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5. Light at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Demetrio Sonaglioni

© 2019 Demetrio Sonaglioni, CC BY 4.0

As we have seen in R. Mamoli Zorzi’s essay, John Ruskin, Henry James and others agreed that it was impossible to see Tintoretto’s paintings clearly and enjoyably at around the middle of the nineteenth century. Electric light did not arrive in Venice until the end of the century; prior to this, lighting in the evening and in the night had depended on oil lamps or candles until the introduction of gas lamps in 1839.

There is no evidence that gas or oil were ever used inside the Scuola but candles certainly were, especially during the frequent religious ceremonies, as testified by the registers in which the expense for candles was carefully annotated. The governing body of the Scuola was immediately interested in the possibilities offered by electricity, and as early as 1910 the Guardian Grando (i.e. the President) Enrico Passi informs the governing body about the continuous complaints of many visitors about the lack of light, especially in the ground-floor hall and therefore suggests to install electric light with due care.1 The lack of funds and the beginning of World War I interrupted these plans. Not until fourteen years later, in 1924, was the scheme taken up again, when the Guardian Grando proposed the installation of electric light in a meeting of the Cancelleria (i.e. the Board) on 8 April 1924. Considering that the Cancelleria had been wishing for a long time to carry out the project of lighting the Scuola with electric light, he proposed to carry out the project not only on the ground-floor hall but also in the upper room of the great Crucifixion.2 Unfortunately, the initiative was forestalled again, this time due to a letter from the Department for Culture that ordered the cessation of the work because of fear of short circuits and the possible ensuing fires.

It was not until 1937, at the opening of the great Tintoretto exhibition organized at Ca’ Pesaro in Venice, that the Superintendency and the Municipality decided to install electric light in the Scuola, which was seen as the conclusion of the exhibition. In the minutes of 20 January 1937, the same Guardian Grando Enrico Passi declared that on the occasion of the Tintoretto exhibition the Superintendency had decided an experiment entrusted to Mariano Fortuny, which had given wonderful results, revealing beauties and details that were practically invisible up to that moment.3

The delay caused by the two interruptions was perhaps fortunate, as it enabled the involvement of Mariano Fortuny, an eclectic early-twentieth-century European artist. Fortuny was a painter, a photographer, a stage director, a costume designer and a light designer. In his treaty of 1904 about stage lighting Fortuny affirmed that it is not the quantity but the quality of the light that makes things visible and allows the pupil to open adequately.4

Fortuny brilliantly solved the problem of giving light and visibility to Tintoretto’s canvasses by means of his patented ‘diffusing lamps with indirect light’, which are still essential components of the lighting system in the upper halls today. These lamps are circular parabolic ‘bowls’, which diffuse the light in the most uniform way possible. They are visible even now in the ‘Sala Capitolare’ and in the ‘Sala dell’Albergo’. Fortuny’s great idea was to light all the paintings by means of few diffusing lamps: two in the ‘Sala dell’Albergo’, eight in the ‘Sala Capitolare’ and eight more in the ground-floor hall.

Fig. 5.1 The Sala Capitolare in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, 1937. Photo by Mariano Fortuny.

In the two upper halls, the diffusing lamps have a vertical stand and are turned upwards, as we can see even now. In the ground-floor hall they were hooked along the two main beams and turned towards the single painting on the walls. This caused a number of reflections which were to be the cause of their elimination and substitution in the 1980s.

The lamps in the ground-floor hall were maintained until 1987, when, in order to eliminate the reflections on the paintings, it was decided to substitute them with a different system, sponsored by the firm OSRAM, and designed by Prof. Soardo of the Centro Nazionale delle Ricerche, under the control of the Superintendency. This situation remained unchanged until 2011, when the Cancelleria decided to update the lighting of the canvasses by introducing a more modern technology.

Fig. 5.2 The Ground-Floor Hall of the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, with the new lighting installed in 2011, CC BY 4.0.

These new lamps were designed by Studio Pasetti Lighting and were placed in the same position as the preceding ones. They contain LEDs, which save a substantial amount of energy and, more importantly, they can illuminate the paintings in warm or cold light. This allows visitors to view the paintings in detail and in optimal conditions. This second lighting project of the ground-floor room was also sponsored by OSRAM.

The most recent innovation in lighting Tintoretto’s canvasses was carried out in the Sala dell’Albergo and unveiled in September 2014. It was sponsored by the great Swiss watchmaking firm Jaeger Le-Coultre. It was a much more complicated project because the Sala dell’Albergo, even if it is the smallest of the three important rooms in the Scuola, is the most important of them. Tintoretto began his work in it and it houses the grandiose Crucifixion.

This room is illuminated by only two Fortuny diffusing lamps.

Fig. 5.3 Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 5.4 Tintoretto’s huge Crucifixion (1565) in the Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, CC BY 4.0.

As is well known, the perception of the human eye depends largely on the spectrum of light interacting with the physical and chemical characteristics of the painted surface. Every colour and every shade can be intensified by an adequately calibrated projection of light. To light a sixteenth-century painting involves an unavoidable compromise between the desire to optimize its perception with the awareness that the pigments that form it have irreversibly changed due to centuries of exposure to light and to environmental agents. As a result, before carrying out the latest project in the ‘Sala dell’Albergo’, we arranged a spectrum-photometric analysis of the paintings. This was done by the Photometry Lab of the University of Padua, in order to identify the most important colorimetric characteristics of the materials used by Tintoretto and in order to indicate the primary light sources that would obtain the best chromatic perception.

This allowed us to choose the best type and quantity of LEDs for the projectors, which can be seen in this image:

Fig. 5.5 The new projectors inserted in two Fortuny diffusers, CC BY 4.0.

This has resulted in a definite improvement in our visual perception of the paintings, as well as the addition of a ‘light control’ that can vary the light flux of the different projectors. This light control has been inserted in the two extant Fortuny lamps and can alter both the intensity and the temperature of the colour produced.

Finally, I would like to underline the total ‘architectonic integration’ of the system: the Hall had to appear as it was before these developments were completed, and so the new light sources could not be seen. The paintings and the architecture of the Hall were lit by means of the two existing Fortuny diffusing lamps, by now an integral and historical part of the hall. We had to insert all the new necessary LED projectors inside them.

The system is ‘an elastic and reversible one’ that allows us a better view of the paintings and their details, under different lights. Moreover, in the future, it will be possible to manage the system directly with an electronic tablet.

Fig. 5.6 Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565) in the Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice. Lit to highlight details: the two left and right backgrounds, CC BY 4.0.

In conclusion, to provide a better understanding of the complexity of this latter illumination system, I think it useful to make a comparison with the system that was installed in 2014 in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. In this case, 7,000 LEDs were used.

In our ‘Sala dell’Albergo’ the complexity and the flexibility of the system compelled us to use more than 1500 LEDs; but bear in mind that the dimensions of the Sistine Chapel are ten times those of our ‘Sala dell’Albergo.’

1 Venice, Archivio Scuola Grande di San Rocco [Historical Archives Grande di San Rocco] (ASGSR), Sedute di Cancelleria, b. 6, n. 108 del 13/02/1910. See also: A. Ciotti, ‘Quaderni della Scuola Grande Arciconfraternita di San Rocco’, in Curiosando sulla Scuola Grande Arciconfraternita di San Rocco. Notizie tratte dagli archivi della Scuola da fine Ottocento a oggi: un secolo di vita, n. 7, Venice, 2001, p. 35.

2 ASGSR, Sedute di Cancelleria, b. 8, n. 179 del 08/04/1924. See also: A. Ciotti, Curiosando sulla Scuola Grande, p. 36.

3 ASGSR, Sedute di Cancelleria, b. 9, n. 226 del 20/01/1937 e n. 228 del 15/04/1937. See also: Ciotti, Curiosando sulla Scuola Grande, p. 37.

4 M. Fortuny and Madrazo, Eclairage des scénes par lumière indirecte: ‘Système Fortuny’, 29 March 1904, Paris.