Several months ago, I realized a long-standing dream: to visit four of architect Carlo Scarpa’s outstanding projects located in and around Venice, Italy. My close friends and occasional travel companions, photographer Leslie Williamson and designers Charles de Lisle and Ralph Dennis, share a deep admiration for Scarpa’s work and joined me for the journey. We planned the trip for several months, mapping out trattorias and places to stay in the region and reading up on the architecture, which include Scarpa’s early commissions and also the place he is buried.
Leslie began calling the impending journey a “design pilgrimage.” During our week-long trip to the Olivetti Showroom, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Castelvecchio, and the Brion Cemetery, Leslie photographed each site and I took notes. The following story is the fourth and final of a series that together forms an homage to a design hero.
After a brief visit to the village of Asolo, we arrived at the apotheosis of Carlo Scarpa’s work: the Brion Cemetery. Commissioned by the Brion family in 1969, the project took nearly a decade to complete and alternates between cemetery, garden, monument, private tomb, and art.
Visiting the site offered encounters with all the features that define Scarpa’s work and the longer we stayed, the more we discovered.
Giuseppe Brion, founder of the Brionvega electronics company, wished to be buried in the town where he was born. The family purchased an L-shaped plot of land that ran more than twenty-one thousand square feet along the north and east sides of the village cemetery to preserve the Brion plot.
Scarpa situated the tomb for Giuseppe and his wife, Onorina, in such a way that he was able to design an entire landscape around it. He took advantage of the expansive site and created a complex of buildings and walkways including a family chapel, a water pavilion, and a burial site.
In an interview, Scarpa explained, “The place for the dead is a garden . . . I wanted to show some ways in which you could approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life.”
The Brion Cemetery is rich with symbolism, but Scarpa was never explicit about his motivation for the motifs. Steps, water, and circles are recurrent themes.
Throughout the cemetery there are steps to ascend or descend, steps that submerge into water, steps molded into the concrete of the cemetery’s architecture that expand and contract space.
The water pavilion, located at the southern end of the plot, extends into a large pool and is enclosed on three sides by a concrete wall. A small channel connects the water feature to the tomb, animating the landscape with subtle sound and movement.
The circular motif is sometimes intertwined, while at other times the motif stands alone or is incised into walls. It can also be found terminating at a channel of water. The central tomb is circular and above it is a canopy of vine-clad arches, their curves reflected in grassy steps.
Like the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Scarpa acknowledged the Venetian tradition of encrusting the drab with color—the concrete walls of the chapel and the tomb itself are inlaid with rows of yellow glass tile and the circular doorway is highlighted with cobalt blue paint.
Scarpa was an avid traveler and he deftly incorporated features from places he visited into new commissions. Ancient Islamic tombs in an African cemetery on the island of Lamu are said to have been the inspiration for the geometric forms of the Brion tomb and family chapel, while the influence of Japanese and Chinese royal gardens is also visible.
In the context of the cemetery it’s the architecture, rather than foliage, that serves both as a means of spatial control and as individual points of attraction.
Scarpa used concrete as the primary material to construct distinct spaces and delineate the landscape. He used it to layer, add depth, direct views, and structure space, and the continuity is striking as it reinforces the inherent symbolism of the place.
There is an evident connectedness to the Brion Cemetery, a linking between the architecture and the landscape and references to the universal themes of continuity and transition.
The cemetery was one of Scarpa’s last projects and is the culmination of decades of research and practice. He died on November 28, 1978, and is buried in a modest corner of the Asolo village cemetery, just outside the Brion family plot. It’s a poignant adjacency. The architect buried next to his masterpiece, a place that celebrates life and death through the synthesis of the physical and the symbolic.
Mariah Nielson is a London-based curator and writer. She is the director of the J.B. Blunk Estate and co-founder of the design brand Permanent Collection.
Photography by Leslie Williamson.