Nine years ago, when I was teaching in Iowa State’s Rome program with my colleague Pete Gochè, we took half of the students up to this part of Italy to see Vicenza and Verona. Interspersed with Palladio, the other designer you go see here is Carlo Scarpa, who was based in Venice and, like Palladio, did most of his work in the immediate region. His best-known masterpiece, the Brion Cemetery, is a drive outside of Vicenza, but the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, built into one of these Italian defensive structures that has an impossibly layered and complex history, is just as awe-inspiring. Like Brion ,Castelvecchio took Scarpa years to complete, and it’s also a composition that’s based on total sensory immersion. Pete and I were thinking on the fly when we took students around, but in talking through what we were seeing we sort of came to the conclusion that Palladio and Scarpa were perfect foils for one another. Palladio’s buildings are based on an overall harmonic composition, in which the mathematics of the scheme trickle down and inform all of the details. Scarpa’s begin with the details, with a very specific sensory experience of light, or touch, or with a focused idea about a material or how two elements come together. His designs then work outward from those. I remember looking at his work for the first time as an undergrad and just not getting it–his plans are often mysteriously composed, without any visible sense of composition. But the first time I stood in the sculpture galleries of Castelvecchio, I remember feeling like there was something for the eye to rest on absolutely everywhere. The satisfactions of this building come in a thousand different moments, while those of, say, Villa Rotonda come from walking around it, seeing it in perspective and starting to understand how the entire thing holds together as a self-contained piece. Palladio built architectural fugues, Scarpa built architectural etudes.
In our first-year studio this semester, Andrew Gleeson and I talked a lot about architectural rhetoric, how every design problem boils down to an argument about something–materials, composition, light, experience, something. Scarpa layers these arguments on top of one another, showing in a typical handrail detail, for instance, how the warm wood of the rail itself contrasts with the raw, cold edges of its steel support and with the cold, rough surfaces of the local Veronese stone behind it. These moments are virtuosic–he’s clearly showing off–but they’re also instructive. You know exactly where to put your hand, and you see instinctively how the rail is put together. They’re also, of course, incredibly well composed. Those elements could go together in a thousand different ways, but much of Scarpa’s notoriously slow process involved iterations, even on the job site, moving and re-composing until the detail not only was right, but also looked right.
I’m sure Palladio showed up on a job site or two and changed things around, but the rhetoric of his designs was almost entirely Platonic. If you get the math right, his plans argue, then the details are inevitable. This is what Jefferson complained about when designing his Palladian tribute, Monticello–when he changed the size of a window on one side of the house, the door frames on another had to change as well, because the basic argument of Palladian classicism is that the entire building is an integral system. Scarpa’s rhetoric is exactly the opposite–the entire building is built up in literally hundreds of individual experiences that may be orchestrated, but that don’t depend upon one another in the abstract for their meaning. Rather, they relate to one another in the way our senses are set up or prepared. Lining up doorways in a Palladian villa is something you do because the rules of the composition tell you to do it, whereas lining up doorways for Scarpa is a way of hinting to your eyes about what they’re about to experience.
There are all sorts of dialogues in Castelvecchio–light vs. dark, new vs. old, honed vs. rough, etc., etc. And the entire project set up a handful of important principles for historic preservation. Everywhere the original fabric is treated as an artifact, and Scarpa’s interventions very carefully set themselves off from anything antique. Concrete, iron, and stone are detailed with healthy shadow gaps that make it apparent what’s been added to the existing building, and the complex layering of old materials is presented at face value, which makes for amazing, lush backdrops like the one above, in the ‘knuckle’ between the sculpture and painting wings where you literally cross a bridge between the two buildings and are confronted with an array of materials and objects–including the heraldic statue with its own stairway and viewing platform, a little architectural gift that provides a break from the slew of galleries before and after.
A fine final jaunt on what’s been a full and inspiring five weeks…