by Roderick Conway Morris

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Jean-Pol Grandmont
San Servolo seen from the Campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore

Venice's Island of Revived Crafts

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 18 September 1993


When Caffe Florian, the historic 18th-century coffee house in Piazza San Marco, could find no local craftsmen willing to undertake the daunting task of saving its intricate parquet floor, it turned to the students on the island of San Servolo.

Led by their mastercraftsman instructor, a team of conservation commandos came in at night - so as not to disrupt the cafe's business - removed the floor, and carried it off to the island (leaving a temporary one in its place). Several weeks later the floor, painstakingly restored, was returned again by night. Before departing, the group's leader laid a completely new floor in a side room - held down by magnets, so that it can be lifted to safety during the city's periodic floods.

San Servolo lies a couple of kilometres to the south-west of Venice. From the seventh century a Benedictine monastery, it it was later a convent. In 1725 it became a hospital for mad aristocrats, and then a general lunatic asylum, which it remained until 1978. Since 1980 it has been the home of The European Center for Training Craftsmen in the Conservation of the Architectural Heritage - a unique institution that attracts students from countries (fifty so far) from all over the world.

'We came about,' said Wolfdietrich Elbert, the congenial German architect who is the center's director,'in 1975, European Architectural Heritage Year, when some of the people involved started saying: new laws, declarations, good intentions are fine, but can't we leave something practical behind?'

At that time many ancient craft skills - essential for the proper restoration of old buildings and their interiors - looked in danger of imminent extinction. But San Servolo has succeeded in turning back the tide by offering 3-month and two-week intensive courses on techniques ranging from fresco, stucco and stonework, to marquetry, architectural woodcarving and metal chasing.

Students are supported by a generous scholarship scheme, and live and work on the island, often bringing their families (an important consideration since the average age of students is around thirty). Equally, though, said Elbert, the center is unable to pay high fees they have no difficulty in attracting the finest craftsmen to teach there 'above all because they are so keen to pass on their skills.'

Elbert led me through lush gardens, from which sparkling vistas of the lagoon's sunlit waters could be glimpsed through the trees, introducing me to some of the island's cats and a talking blackbird (rescued from the jaws of one of the former, and now resident in a tree opposite the director's house), to an outbuilding where a two-week intensive course on 'scagliola', marble stucco work, was in progress. A group of various nationalities was beavering away producing 'marble' panels from the traditional mixture of gypsum, glue and pigment, and even a full-scale archway, based on a Palladio drawing. The technique is now so rare that it costs more than real marble, but is very durable, capable of enormous chromatic subtlety and can produce superb trompe-l'oeil effects.

Mastering such a skill can be not just deeply satisfying but also lucrative. One San Servolo graduate now finds himself in constant demand in his native Australia, restoring period cinemas, and modern architects, too, have been rediscovering the potential of this kind of marbling.

Continuing our walk through the gardens, past numerous walls decoratively rendered, frescoed and stuccoed by former classes, Elbert showed me the other workshops, including a stone-carving studio which has, among other projects, replaced some of the missing pine-cone ornaments on the parapet of the bridge by the Doge's palace, and a smithy's forge, where students not only learn specialties such as hammer welding but also to make their own tools.

'We like to emphasise,' said Elbert,'that, though we may be learning from the past, we are forward looking.' And, in fact, it quickly becomes evident that the center is constantly engaged in testing the properties of building and decorative materials. 'Take lime, example,' Elbert said. 'Lime mortar, lime washes and plasters were used for more than 2,000 years. Then concrete came along, and seemed the answer to everything. But it wasn't. It's too hard, too inflexible, full of unpleasant salts and it cracks up, which lime doesn't,' - eloquently illustrating his point by indicating bright sections of external lime-based fresco, still as good as new after several years of exposure to sun, wind and weather, and standard concrete renderings, cracked, discolored and disintegrating.

Likewise, the center's experiments with lindseed oil, as a seal and preservative for wooden doors and windows (after which they can be left as they are or painted), are revealing the remarkable advantages of this traditional, but unfashionable, treatment. In this area the center's investigations into 'bio-architecture' deserve much wider dissemination - and could prove invaluable to anyone restoring or maintaining an old house, or even contemplating building a new one.

Having established its international reputation, the center plans greatly to expand its activities, widen the range of people taking courses and involve private industry. Yet unsympathetic and unhelpful treatment at the hands of the local government authority that still owns San Servolo, are inclining the center to seek less problematic premises elsewhere.

Though, the centre would clearly prefer to stay in Venice - which provides an unparalleled artistic environment for students and an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives - they have already received several invitations to move to other European cities. Their departure would be entirely Venice's loss - and cast severe doubts on the credibility of local and national officials who are so vocal in claiming to have the city's future at heart.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024