Carlo Scarpa and the Castelvecchio Revisited

Text by Richard Murphy Photographs by Peter Guthrie

Architect Richard Murphy is the author of Carlo Scarpa and the Castelvecchio Revisited, the fruit of a lifetime’s interest in the work of Carlo Scarpa and a book that is regarded as a masterpiece of architectural history and research. Accompanied by a selection of photographs by Peter Guthrie, taken from the second edition of the book, Richard Murphy here outlines the value of studying this compelling project in such detail.


Carlo Scarpa worked on the remodelling of the Castelvecchio Museum, Verona in two main phases between 1957 and 1964 with additional phases completed in 1967 and 1975. The project sits centrally in his career amongst his major works. It is preceded by the Olivetti Showroom, Venice and the museum projects at Palermo, Possagno and Correr Museum, Venice; and is followed by the Ottolenghi House, the posthumously completed headquarters of the Banca Popolare di Verona and the most profound project of his opus, the aforementioned Brion cemetery at S. Vito di Altivole. A number of other important commissions were designed during the same period as his work in the museum - most notably the alterations to the Querini Stampalia, Venice and the Venetian pavilion ‘The Sense of Colour and the Control of the Waters’ in the 1961 Turin Exhibition, both projects of particular relevance for his thinking at the Castelvecchio and mutually influential.


When Scarpa died in 1978 very little of his work had been published. The Architectural Review in December 1973 reviewed an exhibition at the Heinz Gallery in London, the Italian architectural magazines Controspazio and Rassegna had both published special editions on Scarpa’s work in 1981 but Magagnato’s catalogue to the exhibition of a selection of the Castelvecchio drawings in 1982 represented the first monograph. This was the first of what has since become a proliferation of publications, seemingly without end.

Why the astonishing interest in Scarpa’s work; and why was there such a delay in its widespread appreciation? Within his own lifetime and for some time afterwards Scarpa’s work was still judged as anachronistic, small-scale and craft-intensive. Perhaps it is because, as Bruno Zevi has rightly pointed out, he left us no memorably inventive plans. More likely, however, is the relative inaccessibility of his work through the medium of photographs and the written word. All great buildings once visited usually exceed the expectations of the informed visitor, but rarely to the degree experienced with those of Scarpa. In his case photographs are a wholly inadequate preparation. Only directly can the rich sensory experience of his architecture be revealed: the unfolding of spaces and vista, the sounds of water, the movement of light on texture, the delight in the discovery of details, the touch of materials. To comprehend fully his genius one needs to move through his spaces with all senses alert and working together. In Murray Grigor’s 1996 Channel 4 documentary (Scarpa’s former assistant) Arrigo Rudi memorably commented that, ‘it is impossible to visit a building by Scarpa with your hands in your pockets. You must touch..’


Aside from the Castelvecchio’s central position in Scarpa’s career, to choose to study this one building from his opus is felicitous for a number of reasons. Firstly of course it is a museum, and permanent and temporary exhibition design is the field of work that Scarpa made his own and in which, probably, his influence is at its greatest. Castelvecchio is certainly the largest example and contains a whole variety of spaces for displaying art, not least of course, the extraordinary setting of the equestrian statue of Cangrande.


Secondly, the Castelvecchio is an intervention in an historic structure, and is the most complex and didactic of them all particularly considering the way in which Scarpa set about to display the many different layers of history pre-existing his own intervention. Until Scarpa, architectural energy expended on working within existing buildings was not considered mainstream. Indeed one struggles to cite a single building or project from any of the “greats” of modern architecture of this type of work. Since Scarpa, and Castelvecchio in particular, it is considered just as valid as new constructions.

Thirdly, whilst to an extent constrained by the historic fabric of the existing building, the full vocabulary of Scarpa’s remarkably personal and twentieth-century architectural rhetoric can be examined. It also contains the largest collection of examples of his celebrated detailing. Staircases, doors, windows, handles, junctions - all can be studied in abundance and have been documented in the measured drawings. The richness of the detailing and the density of design answer to a degree the criticism of the lack of both in much of twentieth century modernism.


Fourthly, Scarpa’s architecture, Arrigo Rudi once commented, is timeless. It cannot be dated to the 50’s or 60’s and he attributed that to the fact that Scarpa rarely looked at architectural magazines so was unaffected by the fashionable, preferring instead the world of artists, a world brought to Venice every two years at the Biennale. It is however not without roots and in particular the reinterpretation of Venice is a phenomenon we can trace in all his buildings.

Finally, Castelvecchio is unusual in that the Museum owns and has catalogued almost all the surviving drawings for the project. So the designing and making of the building can also be studied; a series of private design journeys made available to all through the examination of the development of ideas through sequences of drawings. The drawings also bear witness to the remarkable series of relationships between Scarpa and Magagnato, the Commune, his assistants Arrigo Rudi and Angelo Rudella and, not least, the craftsmen and artisans who realised his ideas.


And so it is hoped that this study will be useful for those concerned with museum design, those concerned with interventions in historic buildings, those who would like a source book of detailing and construction and for those generally interested in the work of Scarpa, both in the built project as recorded here in photographs and measured drawings, and in the process as witnessed through the sequences of Scarpa’s drawings selected. And for the visitor to the Museum itself, it is hoped that the study will act as both a useful guide and worthy souvenir.


Published 30th September 2019

All photographs © Peter Guthrie

Further information on the book can be found on Richard Murphy’s website.