The Brion Cemetery, Carlo Scarpa
North of Venice, Carlo Scarpa built a private mausoleum for the Brion family, a synthesis of his architectural work and his capacity for constructive invention. A manifesto project where concrete allows the sculpting of forms and decorative elements conducive to meditation.
Veneto, literature and constructive knowledge
Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) is an Italian architect born in Venice, a city that was of major importance in his career. In fact, most of his built work is located in the Veneto region. His first works were interior design projects for museums and temporary exhibitions that oriented him towards the principles of rationalism. Very early he also developed a simplicity associated with a characteristic geometric rigor in his work.
Much of Scarpa’s influence came from literature. As a great collector, he developed his critical thinking and clarified his aesthetic visions through his books. Reading Paul Valéry, Frank Lloyd Wright’s publications but also works on the history of his region or on Japanese architecture he diversified his fields of knowledge. The Italian architect also developed a great respect for traditional construction methods. He adheres to the ideas of modernism but considers craftsmanship and invention on the building site as the supreme creative act. This respect for the values of old buildings is reflected in the influences he draws from the materials, landscapes, compositions, history, and Venitian culture.
The manifesto final work
The most significant project in Carlo Scarpa’s career is probably the Brion Sanctuary, located about 20 kilometers north of Venice. It is a private burial ground designed as an addition to the municipal cemetery of San Vito d’Altivole for the Brion family. This project is a synthesis of the successive influences that have marked Scarpa’s career: his knowledge of history, his interests in regionalism and his capacity for constructive invention.
The private mausoleum is a monumental project that will be the greatest of his career, which ended tragically at the end of its construction in 1978. Carlo Scarpa had a freedom of expression that he had never had before, accompanied by a comfortable budget. This freedom of action is fully expressed in the architectural ideas of the project. The construction of the funeral complex began in 1968, and was from the outset the architectural manifesto of Scarpa’s convictions, with the use of concrete as its first protagonist. The Brion Cemetery follows an L shape around the old cemetery of the village. It organizes a course over 2000m², very much focused on the symbols that are materialized by distinct architectural elements.
Water as a guide for souls
There are two ways to enter the complex: from the cemetery or from the village. Both paths lead to the central tomb, via a walkway laden with symbols. At the entrance to the cemetery is a propylaeum, an asymmetrical façade, closed on the left by a wall and on the right by a partition with vertical steps that symbolize strength and beauty. From this entrance hall one can see the vesica piscis, a recurring symbol in the work of Carlo Scarpa. This viewing device consists of two rings in blue and pink mosaic tiles representing the union of the Brion couple. The meditation pavilion next to it is arranged in an atmosphere reminiscent of Japanese architecture, an important influence in Scarpa’s work. Surrounded by water basins and water lilies, set apart from the other elements of the complex. It’s a concrete structure, a box cut in half, placed almost in levitation above the platform surrounded by water, which conveys a kind of balance to the place and to the visitor.
The Brion couple’s tomb is located in the heart of the L, in a tomb combining concrete, metal, marble and glass. This place is staged by landscape elements specific to Scarpa, a superimposition of water and vegetation on different levels that calmly guides the visitor in his introspection. The tomb is a contemporary revisit of a type of tomb used since antiquity, especially in the catacombs in the Paleochristian era: the arcosolium. It takes the form of a semi-circular niche with an arch carved above the coffin, which is most often a sarcophagus. Under the concrete arch that protects them are the tombs of Onorina and Giuseppe Brion. They are side by side, inclined towards each other to represent their affection and their unfailing bond. The work on concrete shows the architect’s knowledge of this material, especially in its decorative intent. He combines this raw material with mosaic and bronze elements, once again seeking an aesthetic and spiritual balance. The tomb of the spouses was placed by Scarpa where there is the most sun in the cemetery.
A minimalist ceremonial place
The tomb of the Brion family also has a dedicated space under an aedicula not far from the sarcophagus of the spouses. On this path, the visitor can also reach the chapel, the last building of the complex. The chapel is a large room, closed by rough concrete but flooded with natural light. This ceremonial place is surrounded by water and again some elements of Japanese architecture are visible. The chapel has no religious or decorative elements. It’s its form and the very plastic use of concrete that suggests its function. Thanks to a subtle association between minimalism and technical knowledge Scarpa proves once again its technical innovation ahead of its time.
Formal poetry and narrative architecture
This last building concludes the path through the complex and the role given to each element. When the meditation pavilion is dedicated to a more personal and introspective use, the chapel is dedicated to a collective celebration, two aspects that meet at the level of the spouses’ tomb in the center of the cemetery. These functions are linked together by the vegetation, the cypresses and the path of the water that guides the visitor, whether it induces recollection by its immobility around the pavilion or movement when it’s present in the form of canals. These landscape elements are combined with architectural and sculptural elements in concrete to form an evocative harmony. These elements are part of a formal poetry that forms Carlo Scarpa’s narrative architecture. This is what makes the Brion Sanctuary a place for the dead and the living.
The Brion cemetery is the most complete work of Carlo Scarpa, the architect is today buried in a sober and discreet white tomb adjacent to the sanctuary he built at San Vito d’Altivole, as yet another symbol of the bond between the living and the dead.
Photos: © Federico Covre
La Tomba Brion, San Vito d‘Altivole, 1969-1978, Photos: © Klaus Kinold, 1985