Monticello is a personal museum to his powers of observation and curiosity about the world. His design sketch of UVA’s Rotunda is itself a work of art on paper, classically and harmoniously proportioned and inspired by the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio whose book on art and architecture from the 16th century was what Jefferson called his “bible”. But Jefferson wanted America to have its own architecture, inspired by the old world but part of the new–like the revolution he was leading. So he changed Palladio’s designs with his own artful eye for red brick, white columns and trim, octagonal shapes, hidden stairs instead of grand staircases, and landscape designed gardens ( a first in America) with farm-to-table vegetables and native plants. Jefferson’s architecture was an idealized metaphor for the new republic of reason, order and harmony that he and fellow revolutionaries were risking their lives to create. It speaks to how important this architecture- as-metaphor was to Jefferson that of the three life accomplishments he listed on his own gravestone at Monticello he included the University of Virginia but not the Presidency.