Authenticity: Scarpa’s Castelvecchio

Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio is the most inspiring example of preservation we’ve seen; where complex layers of ancient and recent history are both independent and dependent at the same time – it’s tectonic brilliance.

Castelvecchio is a storied medieval fortification in Verona, Italy with portions dating back to the 12th century. The majority was constructed in 1354 by the Lords of Verona for their residence and military compound. In 1797, Napoleon’s troops built a utilitarian barracks wing during their occupation and demolished other portions in retribution. Over the last 700 years, Castelvecchio has been marked by numerous military engagements, alterations, and events. In 1923 (during the reign of Mussolini and Italian fascism) it was transformed from its military function to a museum.

The initial renovation was designed by architect Ferdinando Forlati. While Forlati’s ideologies are unclear, his renovation is consistent with Italian fascist architecture of the time. Forlati reconstructed towers, turned the French utilitarian barracks facade into a late Gothic style facade, transformed banal rooms into lavish 17th and 18th century style rooms, added fake beams, fountains, and false medieval-looking foundations. He attempted to reverse its history 180 degrees to create a place of culture that never was. While the authentic bones of Castelvecchio remained, its pastiche now told a false history.

In 1958, the museum underwent a total reorganization in effort to restore the value of both the historical and the artistic additions. The restoration favored authenticity, thus eliminating the false contexts created in the 1920s renovation. The architect was the renowned Carlo Scarpa. Scarpa sought to tell the story of Castelvecchio for what it was – pastiche mixed with history. He preformed select demolitions and peeled back roofs to reveal layers of history in dialogue. He used modern materials in expressive ways to mediate between parts, drawing attention to historical fact and alerting visitors to the fakery of the ’20s renovation. By pulling doors and windows back from the recreated Gothic facade, he exposes the decoration like a theater stage set. He heightens this awareness by moving the entry from the formal center to the end. Even the museum art objects are decontextualized – placed on floating planes to signify their departure from other destroyed buildings. Scarpa made his own commentaries on fascism by removing building portions to reveal the 12th century wall of the city (a time when the inhabitants of Verona had greater freedoms).

Scarpa viewed the past for what it actually was without nostalgia or exaggeration. He saw that the societal and political history of Castelvechio was more important than the forms of the architecture, but he realized that these histories are revealed through its architecture. His intervention is both a mediator and commentary, allowing all parts their own authenticity.