In the early 1720s, Leoni received one of his most important challenges: to transform the great Elizabethan house Lyme Hall into a Palladian 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. In the central courtyard Leoni achieved the Palladian style by hiding the irregularities and lack of symmetry of the earlier house in a series of arcades around the courtyard.
The transformation at Lyme was a success. However, it has been claimed that the central Ionic portico, the focal point of the south front, was a little spoiled later by English architect Lewis Wyatt's 19th-century addition of a box-like structure above its pediment. This squat tower, known as a "hamper," is on the site of Leoni's intended cupola, which was rejected by the owner.
Leoni reconstructed Lyme in an early form of what was to become known as the Palladian style, with the secondary, domestic and staff rooms on a rusticated ground floor, above which was a piano nobile, formally accessed by an exterior double staircase from the courtyard. Above the piano nobile were the more private room and less formal rooms for the family.
In a true Palladian house (one villa designed by Palladio himself), the central portion behind the portico would contain the principal rooms, while the lower flanking wings were domestic offices usually leading to terminating pavilions which would often be agricultural in use. It was this adaption of the wings and pavilions into the body of the house that was to be a hallmark of the 18th-century Palladianism that spread across Europe, and of which Leoni was an early exponent. At Lyme, while the central portico, resting upon a base reminiscent of Palladio's Villa Pisani, dominates the facade, the flanking wings are short, and of the same height as the central block, and the terminating pavilions are merely suggested by a slight projection in the facade. Thus in no way could the portico be seen as a corps de logis. This has led some architectural commentators to describe the south front as more Baroque than Palladian in style. However, at this early stage his career Leoni appears to have been still following the earlier and more renaissance-inspired Palladianism which had been imported to England in the 17th century by Inigo Jones. This is evident by his use of classical pilasters throughout the south facade, in the same way that Jones had used them, a century earlier, at the Whitehall Banqueting House and Leoni's mentor, Alberti, had employed them at the Palazzo Rucellai in the 1440s. These features, coupled with the heavy mannerist use of rustication on ground floor with segmented arches and windows, is the reason that Lyme appears more "Italian" than many other English houses in the Palladian style and has led to it being described as "the boldest Palladian building in England."
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