The unclassifiable nature of Scarpa’s cemetery is both a meditation on death and Venice
Originally published in AR September 1985, Peter Buchanan’s article was inspired by photographs by and a conversation with Stefan Buzas, who had known Carlo Scarpa. The piece was republished online in September 2016
Architecture? Sculpture? Landscape? The unclassifiable nature of Carlo Scarpa’s cemetery for the Brion family – and the fragmented, highly personal vocabulary of forms – led many architects and critics to admire it, yet simultaneously dismiss it as a beautiful but much too mannered irrelevance. Now, nearly a decade and a half after completion, its enchantments seem more potent and topical than ever. Instead of Modernism’s abstract and immaterial concerns with concept and space, here is physical mass and sensual matter. And, without resorting to a figurative vocabulary, here is a powerful commemorative monument that is both a meditation on death and an evocation of a particular magical city, Venice, birthplace and home of Scarpa.
Italian cemeteries are traditionally necropolises, idealised and miniaturised cities of the dead, street grids of paths flanked by diminutive temples and palaces, and squares flanked by slab blocks for urns of ashes. The Brion cemetery is instead a garden folded around a corner of the cemetery of the village of S. Vito. But it is a highly formalised garden in which every part of the composition is locked into place geometrically. Lynchpin of the composition-as befits it, for it is the place’s raison d’etre – is the tomb of Giuseppe Brion and his wife. The two sarcophagi rest in a dished circle and are sheltered by a low flat arch set at 45 degrees to the rest of the composition to emphasise its function as visual hinge. From here two smooth lawns sweep out and terminate in water-lilied pools, from each of which rises another major element: a pavilion and the funerary chapel.
Facetted abutments from which spring the arches supporting the arched slab over the central tomb.
Entry is from the old cemetery through a tower-like portal, its guardedness offset by an opening in the wall beside it giving a glimpse of the arch over the sarcophagi and by an opening of two interlocked circles that beckons ahead. These, when reached, offer the choice of going left or right. To the right the path emerges in one of the pools, turns, and terminates as a pavilion with a strange baldachino-like roof supported on stilt-like splinted bronze legs and capped by a timber-slatted box. From here can be contemplated the one long view of the garden, across lilies and lawn to the central tomb and, beyond the perimeter wall, village roofs and church and distant foothills.
A channel leads from this pool to the central tomb and drops via circular basins to emerge beside the sarcophagi as a spring, symbol of resurrection. The two carved stone caskets, sunk slightly below ground level and tilted tenderly towards each other on their rounded bases, are touchingly human and – in spite of the rich materials – humble, huddled below the massive arch that is swathed in creepers that emphasise its earthbound quality. On the soffit of the arch glint green and gold mosaics giving something of a submarine feeling to this somewhat subterranean world – lending a rich, meditative sombreness.
4, detail of island-pavilion with splinted metal legs to roof.
5, sarcophagi of husband and wile tilt tenderly towards each other below the arch
6, reflection of mosaic strip on boundary wall in pavilion pool.
7, nature intrudes, moss and clover on facetted concrete.
8, looking through interlocking of circles and entrance porch to village cemetery.
9, detail of wooden side of sarcophagus below mosaic soffit of arch.
10, meticulous detail in chapel.
11, facetted forms jut into pool by chapel
12, looking over brass altar in chapel to moongate entrance and porch.
13, facetted forms lurk like alligators be low water and lilies.
14, jumble of concrete facets at corner of pool by chapel entrance.
15, geometry of man-made facet meets organic forms of nature.
Rising from the pool near the street is the bunker-like funerary chapel served by its own entry from the street. This brings visitors past the chapel to enter from the garden side via a porch and an entrance like a Chinese moongate closed by a metal shoji -screen. Inside a brass altar sits in one corner on a floor of granite sets below a pyramidal rooflight. Stepping stones from the chapel lead to a burial area for priests, planted with cypresses pointing skyward, gestures of resurrection and to the after life. Turning back, and looking into the pool one can see facetted forms in concrete, lurking like-alligators below the surface, echoes perhaps of sunken cities such as Venice may one day become. These stepped concrete facets are the hallmarks of Scarpa’s work and are to be found everywhere, cast seemingly incised - into the concrete that is the most prevalent material of the cemetery. Though Walter Burley Griffin made similar use of this motif, Scarpa was apparently inspired by a photograph of Moroccan graves. By cutting deep into the concrete they transform it from surface and volume to mass, revealing that the material remains consistent throughout. This reverence for materials, even such a prosaic one as concrete, is typically Venetian.
Much else in the cemetery, not least the constant presence of water, is a more direct reference to Venice. Mosaics between the flags that pave the entrance passage glint to suggest the wet pavements of Venice while the motif of interlocking circles - found elsewhere in Scarpa’s work - is not uncommon in Venice. But the most potent references to Venice in this tour de force of suggestive design are to be found at its heart, the Brion tomb itself. The green-gold mosaics on the arch over the sarcophagi are an obvious visual echo of St Mark’s. But they also recall the play of light reflected from canals onto the underside of Venetian bridges so that the sarcophagi become gondolas on a final Stygian journey.
Low canted boundary wall projects over pavilion pool as a cantilever, now joined by similar wall to form V-shaped planter
Architect: Carlo Scarpa
Location: S. Vito, Italy