Magazzino del Sale
Emilio Vedova and the Magazzini del Sale
“...in Jacopo de’ Barbari's famous map (a marvellous work, and according to the experts amazingly exact), from 1500, there they are – all nine of them – a huge complex, even by today's standards. They are not that well known, and it's easy to see why: what gets studied in art history is the big-name architecture, the splendours of the untouchable architecture of the powerful – individuals and otherwise – and we file by them gawping, to the greater glory of the powerful! These buildings, on the other hand, these monuments to the economic power and the trading reach of Venice, and to the labour of the masses that made possible – at the same time – the official celebratory architecture of the city – these are too thoughtlessly, in my view, swept away... These particular constructions, for example, having to do with salt (the petroleum of the Venetian Republic) are perfectly designed with a view to function: diagonally arranged, with alternating oblique buttresses, to contain the 'irregular weight' – as they say – of the salt (one empty, the next not). They are extraordinary examples and rare surviving evidence, of the working life of urban Venice, these vast caverns exuding effort...”.
So wrote Emilio Vedova in the local Gazzettino newspaper (“Fermiamo il piccone demolitore” / 'Stop the wrecking ball' – 29 March 1974) in the midst of the desperate battle to save the Magazzini del Sale following the incredible decision of the City Council on 7 December 1973 (by 46 votes to 0, with one abstention) to knock them down and build swimming-pools, 'hollowing out' the insides and leaving only the perimeter walls intact. Vedova's own studio was in one of the nine ex-warehouses but, returning from a journey to Cuba, he found the Fondamenta delle Zattere cordoned off and the wrecking ball already at work: walls here and there already broken through, piles of rubble, a whole roof entirely gone (which is why one of the halls even now has a translucent covering).
Immediately, true to his natural disinclination to put up with injustice and abuses of power, Vedova put himself at the head of a burgeoning protest movement which split Venice for many weeks, ranging the social and cultural forces in the city concerned with preserving the halls against a (mainly) sporting lobby that had been agitating twenty years or so for 'their' swimming pools. Emilio and Annabianca, backed by a long procession of students, artists and intellectuals, and all who cared for the future of the Magazzini as they were, intervened in a session of the City Council, holding aloft in complete silence a giant reproduction of de' Barbari's map, with the salt-halls highlighted. From that moment on, the 500-year-old story of the Magazzini del Sale resumed its proper course.
In a similarly enterprising spirit, the Emilio and Annabianca Vedova Foundation, now installed in one of the halls, commissioned from Emilio's longstanding friend Renzo Piano the Magazzino del Sale Project. The Foundation remained true to the recently deceased Venetian master's enthusiasm in his last years for Piano's bold conception. The existing interior of the Magazzino was respected, with no alterations envisaged to the original brick walls or the roof trusses, while the stone paving was overlaid with a platform of brushed larch planks, slightly inclined to accentuate the depth of the hall. The machinery – which uses renewable energy sources – is housed under the flooring. In the first part of the Magazzino, two full-height asymmetrically diverging diagonal walls, clad in larch to match the floor, greet the visitor and contain the service facilities. The works are stored at the rear of the hall, aligned on a bespoke metal structure. Down the middle of the roof trusses, for nearly the whole length of the building, runs a rail along which ten robotised shuttles are electronically manoeuvred. Their mobile extensible arms, with a mechanised hoist to allow differential heights, pluck the individual works from the archive, carry them to the exhibition space and position them in the appointed location. The machinery was built by Metalsistem in Rovereto for the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.