In the elements
the joint inspires ornament, its celebration.
The detail is the adoration of Nature.
Louis Kahn, 1974
Carlo Scarpa (1906-78) designed his famous easel in the early 1950's as part of his reorganisation of the Correr Museum in Venice. That was the first of five radical alterations of historic buildings which were coupled with equally revolutionary museum display techniques: Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo (1953-4); the extension to the Canova Gypsotheca in Possagno (1955-7), the renovation of the Palazzo Querini Stampalia in Venice (1961-63) and finally the largest and most didactic of them all the renovation of the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, a project which occupied Scarpa's time intermittently between 1957 and 1975. The easels became a favourite "prop" in these quasi-theatrical displays and were used in all but the Possagno project which displays only sculptures.
In total it is believed there are approximately about 30 easels in existence. They were all manufactured in the same two workshops in the Cannaregio area of Venice; the Anfodillo brothers' joinery workshop and, just next door, the Zanon brothers' blacksmithy. Sadly the Anfodillo workshop, the last major joinery workshop on the island, closed its doors in 1997. The design uses materials of steel, brass and teak and allows paintings to be displayed at varying heights. The three feet have adjustable screws to allow for uneven floors surfaces. Remarkably there are almost no screw or bolted fixings; instead Scarpa used brass-to-brass fixings which rely on friction to maintain their position. Indeed the expression, some might say the over-expression, of the joint is a hallmark of all Scarpa's work. Scarpa and Louis Kahn the American architect were friends and the idea of the poetry of the joint is part of a poem Kahn wrote to Scarpa just before Kahn's death in 1974, reproduced above.
The Castelvecchio accounts for the majority of the existing easels. There are twenty distributed across the early paintings galleries on the first and second floor of the Mediaeval Scaligeri palace, (the "Reggia"), and in the final galleries on the first floor of the main building. All Italian museums went through both physical and ideological reconstruction after the war. The pre-war fascist state had used them to impress the public with the vast hordes of state treasures and Castelvecchio was no exception. The interior had been faked as a nobleman's palace and many of the works were lost in the visual cacophony of the interior design. After the war a new movement "the democratic museum" was formulated which deliberately limited the work on display and attempted to choreograph the exhibition so that each work communicated directly with the visitor. BBPR's work at the Castello Sforza in Milan and Albini's remodelling of the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa are notable examples but it is Scarpa who became the master of this approach and who's museum displays have outlasted all the others. Indeed, at Castelvecchio with his famous setting of the Cangrande statue it can be said that he created the most extraordinary setting for a single work of art ever made in the history of humanity.
Within the painting galleries Scarpa positions his easels, along with other devices such as large canvases displayed freestanding between steel rods, to push and pull the visitor around his rooms, often presenting visitors with the rear of a painting to invite curiosity. There are many examples but illustrated here is just one, the arrangement of Room 10 on the first floor of the Reggia. Visitors enter in the north-west corner of the room and exit in the north-east. Their route takes them between three easels defining a little exhibition space but beyond them facing the light from the south and with their backs to the visitor are two wonderful paintings, Pisanello's Madonna of the Quail and Stefano da Verona's Madonna in the Rose Garden the latter held between rods. Only when the visitor has been enticed into the corner do they then go on to discover Scarpa's the jewel-like display of the tiny Filippo Lippi's Entombment of Christ on the adjacent wall. This is one of many examples around the museum which illustrate how the visitor ceases to be an observer and begins to become a participant in the unfolding exhibition, a skill which continues to fascinate architects and museum designers to this day. Scarpa's easels are essential components of these memorable displays.
Author of Carlo Scarpa and the Castelvecchio Revisited