The first time I saw Italian “construction magic” at work was in 1998. It was at the Doges Palace in Venice’s wonderful Piazza San Marco. Take a look at this picture:
The only reason you can easily tell that the upper left-hand section of the Palace front is a screen and not the real building is because they included a cut-out showing one of the interior’s ornate ceilings. However, the row of columns and railings just below that, as well as the ground-level arches, are also part of the construction screen. The lower section looked so realistic that my travel partner could not see the difference between the real arches on the right and the false on the left, and would not believe that it was just a reproduction until he got right up to it and tried to walk through one of them. It’s trompe l’oeil on a very large scale, but since I’ve never been able to pronounce trompe l’oeil, I’m calling it “construction magic”.
Venice was obviously getting itself prettied-up that year, because on the other side of Piazza San Marco, they had also disguised their renovation work on the famous clock tower:
Since that trip I have seen many wonderful examples of this attempt to make construction sites an interesting part of the surroundings instead of an eye-sore — and they’ve all been in Italy. I’ve never seen even a hint of this kind of thing in the US…..perhaps because we tend to tear down and rebuild bigger, rather than restore.
However I can certainly understand why Italy goes to this amount of trouble. The country has an almost embarrassing amount of architectural treasures worthy of keeping in tip-top shape, and for which millions of people travel thousands of miles, spending millions of dollars just to see. Tourists don’t want to get to the Piazza San Marco and see 2 of its most famous structures wrapped in shrouds. Yes — they might be disappointed to not see the actual stones, but at least the reproduction is better than having them completely hidden.
Some of the screens are incredibly realistic — such as the Doges Palace — and surely came from photos. Others are more like an artist’s rendering of what the building should look like after it’s done. For instance, here’s a rather humble building in Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, where the Pantheon is the center of attention:
I’m assuming that whoever was in charge of the construction site decisions felt that in such a prestigious piazza, they just could not have the whole building covered in dingy cloth like that in those other 3 vertical panels, but nor did they want to go to the trouble (make that: expense) of reproducing the whole building. So they gave the front a bit of personality with window boxes and shuttered French doors, showing that they planned to eventually make the building worthy of its prime position near the Pantheon. Same with this building on the right side of Trevi Fountain:
After seeing the great job Venice did with its Doges Palace, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed several years later when I saw the bottom part of Siena’s Duomo. The top was so promising, but then…… I’d like to think that perhaps I was just there on the wrong day and a week later they would have extended the screen down to the ground.
All of these renovations were for either prestigious buildings or more modest ones in a prestigious neighborhood. However, this past Fall I was in the VERY small town of Solomeo, just outside of Perugia. Solomeo’s claim to fame is that it was chosen by Brunello Cucinelli to be the site of the “factory” for his beautiful, high-end casual clothing business. Demanding the same quality workmanship in the renovations as he does in his clothes, he has rejuvenated the run-down village bit by bit and installed his offices and workshops in the restored buildings. Right across from what is now the showroom was this home in the process of being re-done:
While we can’t tell what the original looked like, I would say that in its finest hour, it was probably a nice house, but certainly not a great house….not one considered to be an “important” building by anyone……other than Signor Cucinelli and perhaps the previous owner. But look at the work that went into the screen. Here’s a front view:
I was fascinated by the detail of the curtains in the windows, the shadows of the shudders, the carving on the door, the reflection of a tree in the upper right window glass and the fact that they’ve landscaped in front of the screen. Few private people have the money to go to this kind of trouble when they’re already paying an arm and leg for the restoration work itself, so I hope little Solomeo adequately appreciates having a benefactor who shares his desire for beauty with the whole town.
Obviously I’ve spent a lot more time admiring this “construction magic” through the years than doing any useful research on it so I could give you solid information along with the photos……like who authorizes the installation?…..how much does it cost?…..where are the screens produced? But my fear is that knowing the facts might take away a bit of the magic. Then I’d have to come up with another name. And worst of all — I might have to learn how to pronounce trompe l’oeil…..
A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone!!!!! I hope 2014 finds you traveling to all the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting.