carlo scarpa, architect: gipsoteca del canova, possagno 1955-1957. the light.
gipsoteca del canova, canova plaster cast gallery extension, possagno 1955-57.
architect: carlo scarpa 1906-1978 with v. pastor.
I forget if this was a boy or a girl, apologies to all. stay strong.
what it shows us, what it also shows us, is the strange principle of natural light which scarpa applied in his extension of the gipsoteca. not only did he place canova's plaster casts - a slightly ghostlike material in itself - in all-white surroundings, he cut openings for daylight in every wall and every corner of the rooms. occasional streaks of sunlight will wash over the sculptures and articulate their shapes, but more often than not, as in these afternoon photos, the light will bounce off the white walls in endless reflections around the room, obliterating all shadows.
convention dictates that light in a situation like this should come from one direction, shadows clarifying the three dimensional play of shapes, and that it should never be direct given the corroding powers of its UV component. but in possagno, scarpa does not even play with the expectations of convention.
it made me think of his preoccupation with wright who alone was able to place three or four different light sources in one room. but light in wright dies quickly, his use of darker, self-finishing materials like brick or ply allow for little more than a single reflection, and the light becomes more of a local incident, defining a room within the room.
scarpa's light in possagno encounters no such obstacles and fills the space evenly. the white world he built around these idealised human figures is frustratingly ambiguous. it is at once a dreamlike, ethereal setting sympathetic to the sculptor's equally dream-like world where the exhibition comes to life under random rays of sunlight, but it is also - and at the same time - the unforgiving, modern light of the surgery, exposing every black measuring point placed by canova, leaving nothing to the shadows, to imagination, suggestion. for all the visual interest of the building, scarpa is denying canova the colour and texture we would expect to find in a work of his; he is draining the space of the sensuality and richness that would typically form a backdrop to canova's sculptures.
and scarpa wanted the light to be both. there is a kitsch aspect of pretty details to canova's work which I am not sure we have the culture to spot today, at least not without a guide, but to which scarpa responded sharply. in the words of the architect:
'...the problem is that during that time, predominately napoleonic, the taste for heads, legs, and feet was very affected, almost "greek", following winkelmann's enthusiasm for greek art. it is the taste for curly hair - you can still see this in second-rate films - that taste for the neoclassic that makes antonio canova appear unsavoury. one would have to do something, perhaps take a risk with the statues - break off hands, feet, and heads, the points where there are thongs, cothurni, and ringlets. it's here one finds the neoclassical style, whereas from the neck down to the knees is the true style, truth achieved, art that becomes life.'
have you ever heard a museum architect be so harsh on the subject of his exhibition? this is scarpa the reader of ruskin, nietzsche and karl kraus speaking to us. his critical appreciation of an artist or a work of art was the starting point for an architecture more cerebral than I think many of his fans are willing to concede, and more difficult than his own neat details would have you think.
I felt the hostility, let us call it that, and could not make sense of it on this my second visit to the building. but scarpa wanted to give us more than the infatuation that invariably colours the first meeting with his architecture, and second visits are a blessing of the headache-inducing kind. nabokov went as far as to say that for books there are only rereadings, the first reading simply does not count. in scarpa, we have an equally demanding teacher.
pretty canova on flickr: