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 third of a series that together forms an homage to a design hero.
The drive from Venice to Verona is only a few hours and we arrived at Castelvecchio after lunch. The medieval museum provides visitors multiple routes to explore the collection so we split up and occasionally crossed paths.
Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is a sprawling medieval fortress built by the Scala family, the ruling family of Verona, between 1354 and 1356. Invaders such as the Venetians, French, and Austrians took over and modified the compound between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries and, in 1923, the structure’s use shifted from military to civic purposes. In 1957, under the direction of Licisco Magagnato, a comprehensive vision was developed for the renovation and installation of a medieval museum.
By the time Scarpa started work on his museum plan and exhibition design scheme in 1958, the old castle had gone through more than seven hundred alterations. Over the centuries it had been rebuilt, modified, altered, and embellished according to different time periods and needs and Scarpa was transparent about his assessment of the project, stating at a conference: “In Castelvecchio, everything is fake.”
The project, which lasted roughly fifteen years, offered Scarpa a vast collection to work with and layers of history to expand on. The museum consists of twenty-nine rooms of paintings, sculptures, weaponry, ceramics, and miniatures dating from 1300 to 1700.
Two important aspects of Scarpa’s work are exemplified in the renovation and exhibition design: the architect’s ability to enhance an existing space by integrating the historical and contemporary and his skill in arranging a collection.
Because the existing architecture was not precious, Scarpa was able to approach the renovation of the castle with a certain freedom. His interventions range from small-scale details such as installing mahogany and brass handrails to large-scale additions such as new galleries.
A set of angular stone stairs leads up to the fortress walkway and, like the steps in the Olivetti Showroom and Fondazione Querini Stampalia, continues the material of the existing wall while introducing a new geometry. Steel beams replace medieval timbers while reflecting the scale and orientation of the historic features.
Each exhibit inspires its own style and moving through the museum feels like passing through a series of distinct interiors, each one a unique arrangement of light, color, materials, display systems, and artifacts.
Sculptures and sculpture fragments are arranged together to form a whole. In one gallery, massive paintings are mounted onto metal frames that protrude from the ancient architecture of the space. The frames extend from the wall and ceiling so that both front and back of the canvas can be admired. This not only liberates the artwork but also contributes to the spatial experience of the place.
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.