Of tombs and trea­sures

The Veneto re­gion of Italy yields a wealth of artis­tic and ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HERE do ar­chi­tects go to take a rest from the vis­ual over­load that is Venice? North, up the free­way about 50km, they might skirt the lit­tle walled town of Tre­viso and then drive a few kilo­me­tres fur­ther to a non­de­script hamlet called San Vito d’Al­tiv­ole, where they take the turn-off to a ceme­tery.

Here, they may pay homage to Carlo Scarpa, Vene­tian ar­chi­tect and devo­tee of Frank Lloyd Wright. Tucked into a cor­ner of this Ital­ian ceme­tery is his grave. But that’s not the only rea­son ar­chi­tects make the pil­grim­age to San Vito d’Al­tiv­ole. It’s to see one of Scarpa’s cre­ations: a very beau­ti­ful tomb.

Com­mis­sioned by a wealthy lo­cal fam­ily, the Brion tomb is an­nexed to the lit­tle ceme­tery, which is oth­er­wise your stan­dard Ital­ian mix of pi­ous and flam­boy­ant com­mem­o­ra­tion. The Brion pa­tri­arch and ma­tri­arch lie in huge stone above-ground coffins be­neath an arch of con­crete within a walled and faintly Ja­panese gar­den. A lit­tle apart, there’s a chapel with an enor­mous wooden door, a build­ing as ma­jes­tic and be­guil­ing as an ele­phant.

Ar­chi­tects mur­mur ap­pre­cia­tively at the de­tail­ing, the clever use of dif­fi­cult build­ing ma­te­ri­als and the way Scarpa gen­tly im­posed his own aes­thet­ics on to the site. An un­pro­fes­sional tourist looking for the path less well­trod­den round the Veneto re­gion of Italy en­joys the odd­ness of find­ing this beau­ti­ful tomb in such an out-ofthe-way place.

Tone Wheeler, Syd­ney-based ar­chi­tect and lec­turer, has been tak­ing stu­dents to Scarpa’s tomb for many years, as part of a tour itin­er­ary that loops around Tre­viso, Verona and Bologna. You can do it in a day, if you’re as keen as the group of ar­chi­tects I am among on this par­tic­u­lar bus tour, but two or three days would be more sen­si­ble, par­tic­u­larly as one of the stops is Verona.

Scarpa left his mark there, too, and in a much more pub­lic man­ner. While the art col­lec­tion of Verona has been housed in the Castelvec­chio since the 1920s, in the late 50s Scarpa was en­trusted with re­design­ing the mu­seum, strip­ping away the added-on build­ings and cre­at­ing new spa­ces within the cas­tle walls. Apart from the in­ad­e­quate and smelly toi­lets, the rad­i­cal makeover is a tri­umph.

If an art gallery is a tomb for art, then Scarpa came at Castelvec­chio with the same en­liven­ing hu­man­ity as he ap­plied to the de­signs of his Brion ceme­tery. You can wan­der up and down stairs, across ram­parts; it’s your typ­i­cal cas­tle visit, but the spa­ces breathe and sigh, re­mem­ber­ing all the feet that have crossed their floors and the hands that have trailed along the bare walls.

Verona’s trea­sure is the Mas­ter of Can­grande, the stone statue of an ar­moured man on a horse, carved about 1330 to stand above the tomb of the ruler whose court wel­comed Dante and Giotto. In Scarpa’s re­designed mu­seum, it stands in a space be­tween build­ings, but high up, as though sus­pended in both time and space and not quite in­side or out­side.

The Verona Art Mu­seum’s price­less col­lec­tion hardly rates in a coun­try bulging with mas­ter­pieces, but the build­ing en­hances it beau­ti­fully. This is what ar­chi­tec­ture is surely all about, the am­a­teur be­gins to think: a space for the liv­ing that com­mem­o­rates the past.

This is the point of Wheeler’s whiz-around-theVeneto and en­vi­rons tour. He shows how, con­fronted with a com­mis­sion that is more about shel­ter­ing our past than hous­ing our fu­ture, ar­chi­tects might go about build­ing such com­mem­o­ra­tions. His best, or at least most mem­o­rable, ex­am­ple is, in fact, a ter­ri­ble fail­ure.

An hour south of beau­ti­ful, ro­man­tic Verona is Mo­dena. In search of memo­ri­als, we es­chew the usual gaw­ping at cathe­drals, palazzi or even (given this is the cen­tre of Ital­ian swish-car man­u­fac­tur­ing) fac­to­ries and head, again, for the ceme­tery.

North of the city cen­tre, not far from Enzo Fer­rari

The bold and the beau­ti­ful: Ar­chi­tec­tural pil­grms pay homage to Al­var Aalto’s mod­ernist white church at Ri­ola Park, the San Cataldo ceme­tery is the re­sult of a com­pe­ti­tion won by the in­flu­en­tial Mi­lanese ar­chi­tect, Aldo Rossi, im­por­tant enough to have won the Pritzker Prize for Ar­chi­tec­ture in 1990. Rossi died in a car ac­ci­dent in 1997. An ear­lier car ac­ci­dent, around the time of the Mo­dena com­pe­ti­tion in the early 1970s, is said to have given him the idea of de­sign­ing his ceme­tery plans. His smashed bones re­minded him, ap­par­ently, that the body is a se­ries of frag­ments, prone to frac­tur­ing.

As you walk through the gates of San Cataldo, you can see the idea of a spine link­ing parts of a body with ap­pendages, but if you imag­ine that gives rise to hu­man­ist thoughts, it does not. The ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing Rossi’s ceme­tery is eerie and chill­ing. On a flat piece of land, a long rec­tan­gle of lawn di­vides two long mau­soleum blocks, sev­eral storeys high, pi­geon­holed with slots into which hu­man re­mains are placed, then sealed with plaques.

The pi­geon­hol­ing of re­mains is not un­usual in an Ital­ian ceme­tery but it’s Rossi’s abil­ity to make the space both prac­ti­cal and un­sym­pa­thetic that turns the ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing San Cataldo — ei­ther as a griev­ing rel­a­tive or an ar­chi­tec­tural vis­i­tor — grotesque and al­most comic.

In one of the long cor­ri­dors of memo­rial pi­geon­holes, I come across an el­derly woman, ar­che­typal in her widow’s black weeds, a small fig­ure straight out of a Fellini movie, bal­anced pre­car­i­ously on a high steel steplad­der that is fixed to a rail­ing run­ning the length of this dread­ful slab build­ing. From her perch, she is tend­ing the lit­tle pot of flow­ers sprout­ing from her loved one’s rest­ing box. No doubt the fear of end­ing up in this god-aw­ful place keeps many such el­derly per­sons steady on the ugly cre­ma­to­rium lad­der.

The vis­i­tor who has seen Scarpa’s heart-balm chapel in the Tre­viso ceme­tery can only be ap­palled at the so­called chapel in San Cataldo. This red box, which sits at the top of the two arms of the memo­rial site’s spine, seems both un­fin­ished and un­in­ter­ested. It’s like a gi­ant build­ing block, un­adorned, and without any metaphor­i­cal em­bel­lish­ments. It’s al­most as if Rossi wanted to build a place as an­ti­thet­i­cal to the baroque os­ten­ta­tion so beloved of Ital­ian pop­u­lar cul­ture as pos­si­ble. It’s a weird place to visit, but un­for­get­table.

Not far south again, in Bologna, ar­chi­tects who hated the Rossi ceme­tery still find the im­pe­tus to drool over an odd lit­tle build­ing to be found sort of aban­doned in an in­dus­trial park on the edge of that beau­teous city. But the am­a­teur, less ready to be amazed by the very name

Pi­geon­holed: Aldo Rossi’s chill­ing San Cataldo ceme­tery at Mo­dena Le Cor­bus­ier, might see in this pavil­ion a rel­a­tive of that same blun­der­ing ide­al­ism that be­dev­ils San Cataldo. Again, this visit, way out­side the nor­mal tourist route, gives a small thrill, and much to con­tem­plate, not the least of which is how won­der­fully ded­i­cated (and slightly mad) many ar­chi­tects are, es­pe­cially when it comes to pay­ing homage to their mas­ters’’.

I con­fess I skulk around the back of this re­con­struc­tion of Le Cor­bus­ier’s Es­prit Nou­veau pavil­ion — orig­i­nally built (and de­rided) at the 1925 Paris Ex­po­si­tion, be­fore he be­came the guru of the mod­ern city — think­ing it is too much about the ideas be­hind de­sign and not enough about de­sign’s re­la­tion­ship to peo­ple for my lik­ing.

In its own way, it’s an­other homage, an­other form of com­mem­o­ra­tion to the dead: it was erected on this outof-the-way site in Bologna in 1977 by Jose Oubrerie, a stu­dent and acolyte of Le Cor­bus­ier (who died in 1965). In­for­ma­tion is sketchy about why Oubrerie, who also com­pleted one of Le Cor­bus­ier’s de­signs of a church in France, wanted to re­con­struct the pavil­ion, and why in Bologne. But there it sits, a white box with a cylin­dri­cal bit at­tached to one end, an­nounc­ing the ad­vent of ar­chi­tec­tural mod­ernism and all that would im­ply for shifts in aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties.

There is one more stop the com­mem­o­ra­tion-hunter, both am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional, can make on this itin­er­ary, and that’s in a small, pretty town called Ri­ola, up in the moun­tains fur­ther south from Bologna. We loop down from Mo­dena, about an hour’s drive, from where you can loop up again to Bologna, an­other hour’s easy drive. In Ri­ola, you can truly pay homage, this time to a church de­signed by Al­var Aalto, the Fin­nish ar­chi­tect whose name draws first gasps then rev­er­ence from pil­grims.

White was Aalto’s thing, and the Ri­ola church is very white. Mod­ernism was also his thing, and if that con­jures crisp lines and sim­ple func­tion­al­ity, that’s there too. De­signed in 1966 but not com­pleted un­til 1978, two years af­ter the ar­chi­tect’s death, the church is the pride of this lit­tle com­mu­nity. You will prob­a­bly be greeted by ei­ther the parish priest or his fa­ther, and talked through its lovely fea­tures, the way it sort of rocks to one side along an off-cen­tre axis from which arch enor­mous struts, the huge front doors de­signed to fold back to open the in­te­rior to the fore­court, the hum­ble in­ti­macy of a small side chapel.

They pos­si­bly won’t point out what’s glar­ingly ob­vi­ous to even the ca­sual vis­i­tor: the way the campanile was botched, too stark and too white even for a Fin­nish mod­ernist and the way, too, the ar­chi­tect’s ex­traor­di­nary plan for the pro­vi­sion of a huge screen to roll in from the side of the church, split­ting the space down the mid­dle to give it op­ti­mum flex­i­bil­ity of space us­age in a cli­mate that, in win­ter, is very de­mand­ing.

And only an im­po­lite vis­i­tor would point out how the plas­tic flower ar­range­ments in makeshift urns com­pletely counter the cold beauty of Aalto’s de­sign. But that’s the thing about mere mor­tals as com­pared to go­dar­chi­tects: we tend to live in spa­ces, even when they’re de­signed for our dead. Rose­mary Sorensen was a guest of the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects and its spon­sor, Vir­gin At­lantic.


In­sight Va­ca­tions’ eight-day es­corted Ital­ian In­ter­mezzo in­cludes the Trevi Foun­tain, Colos­seum, St Peter’s Basil­ica in Rome and a Venice cruise. From $2525 a per­son, land only. More: www.in­sight­va­ca­tions.com.

Pic­tures: Tone Wheeler

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.