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‘Poltronieri has made the museum’s fittings into objects that are beautiful in their own right’

Scarpa archive index jpg

[Archive] Carlo Scarpa’s pupil Adolfo Poltronieri’s exhibition gallery in the garrets of Palazzo del Te in Mantua

First published in the AR in February 1984

Poltronieri was commissioned by the curator Gianmaria Erbesato to create an appropriate setting for the Acerbi collection of Greek and Egyptian antiquities in the confined space above the vaults of the palace domes and below the rafters. The Acerbi collection comes nowhere near rivalling world-class collections, but Poltronieri’s understanding has made it seem far more important than it really is.

Poltronieri has housed Acerbi’s antiquities above one wing of the Palazzo del Te and linked this to a counterbalancing display of modern paintings above the opposite wing by an undulating walkway cantilevered over the pregnant humps of the vaults below. From this dramatic processional way, steps lead up to the various rooms housing the antique sculptures.

‘Modern museums require such delicate housing of objects that they often end up with display cases that are obstructive, off-putting and denigrating to the object and viewer.’

Here the least important objects assume the status of contemplative art. Poltronieri’s Scarpa-esque showcases - willful, considered, crafted - enhance each object they protect. So the little quartz New Kingdom goddess, 6, is raised up on an elaborate plinth with the bright doorway centered behind and framing her XX dynasty form. This is not an important Egyptian piece but we linger before her nevertheless. Perhaps the masterstroke is the glass case set between the jambs of an opening hewn out between two rooms enclosing a small Greek bronze: the head of a woman, 7. The miniature, low-voltage spotlights set sculpturally above the case bathe the head in subtle light and shadow bringing out all its qualities. And we see this sculpture from two different rooms at two different levels - Poltronieri offers us a choice of experience. And this is what matters.

The architect has learned from Scarpa and understood that exhibition pieces need to be placed in a subtle relationship to one another, that each piece needs to be given a presence so that it isn’t forgotten in the cultural melée of overworked galleries and that it needs to be seen under different lights, from different angles and, if part of a collection, in relation to companion exhibits. Modern museums require such delicate housing of objects that they often end up with display cases that are obstructive, off-putting and denigrating to the object and viewer. But Poltronieri has made the cases, brackets and plinths into small sculptures - objects that enhance the displays and are beautiful in their own right.

Palazzo del Te Paltronieri Carlo Scarpa

Palazzo del Te Paltronieri Carlo Scarpa

Source: Querci Franco

egyptian goddess palazzo del te

egyptian goddess palazzo del te

Source: Querci Franco

Palazzo del Te cases of egyptian cat

Palazzo del Te cases of egyptian cat

Source: Querci Franco

greek bronze statue palazzo del te adolfo poltronieri

greek bronze statue palazzo del te adolfo poltronieri

Source: Querci Franco

palazzo del te adolfo poltronieri

palazzo del te adolfo poltronieri

Source: Querci Franco

Carlo Scarpa himself was the master of this subtle relationship between objects and their display. No finer example of his work in this field can be found than at Castelvecchio, Verona (completed 1960; the curator is Licisco Manganato). Here again the collection is not world-shattering but Scarpa has made it seem sublime. He had the gift of instilling drama in the commonplace. God is undoubtedly in Scarpa’s details; they again are objects of contemplation. Look at the way he has mounted the crucifixion scene, 12, the Madonna and child, 19, that Roman medallion, 16, those companion statues set one against a blank wall, the other against a bright window opening, 18. No wonder Scarpa was so good at tombs, for these too ask for quiet contemplation, for stillness, and evoke a continuity of t radition where past, present and future are gathered together. Museums ask for these very qualities.

Scarpa’s black-painted steel cross supporting the anguished Christ is remarkably powerful, almost barbaric-Mary and John stand hopelessly isolated from him on Scarpa’s black steel stools. Scarpa wasn’t afraid to interpret objects, which is something the architect should only try to do if he has the true confidence of his client and if he has some real understanding of and feeling for the collection he is asked to house. The Roman medallion for example is hung from a steel and bronze tie - it is not quite the object that arrived in the curator’s care - it has become in Scarpa’s hands a more complex symbol than it was.

Castelvecchio Carlo Scarpa Verona relief

Castelvecchio Carlo Scarpa Verona relief

Source: Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa photo by Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa photo by Stefan Buzas

Source: Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa statue

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa statue

Source: Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio Carlo Scarpa Verona bell

Castelvecchio Carlo Scarpa Verona bell

Source: Stefan Buzas

sketch Carlo Scarpa Castelvecchio Verona

sketch Carlo Scarpa Castelvecchio Verona

Sketch 2 Carlo Scarpa Castelvecchio Verona

Sketch 2 Carlo Scarpa Castelvecchio Verona

Scarpa could even create art forms out of the museum’s mechanical and electrical services. Many architects know how to arrange these neatly, but few achieve the brilliant effect of the control panel that Scarpa designed for this museum, 15. What these two Italian architects understand very clearly is that a successful museum (one that never allows visitors to lose interest, to get restive on their way through interminable displays of ancient art) is a sequence of heightening and mutually reinforcing spaces and experiences.

Each new gallery, vista, object, showcase has a studied and exciting relationship to the next. When we suddenly find ourselves outside the galleries we want to go straight back in and don’t automatically think, shoulder-achingly, ‘thank God we’re out, we’ve done our bit, now for some coffee’. But it is the architects’ art of display as much as the objects themselves that draws us back. No critique of the museum as culture warehouse could be more telling than in these displays by Carlo Scarpa and Adolfo Poltronieri.

Scarpa plan jpg

Scarpa plan jpg

Castelvecchio: ground floor plan after restoration by Scarpa

paintings on stylised steel drawing boards easels Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa

paintings on stylised steel drawing boards easels Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa

Source: Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa lighting control panel

Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa lighting control panel

Source: Stefan Buzas

Roman medallion Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa

Roman medallion Castelvecchio Verona Carlo Scarpa

Source: Stefan Buzas

castelvecchio carlo scarpa statues

castelvecchio carlo scarpa statues

Source: Stefan Buzas

castelvecchio verona madonna and child carlo scarpa

castelvecchio verona madonna and child carlo scarpa

Source: Stefan Buzas

Castelvecchio statues Verona Carlo Scarpa

Castelvecchio statues Verona Carlo Scarpa

Source: Stefan Buzas