Carlo Scarpa, who was born in Venice in 1906, was just over sixty years old when he was commissioned to design the funerary monument for the Brion family. His father was a schoolmaster; his mother, a seamstress, died prematurely when he was only thirteen years old.
He completed his studies at the Regia Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice and began his teaching career as assistant to the architect and engineer Guido Cirilli (a collaborator of Giuseppe Sacconi, who designed the Altare della Patria in Rome). He was one of the first tutors at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura in Venice, the Faculty of Architecture that was founded in 1926; he continued to teach there for the rest of his life and in later years he was appointed as dean of the college.
His work is particularly important and valued at world level on account of its freedom from the limitations of intellectualism and any rigid adherence to theoretical schemes or technical dogma. He achieved the goals of instilling a very high degree of artistic expression in the forms he created and ensuring coherence between his project plans and the operations required to bring them to life; he drew attention to and emphasized the aesthetic quality and sensory appeal of the various materials he used and reflected on their possible transformation in time once his work had been completed. In his manner of proceeding he moreover adhered closely to the ideal of ensuring continuity with the traditional tasks of an architect.
Carlo Scarpa was one of the most gifted teachers at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura. The Venetian Faculty of Architettura gradually adapted to modern trends of education; in the early years, the training the students would expect to receive was entirely 'ad personam', as would be the case in the old professional studios and craftwork ateliers, however a tendency to facilitate personal tuition disappeared as the student population increased and eventually the courses held at the college were organized for literally hundreds of students at a time.
Scarpa's didactic approach was naturally closely related to the design and planning process and constantly involved an intense production of drawings (the Scarpa collections now contain almost thirty-five thousands designs and drawings, which are preserved in part at the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo in Rome and in part at the State Archives in Treviso).
His methodology was also influenced by his vast knowledge of construction materials and techniques, which he learnt by collaborating closely with artisans, glassmakers and carpenters and with those involved in the execution of his works in general.
In a manner we might definitely consider not quite in line with the times – but in a manner we would feel was necessary – Scarpa showed that there is a close relationship between 'correct conception' and 'correct execution' of a project. On the other hand, such an approach was obviously appropriate in the case of a project, which, from the very outset, was to be instilled with the felling and quality of a very special 'animus'.
His emphasis on the 'total process' through which a work is created and constructed thus allowed him to acquire intimate familiarity with modern art and, above all, the art and styles of antiquity.
On account of his deep knowledge, he came to be unanimously considered the greatest designer of museums and art exhibitions (temporary events, internal décor, exhibition settings) of the last century.
The Gipsoteca Canoviana at Possagno in the province of Treviso, the Museo Correr and the Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice, the Galleria Civica di Castelvecchio in Verona and the National Gallery of Sicily at Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, his most famous works in this area of interest, are considered masterpieces within the spheres of both architectural design and museum settings.
In terms of their artistic value, these structural designs and museological projects have gradually be placed on a par with the objects that they contain and, in this sense, have themselves become worthy of constant protection.
Scarpa's works convey a sense of great depth and their cultural significance can be seen as imbued with a 'timeless' quality. Such attributes have naturally protected this architecture and designs against the fading into obsolescence to which the products of our time are so often prone with their swift and fateful passing from a dubious privileged status as 'common currency' (as widely recognized works) to one devoid of any significance or worth.
Scarpa's timeless artistic sense, his distance from the fluctuating fortunes of ephemeral trends and the actual works he created, which stand apart from those typical of our present age, are values and aspects that must have certainly interested the Brion family, and to such an extent that they asked him to create their own family tomb. This was to be a construction destined to remain, and a place where one might be stimulated to reflect upon the human condition.
"There is a small spot, a small alcove, which leads from this part to the old cemetery. So I will sleep here in no man's land, which neither belongs to the Brion family nor to the Council. It is a hole which neither of them will argue over" (from the conference of Vienna, 16.11.1976, Carlo Scarpa Archives, Rome).
On the right the tomb of Carlo Scarpa and his wife, buried (vertically) in the cemetery of San Vito di Altivole, alongside (but just outside) the Brion tomb, according to the architect's will.
The tables of Carlo Scarpa at Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice:
The garden of the Brion Monumental Complex at San Vito di Altivole
“Hearing the expression ‘the place of the dead’, we may think of a garden […]. My intention was to demonstrate how we might intervene at the social and community level in order to let people comprehend what sense there might be in death, the idea of eternity and the transient quality of human life […].” (Carlo Scarpa, from a seminar held in Vienna on 16th November 1976).
Scarpa produced about 1.900 drawings for the Brion sanctuary, which have been preserved at the Centro Studi Carlo Scarpa in the State Archives in Treviso.
Observing these drawings, one will see that, in his work, Carlo Scarpa considered botanical elements as important features that can be perfectly integrated into architectural planning. Trees and plants reveal their considerable effect and value especially as volumetric forms within a composition and as ‘graphic’ elements.
Thus, the cypress trees at the entrance of the precinct are used to create a close line of elements towering towards the sky and visible from outside the complex.
The picea abies ‘pendula’ behind the arcosolium and the cedars of the propylaea are used for their accentuated, arched, growth and spreading habit and their drooping branches, which one will associate with an invitation to enter a state of contemplation and reflection when visiting this place. Plants have definite functions and are assigned to specific space.
They provide a particular form of symbolic emphasis of certain architectural spaces and structures, compact masses for flower-beds and containers or suitable additions between the parting walls of the masonry.
The importance Scarpa placed on vegetation can be seen as a significant factor in that extraordinary ‘creative memory’ which led him to draw inspiration and suggestions from a wide variety of artistic ‘languages’ and different aesthetic cultures and, as is known, has was fascinated in particular by those of the Far East.
In some of this gardens, there are cultural references to the concept of the hortus conclusus, and in others to the idea of ‘borrowed landscapes’ as integrated elements of an architectural work, this latter being a concept found not only in scenic architectural compositions of the Middle or Far East.
In the Brion monumental complex, there is a perfect synthesis between the two languages. The high outer wall has the function of creating as pace assigned to moments of reflection and meditation (cf. the concept of an enclosed garden), while it also selects and permits views of the nearby village church (a religious reference) and the hills surrounding Asolo farther away (cf. the concept of a borrowed landscape and a reference to scenic background settings in paintings of the Venetian school).
This cultural blend occurs at the site also in Scarpa’s use of vegetation; one of the most effective and symbolic botanical elements of Western culture, represented by the group off 11 cypress trees by the entrance, creates an uninterrupted dialogue with the bamboo plants and lotus flowers located on the area of the isle of meditation.
In relation to Scarpa’s interest in this aspect of his designs, it is emblematic that, following through studies conducted to evaluate their compositional value, positioning and volume, Scarpa personally visited a number of Tuscan tree nurseries to choose only those plants which would allow him to obtain exactly the effects he had envisaged.
There is significance too in Scarpa’s decision to plant various botanical elements shortly after the construction site was opened to allow them to grow while the architectural elements were being developed and thus shorten the time required to achieve the final result.
In this regard, the most important work involving botanical elements, which would determine the future configuration of the complex, can be traced back to the initial phase of the construction project in the period 1970-72.
In particular, this is when the 11 cypress trees forming the hortus cupressus were planted behind the chapel (temporary wooden caisson had to be inserted to raise the ground to the level required in the plans) and, subsequently, the two cedars (cedrus atalntica glauca var. pendula) in front of the propylaea. These cedars were chosen by Scarpa on account of their ‘two-dimensional’ and drooping, growth habit so as to introduce a green veil that would emphasise the symbolic effect of passing beyond this world into that of the dead.
This early work concerning trees and plants chosen for the complex includes the selection of:
- the short rockspray shrub (cotoneaster horizontalis) placed in the planter by the partition wall separating the Brion area from the municipal cemetery (to the left of the propylaea);
- the weeping Norway spruce (picea abies ‘pendula’) located behind the arcosolium;
- some shrubs and a wisteria plant in the overhanging flower-holder be the water pond around the water pavilion (and probably also the conifer beside the pavilion itself;
- the incense-cedar (libocedrus decurrens), in the area behind the wall of the sacristy (to mask the view of the real walls of the tombs in the municipal cemetery), and always represented in and extremely geometric form with the note ‘final bush level at 2,59m;
- a willow-leaved cotoneaster shrub (cotoneaster salicifolia ‘pendula’) in the flower container created in the north-east corner of the chapel covering (Scarpa’s drawing reveal an annotation worth mentioning which refers to the latter decoration; in his note, he states that this would be ‘a church for the dead but decorated with flowers’)
- a broom shrub (genista sp.), again planted in a triangular container behind the chapel.
The botanical work was completed over the two following years (1972-74), with the exception of the insertion of the aquatic plants in the pond around the meditation pavilion which was supervised by the Tuscan landscape designer Pietro Porcinai “on 19th March 1978, the day of St Joseph, after whom Giuseppe Brion had been named” (L. Latini).
- Cultura Italia, un museo da esplorare | Carlo Scarpa's architecture seen by young photographs
- Centro Carlo Scarpa di Treviso
- Fototeca Carlo Scarpa
- Museo di Castelvecchio - Archivio Carlo Scarpa
- Christian Kerber | Photograph - Works of Carlo Scarpa
- Pinterest - Carlo Scarpa page by James Butler
- Facebook: Gruppo «CARLO SCARPA (1906 - 1978) architetto - designer»
- Facebook: Pagina «Tomba Brion_Carlo Scarpa»
Texts: Guido Pietropoli and Camilla Zanarotti
Photos: Enrico Renai, Guido Pietropoli, Luciano Svegliado, Lino Bettanin and Mario Toselli
English translation: Stephen Pastorello
Thanks to: Guido Pietropoli, Ennio Brion, Camilla Zanarotti, Giuseppe Marcolin, the family Albertini, the Fototeca Carlo Scarpa (Vicenza)