Museo di Castelvecchio

by Philip Smith

Widely considered to be one of Scarpa’s most important works, the renovation and re-installation of the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona demonstrates his ability to create sophisticated work within a complicated historical context. It is also one of the best examples of Scarpa’s sensitivity towards the nature of materials.

Castelvecchio was once the citadel of Verona, and its complex of buildings were constructed in several phases over centuries. The castle was built by order of Cangrande II della Scala in the middle of the fourteenth century, over walls that are Roman in origin (Cangrande II was a member of the Scaliger family, who were lords of Verona for over a century).

Following the waning of the Scaliger’s power in 1387, Castelvecchio served a military function as the city of Verona passed through Venetian, French and Austrian rule, eventually ending up as part of a unified Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Its role was changed in the 1920s, when Castelvecchio was converted into a museum and ‘restored’ – the latter term is dubious, as it was decorated and re-ordered in a form that the building would not have previously assumed.

Scarpa’s intervention

As mentioned above, the ‘restoration’ that was applied to the building in the 1920s was more concerned with dressing up and historicising the buildings, than it was with the actual history of the site.

Referring to this, Scarpa stated in a lecture of 1978; “Castelvecchio was all deception”1. In contrast, Scarpa’s approach was to expose, rather than brush over, the differing layers of history at Castelvecchio. This is readily apparent from within the large courtyard space that occupies the centre of Castelvecchio, especially at the point at which the statue of Cangrande della Scala stands upon a remarkable concrete structure, in a break between the buildings.

At this juncture, Scarpa most vividly stripped back the historical layers, reconnecting the spaces with distinctly modern elements that serve to juxtapose the different periods of the buildings’ development (and accordingly, the mark of its successive inhabitants/rulers).

In a side note, it is interesting to read (within Sergio Los’s survey of Scarpa’s work2) a comparison between this area and the surreal imagery of a group of prints by the Venetian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – the Carceri d’invenzioni (‘Imaginary prisons’). These dramatic invented scenes illustrate a series of structures (some of which are actually impossible in structural terms) in which landings project forth into subterranean spaces. They are ‘architectural dreams’, and the space that Scarpa created, in a similar fashion, is an example of the poetic character that resonates through much of Scarpa’s work.

This area is the most complicated transition point on the site, and Scarpa’s response was suitably vigorous in nature, in line with the nature of Piranesi’s scenes. On the ground plane, Scarpa designed a complex system of sheets and pavers of Prun stone. These are dissociated from the surrounding walls by physical separation and the use of low intermediary walls of similar material. The latter fold the ground plane up, acting like a substantial form of wainscoting (similar to Scarpa’s treatment of the floor within the main hall at Querini-Stampalia). The randomised paving pattern, which is laid out in a comparatively strict adaptation of traditional flagstone patterns, acts as a secondary device for guiding people through the area to large suspended pads (constructed of a textured, old-fashioned concrete) that lead to the next area of the museum.


Complexity is often perceived as counteractive to good modern design. It does not constitute the safe course, but within the work of a great artist/architect, well-handled complexity lends a project a virtuoso quality. As a New Zealander, the beautifully-crafted complexity and detail present within Europe’s traditional landscapes and cities have formed some of the strongest impressions that I have taken in during periods that I have been fortunate to spend time in Europe. The profound beauty imbued by these qualities is something that is not as prevalent within New World built environments, like our own; but which we may find within many of our natural landscapes (which constitute our most profound aesthetic heritage).

An example of Scarpa’s virtuosity with materials is shown in the photographs above and below, of a low concrete wall that stands adjacent to the entry to the museum. The roughly textured finish, and round aggregate utilised within the wall, emulate the character (on a smaller scale) of historic walls from Castelvecchio and other sites within Verona, within which rounded stones are laid inconsistently within mortar beds. Also worthy of mention is the manner in which the break in the stone paving aligns with the break between sections of the concrete wall, forming a beautiful detail. Scarpa further resolved this juncture with the simple addition of strips of bronze at the ends of each section of stone paving.

Bronze strip detailing is also utilised in an intriguing step detail at the base of the exterior of the ‘sacello‘ (the small chapel-like adjunct that stands adjacent to the main entrance – more will be written of this later). The photograph below shows the point at which the main entry paving (which is basically level, and formed from Prun stone) meets this step detail. The shallow concrete ‘steps’ create a very tangible separation between the ‘sacello‘ and the museum entry. Simply put, this is because (in psychological terms) level paving and steps feel completely different. Even though the steps are extremely shallow, they still register to our brain in a similar way to conventional steps.

Scarpa used this shallow step detail at the auxiliary entrance to Brion Monumental Tomb. In that case, it provides a greater sense of progression as one enters the space by walking over these shallow steps. However, at Castelvecchio, the detail is specified differently. It occurs on an area that is not actually part of the paths, and therefore derives its effect from the contrast between it and the flat paths.

Through a simple variation in levels and falls, Scarpa has created a deeply felt separation of the elements, within an area in which many parts converge. The positioning of a historic trough, spanning two of the steps, further contributes to the effect of this detail upon the surrounding spaces.

The ‘sacello‘ itself is a simple cube, whose walls are adorned with square setts of Prun stone, in various colours. Scarpa arranged these in a pattern which is remarkably complex and restrained at the same time3. The pattern reflects, in no small part, Scarpa’s interest in the work of the modern artists, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee4.

Prun stone is a limestone that is local to the Lessinia area, near Verona. As with many limestones, it occurs in distinct strata, which are unusually pronounced and regular within this material (due to the processes that formed it). Prun stone is an important material in vernacular architecture of the Lessinia area, and in many older buildings of Verona. The variety of colours that naturally occur within Prun stone were utilised to virtuoso effect by Scarpa, throughout Castelvecchio; perhaps most remarkably in the sacello.

Scarpa’s interest in vernacular materials and forms is also evident in the design for several large gates that are positioned at various points at Castelvecchio. The orthogonal grid form of these gates does not only evoke the character of traditional iron window grates (a common feature of all Mediterranean countries), but bear a character that could easily be described as either Oriental or Gothic – both influences upon the built traditions of Venice, which was a remarkably cosmopolitan city on account of its wide-reaching trading history. There is a strong current of Eastern influence throughout much of Scarpa’s work (as evidenced here), due to his admiration of Japanese architecture and aesthetics.


While the poetic expression of form within Brion Monumental Tomb captivated me most acutely in that place, it is Scarpa’s mastery of materials and junctures that astounds me most at Castelvecchio. The point at which two points meet can often be perceived as a problem by architects or designers; a problem that needs to be solved. Within Scarpa’s work, the joint (or juncture) is an opportunity; an opportunity that provides detail and can expose the nature of an object.

The step detail that I have described earlier within this essay is a good example of Scarpa’s ability to imbue junctures with a profound beauty. The image above illustrates another example; in this case, a very simple manner of resolving a joint.

An L-shaped section of steel plate enfolds the end of a rough, cast concrete wall; a seemingly unnecessary gesture, which may have had a practical purpose in protecting the concrete from being eroded by excessive touching in this high traffic area. A similar detail adorns the two steps in the same area, and is used elsewhere at Castelvecchio.

For me, Scarpa’s sensitivity towards junctures is perhaps most beautifully expressed in his paving scheme for the entry area. As within his paving for the chapel approach at Brion Cemetery, the design guides one through in an indirect fashion. A wall enfolds the point at which one enters the museum, and a ‘break’ of rough-textured Prun stone indicates that this is a major transition point.

The subtle organisation of this entry area leads one through to the inconspicuous entryway, through the manipulation of the qualities of the materials (colour and texture) and the sophisticated grammar of Scarpa’s paving pattern (size, shape and orientation).

Scarpa’s sensitive consideration of materials and detail helped his work achieve a sense of continuity with the many historical layers that make up Castelvecchio. As an example of the way in which tradition can form an integral part of modern design, Castelvecchio is a masterpiece. This principle, of engaging critically with the traditions of the past, may seem to apply best to the context of the Old World, but it is also a lesson that we should take on in New Zealand.


  1. As noted in ‘Carlo Scarpa‘, Sergio Los, (1994), Taschen, Köln.
  2. Within the same book referred to within footnote 1.
  3. A similar pattern adorns a floor at Fondazione Querini-Stampalia, in Venice.
  4. The gently shifting hues, and depth established by these, speak more to me of the work of Klee.