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Scarpa: ‘If art is education, the museum must be the school’

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As Italy sought to forge its cultural identity, Carlo Scarpa was part of an architectural movement in museum design reinventing the display of Italian art in historic spaces

Over the years from the end of the Second World War to the early 1960s, most Italian museums participated in a radical process of renewal that would alter both the buildings housing the collections – in many cases remarkable historic palaces – and the way that visitors related to the works of art. The institutions and architects were faced with three main tasks: to restore museum buildings damaged by the war, to upgrade their facilities and services, and to reorganise the collections in order to update their display techniques in accordance with current international curatorial standards. This programme, which extended to museums throughout the country, was enacted with the aim of educating visitors at the same time as they experienced each work of art as a part of their everyday lives and a living testimony of their cultural roots. 

But how was it possible, one may well ask, that after two decades of totalitarian government and five years of devastating war, Italy could succeed in launching such a highly significant and financially onerous programme? The answers must be sought in the Fascist period, when the institutional and theoretical bases for the renovation of the Italian museums were laid.

Scarpa sketched rooms IV and V of the Accademia Galleries  Venice  1945 59

Scarpa sketched rooms IV and V of the Accademia Galleries Venice 1945 59

The institutions in charge of the Italian artistic and cultural heritage – chiefly the Direzione generale delle antichità e belle arti (General Management of Antiques and Fine Arts) and the superintendencies – were created in the 19th century, and strongly supported during the two decades of the Fascist regime. Both were subsumed by the Ministero della pubblica istruzione (Ministry of Public Education); hence, until 1974, governance of Italy’s school system and its cultural heritage was enacted by a single institution, as their function was considered to be one and the same. 

The task of the school was to instruct the new generation, while the cultural heritage – monuments and works of art, archives and libraries – required conservation to facilitate the transmission of its inherent values to the whole population, bringing knowledge and spiritual enrichment, and developing the sense of belonging to the nation. Thus, united with the political were the ethical and aesthetic questions. For this reason, too, as early as the 1920s, figures such as the philosophers Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, art historian Giulio Carlo Argan, conservationists Cesare Brandi and Guglielmo de Angelis d’Ossat, and many others held executive positions within the Ministero della pubblica istruzione. Flanking these high-ranking officials was a generation of architects born at the beginning of the century, who were equally well prepared, actively committed to their research and design, and open to national and international influences.

Florence exhibition by Scarpa  Hayward Gallery  London  1969

Florence exhibition by Scarpa Hayward Gallery London 1969

In the 1930s several of the best of them – Terragni, Albini, BBPR, Nizzoli, Pagano, Persico, Ponti, along with others – were called on to organise exhibitions with explicitly propagandistic aims. Many of the educational techniques introduced on these occasions would have a decisive impact on postwar museology. 

Fascist propaganda depended on the synthesis of two inseparable components: the educational and the political-ideological. In the regime’s exhibitions, a third component was introduced: the populace was educated to believe in the Fascist ideological values through a use of art as an instrument of communication. In the Mostra della rivoluzione fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution) (1932) and the Mostra dell’aeronautica italiana (Exhibition of Italian Aeronautics) (1934), for instance, a skilful use of colour and materials, mechanisms of perception used to attract visitors, and construction of dynamic spaces to fascinate and draw them in, all testify to the Italian designers’ concrete knowledge of European avant-garde art.

Scarpa views Frank Lloyd Wright drawings  1954

Scarpa views Frank Lloyd Wright drawings 1954

The entrance and detail of an interior swivel door at Fondazione Querini Stampalia  Santa Maria Formosa in Venice

The entrance and detail of an interior swivel door at Fondazione Querini Stampalia Santa Maria Formosa in Venice

Once Fascism was defeated, the political-ideological component was completely suppressed, leaving the artistic languages as a valuable tool for the architects engaged in the difficult task of attracting Italians from all walks of life to museums to be educated. This cultural renaissance was integral to the policy of the consolidation of a liberal state – exemplarily expressed by the Italian constitution that came into force in 1947 – in which collective education aspired to make citizens aware of the history and strengths of the nation to which they belonged. In Italy art was – and still is – plentiful, both in big cities and in small towns. The point was therefore to create a unified cultural matrix magnetised to the renovated museums. Only a few museum displays testifying to this extraordinary project still survive, and they are at ever-greater risk from a cultural marketing policy that is as unscrupulous as it is sterile.

‘The visitor was made to observe works of art from viewpoints Scarpa had selected and judged best for communicating their meaning’

In the postwar period, confidence in the social value of the reform initiative was total. As art historian Argan remarked: ‘If art is education, the museum must be the school.’ It was this spirit – manifested in designs that encouraged a dialogue between the artwork and museum visitor – that animated the projects developed by the architects involved in the reform. Among these, Franco Albini, BBPR and Carlo Scarpa played a leading role. If a profound knowledge of history and the arts constituted the common foundation of their museological exploration, the results they presented to the public were instead quite heterogeneous. 

Sculpture on show outside the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

Sculpture on show outside the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

In the galleries of Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, Albini offered visitors a wide range of possible approaches to the work of art. For example, some paintings were inserted into metal frames that were fixed on pivots and furnished with a handle enabling the visitor to rotate and observe them from whatever point of view they liked. Such a mechanism would be practically inconceivable today, but in Albini’s conception, the artwork was likened to an everyday object with which one could forge a familiar relationship. Once this was established, the viewer was able to recognise the work as living evidence of his/her own history and one that could offer valuable lessons. At that point, the museum had fulfilled its educational task.

Another approach was offered by the studio BBPR. In its words, the Milanese Castello Sforzesco museum should aim to fulfil an ‘educational folk function [and be] easily accessible’ to the masses, satisfying ‘their need for spectacular, imaginative and grandiose presentations’. The artworks were thus set in close relationship to the scenic spaces of the castle that contained them, surprising the visitor with continuous changes of scene in a crescendo of sculptures and fragments that were hoisted on supports of various materials and forms. This interweaving of references to the past and present, to history and the future, reached its apex in the display of Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, a timeless work modestly enclosed in its stone niche waiting to be discovered. In a manoeuvre that has undermined the meaning of the entire museum, the exhibition was mercilessly dismantled in conjunction with the opening of Expo 2015, and Michelangelo’s sculpture was moved elsewhere.

Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

‘The visitor was made to observe works of art from viewpoints Scarpa had selected and judged best for communicating their meaning’

Scarpas detail of the display at Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

Scarpa’s detail of the display at Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

In designing his displays, Carlo Scarpa built rigorously predetermined routes through which the visitor was made to observe the works of art from points of view Scarpa had selected and judged best for communicating their meaning. In a very real sense, he guides the visitor by the hand, pushing the didactic principle expressed by the museum to its extreme. But what were his working criteria? Both Albini and BBPR used ideas from the visual arts for developing their display technique solutions, but for art director Scarpa, tools for design were absolutely indispensable both for formulating a judgement with respect to the works exhibited, and for constructing his museum spaces.

Scarpa’s first commission as a museum designer came in 1944 when Vittorio Moschini, then director of the Gallerie dell’Accademia, engaged him to reorganise this Venetian museum – one of the first to be updated – according to modern curatorial standards. 

The budget was minimal, but Scarpa was still able to bring new meaning to the museum through a few decisive alterations that can be reconstructed on the basis of his project drawings. As in many Italian museums configured in the 19th century, the collections of the Gallerie dell’Accademia had been housed in spaces hung with tapestries and furnished in imitation of medieval or Renaissance interiors. All such later accretions were removed, and some of the original architectural elements of the Convento della Carità, in which the museum was housed, were brought to light. 

Scarpas use of colour  plinths and light at Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

Scarpa’s use of colour plinths and light at Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

The paintings were removed from their historicising frames and, to design their display, Scarpa sketched each one, using measurements and notes to analyse their individual features. He noted that ‘listening to the artefact, whether a sculpture or a painting, can intuitively help in the decision of how to display it’. He highlighted the features he had noted, such as contours and details of the figures or background colours, by means of a specific display system – simple wood and steel panels covered with cloth or varnished for paintings, and showcases for other objects – and assembled them to produce an architectural space of geometrical precision, enabling the artworks to communicate with each other. The height of the pictures on the panels was usually based on the median height of the visitor’s eye – about 1.60m – a choice that reveals an important aspect of Scarpa’s work. By building spaces to a human scale, he was able to establish an instinctive link between human beings and architecture. The educational messages conveyed by both the historical work of art and the modern architectural setting were intended to enrich – consciously or not – the culture and the spirit of visitors moving along the precisely established itineraries laid out for them by the architect.

 ‘Listening to the artefact, whether a sculpture or a painting, can intuitively help in the decision of how to display it’

It is clear that the work of art is the protagonist in Scarpa’s museums, but at the same time it is subservient to his will, being a concrete starting point for his projects. Through drawing he was able to discern, and consequently reveal to others, both the essential structure of the three-dimensional architectural space and the two-dimensional pictorial space. In his view, architecture and painting share a common core: ‘Because architecture means structure, it also implies architectural function illustrated by forms. We recognise architectural values even when we are dealing with a painting.’ In this spirit, displaying the structure of a building or a painting meant revealing the deepest expressive forms inherent to each. 

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Since his youth Scarpa had been fascinated by avant-garde art, in particular that of the De Stijl movement and the works of Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian. Later in life he was able to acquaint himself first-hand with their masterpieces and often to display these, thanks to his involvement as an architect and exhibition designer for the Venice Biennale from 1948 to 1972. 

From the 1940s onwards, many of Scarpa’s designs reveal that he used works of art as inspiration in various ways for his architectural projects. At times he elicited the structure from a picture in order to reuse it as a kind of planimetric model for his architectural designs, or developed painted spaces into actual architectural spaces. On occasion he even used works of art, especially sculptures, as real architectural elements substituting for walls and piers, to organise his museum spaces. 

‘If art is education, the museum must be the school’ 

In the 1950s Scarpa’s study of Metaphysical painting provides a key for understanding one of his most important works, the refurbishing of the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo (1953-54). In his opening speech on 23 June 1954, superintendent Giorgio Vigni noted that: ‘the palace is animated naturally and intimately by those delicate and silent entities: the works of art’. 

Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

Museo Civico di Castelvecchio

‘Silent entities’ also populate the Metaphysical paintings Scarpa evidently adopted as a source for the arrangement of the Laurana room in particular. There is a remarkable similarity between Carlo Carrà’s canvas Natura Morta Metafisica (1919) and the technique used to display Bust of a Youth by an anonymous 15th-century sculptor. If Carrà asserted the idea of an ‘architectural construction using pictorial means’ where ‘the colours flow in masses’, Scarpa seems to introduce the idea of a ‘pictorial construction’ using architectural means. But Scarpa goes beyond a simple formal link with the picture – he creates the same sense of temporal suspense intrinsic to Carrà’s ‘everyday things’ in the spatial relationship of the ‘extraordinary things’ that populate his museum displays.

The strategy adopted by Carlo Scarpa in Palermo and elsewhere – for example, the Plaster Cast Gallery in Museo Canova, Possagno (1955-57) and the Museo di Civico Castelvecchio in Verona (1958-74) – is easily recognisable. Visitors should approach the works of art gradually and pay attention to their details in order to be rewarded – even now – by a genuine sense of aesthetic pleasure and an invaluable lesson in their history.