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