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26 Febbraio 2008


Vernacular Architecture in Lessinia
A lesson on stone

Versione italiana


Bernard Rudofsky, refined scholar and pioneer of “vernacular architecture”, tells that he had to wait twenty years before a culturally nonchalant institution as the Museum of Modern Art of New York, constantly in search of alternative themes for its events, decided to realize the exhibition he had proposed to the architecture department of the self-same museum in 1941, for an exhibition on the “marvels of spontaneous architecture”, about the most anti-conformist one could imagine in this field. True, the absence of authorship or in any case of any illustrious pedigree, in constructions as those built in the land of the Mali people or the troglodytic villages of the Maghreb, the cyclopean walls of Cuzco in Peru or the dwellings excavated in the fantastic stone cones of Cappadocia, inspired a heavy prejudice against the exhibition of these works, in spite of their undeniably astonishing appearance. But what is most surprising is the reason for this reticence, namely, as the self-same Rudofsky remembers, that the content of the exhibition was “considered unsuitable for a museum dedicated to modern art, or that had if anything considered itself as anti-modern”.1
Thanks to the backing of some masters as Sert, Ponti, Neutra, Tange and Gropius, the exhibition was finally opened in 1964 with the appropriate and provoking title “Architecture Without Architects, met with great success and was then taken on a long and felicitous tour, visiting more than eighty museums and galleries across the world.
The stone buildings of Lessinia, some of the most genial and creative testimonials of vernacular architecture, has waited even longer for recognition, to the point that its survival is at stake; these constructions, comparable to a gigantic collective work of Land Art, merge with a mountain landscape of extraordinary beauty.
In the national context – that is by now aware of, and determined to enhance as precious resources, the sites and works of the farmers’ stone culture, from the Trulli in the Itria Valley that are part of the world heritage of Unesco, to the stone buildings in the Val Bavona in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, that have been awarded the prestigious Carlo Scarpa Prize – the ignorance of the highly original case of use of stone materials, as the one represented by architecture in Lessinia stone, appears like an unexplainable and macroscopic mistake.
But in what does the originality of Lessinia consist? Everything is rooted in geology, in a singular natural heritage that in the vast foothill slopes that descend to the plains near Verona, has left banks of two types of stone that have been formed in different periods but that resemble one another in terms of physical conformation: the Scaglia Rossa Veneta, normally called Prun Stone, and the Ammonitico Red, more widely known as Red Verona Marble. Both are found in the form of thick superimposed layers of stone, separated by a veil of clay that make them easy to detach. Nature has in a certain sense provided the inhabitants of these places with a stone material that is “pre-cut” and thus easy to divide into slabs of various dimensions, also very big, perfectly suited to every building requirement.
The material these slabs are made from – rests of conches, vegetal fragments, small marine organisms – enclose life forms that have been petrified in very distant geological ages, and that emerge on the surface of the quarried stone revealing, in the sunlight, precious surfaces like the illuminated pages of a library in stone.2
With such a refined and sensual material anonymous stonecutters, masons and farmers have for centuries built entire houses, stables, barns, dividing walls, and anything else necessary for their life, creating a specific, unique and original constructive language.
The very manner in which the stone was quarried in tunnels, reserved for the most precious part of the slabs intended for trade, that was abandoned in the Fifties of last century, has left fascinating underground architectures: great spaces with basilica plan and stone ceilings supported by powerful pillars with irregular and bizarre forms, created by removing material according to a rigorous logic of functionality and optimizing of the production.
By virtue of their perfect harmony between functional program and architectural form, the quarries of Prun are the most advanced example of the stone architecture of Lessinia and in a certain sense its monumental expression.
It is customary to express oneself through stone in popular building cultures, but none is comparable to the “style” of Lessinia. While layered masonry with ashlars is common to various European mountain building traditions, in Lessinia the slab as monolith becomes the distinctive trait of the architecture and the landscape.
Laid horizontally, it traces the structure of the roofs from above, separated modularly by carefully cut, large stone slabs superimposed by smaller slabs that cover the joints; placed on the ground, it defines the space of the farmyards, in continuity with the stone pavements inside the buildings.
Erected vertically, buried into the ground, the slabs become load-bearing elements that, analogously to modern prefabricated panels in concrete, serve as both structure and wall panel for auxiliary buildings as equipment sheds, shelters and stables for small domestic animals. More often, vertical slabs are used to build walls separating properties, that create a network of regular outlines on the softly sloping pastureland, forming singular geometric contrasts.
The many-sided and consistent use of the stone monolith represents the essential traits of the original identity of Lessinia architecture: its bare essentiality, the rational manner in which the slabs are combined, the purism of the surfaces, the absence of decoration or superfluous architectural elements, the sense of archaic power and material preciousness. An aggregate of elements that makes this architecture attuned to our contemporary taste.
A more accurate analysis reveals that the original identity is distinguished by the different languages, the variations of which relate to the geographic position of the sites, their relationship with geological deposits, altitudes, the influence of other cultures and the changing productive requirements.
The most influential elements in this identity however remain the basic one of the geology, that divides Lessinia in a meridian sense in two large areas characterized by the presence of the two types of stone slabs. The western part is dominated by the luminous candor of the Prun stone, the eastern one by the material power of the Ammonitico Red. A combination of the two characters has on the contrary been formed on the plateaus used for mountain grazing and transhumance farming.
Among them, it is the western area, located between Brun, Sant’Anna d’Alfaedo and Breonio, where the most important quarries of the Verona territory are located, that feature the most coherent expression of the original traits of Lessinica architecture.
Here the stone, in its singular slab formation, extraordinarily regular and easy to work, has favored the definition of building and composition rules that have left an unmistakable mark on the architectural language. Starting with the masonry with ashlars of the buildings, where the regularity of the material has produced wall textures that are so perfect that the alignment of rows almost coincide with the layers of stone cut in the quarries. On these compact surfaces the doors and windows are composed with slabs forming triliths, often superimposed by a triangle that serves to channel the forces of gravity, that evoke the archetype of the classical gable. This is what Christian Norberg-Schulz observes on the vernacular language of architecture, when he identifies, in the stone constructions of Lessinia, a “latent classicism” as opposed to the “romanticism of the wooden trestlework structures diffused in central Europe”, and observes that in these farmhouses “things really seem to be in their right place and every element, due to the indisputable verticality or horizontality, contributes to a play of forms that is natural and balanced, reflecting the fundamental vocation of stone architecture to the contrast between supporting structure and supported load”3.
The fact that building know-how and the rules of working stone in Lessinia have remained alive has also made it possible, in a relatively recent period, when the destructive “genetic mutation” of traditional building techniques and materials had not yet begun, to develop the processes and forms of a solid constructive rationality with coherence and creativity. When, in the late Thirties of the last century, new systems for the gathering and storage of hay required larger wall openings in the stables, the static response to the force of gravity on the architraves, more ample, was to invent new compositive elements of extraordinary formal originality, as the superimposition of gables and small windows to reduce the weight of the masonry above.
The landscape and architecture in the eastern area between the towns of Boscochiesanuova, Roverù and Velo have on the contrary acquired different connotations; here the more compact and “rocky” conformation has, along with the intense reddish-pink color, given rise to a more archaic and powerful stone “style”.
The irregular, thicker layers of the material, its being less abundant and the coexistence of other stone types has led to new structural “inventions” like slabs stacked vertically, as if hinged onto one another, on the corners of the masonry structures. A peculiar construction principle in this part of Lessinia, where the imperfection of the stones is offset in critical points of the building, as in the corners of the walls, by stone slabs placed so as to face one another in an alternated sequence, to block the two masonry bodies in position.
A small but extraordinary building has been erected on the basis of this construction principle, namely the Modesto stable, that was recently awarded the Stone Architecture International Prize of Marmomacc. This building combines the stone language with the techniques adopted for wooden constructions. In this fascinating construction all walls are made from enormous slabs joined in a “knife” pattern, surmounted and fixed in the corners with an efficient and ingenious system that reminds of the way trunks are dovetailed in mountain constructions.
Another of the characteristic traits of the architecture of eastern Lessinia may also be retraced to this “wooden” conceptual component, namely the conformation of the roofs of many rural buildings as stables and barns, which represent the typical architectural figure of the area. It is a matter of the so-called “gothic pitch”, a double inclination of the roof that forms a broken profile. Originally the pitches with the steepest inclination – that are today covered with galvanized corrugated sheet metal – vaunted a covering of swamp canes, a building tradition brought by the “Cimbri”, an ancient Germanic population that settled in this part of Lessinia when the plateaus were covered by forest to a high altitude.
The progressive transformation of wooden constructions to stone buildings favored by the progressive deforesting has triggered, over the centuries, a singular process of hybridizing between the two languages, that the contingent necessities and the different temperaments of builders have rendered extraordinarily varied.
Where the forest opens up and eventually disappears, and the landscape is dominated by the spacious, undulating pastures that cover the entire upper Lessinia, also human traces become sparse and punctiform, and can be recognized from afar. The metaphysical solitude is populated by grazing animals in the warm season, and the architecture becomes even more essential and archaic.
The distinctive elements of the two cultures of Lessinia disappears and the chalet, the hermetic buildings where milk is processed, reacquire the total petrified appearance of “western” rural buildings. But the structure is changed, the task of supporting the heavy roof covered by slabs is entrusted to great structures with “gothic” arches that make it possible to obtain large continuous spaces, not unlike the naves of Romanesque-Gothic churches, inside.
This architecture of stone, so powerful and archaic, so modern in its essentiality and its functional and constructive rigor, so free from the hysteric formal research of architects, proves fragile when functions for which it has been realized no longer exist. The failure to appreciate its intimate beauty renders it vulnerable to destructive, but avoidable, alterations that entail a change of the use, as well as to abandon and return to “a natural state” or in other words collapse and total dissolution.
Its intelligent recovery may on the contrary become a permanent lesson for present-day architects, often disoriented and overwhelmed by obsessively changing fashions and the formalisms of the new stars.

Vincenzo Pavan

1Bernard Rudofsky, “The marvels of spontaneous architecture”, Bari 1979
2Doina Uricariu “House of Stone, Prun Stone”, in various authors, Excavated Architecture, Verona 2002
3Christian Norberg Schulz “Architecture: presence, language and place”, Milan 1996

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