Negozio Olivetti: behind the scenes of a 20th century icon
3 May 2021
Looking after and maintaining the Olivetti Shop in St Mark’s Square in Venice means not only dealing on a daily basis with a jewel of 20th-century architecture, but also with a precious, delicate space that is threatened by high water several times a year.
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the reopening to the public of the Olivetti Shop in Piazza San Marco in Venice, we reveal what lies behind the scenes of the FAI property inaugurated on 20 April 2011: a monument of extraordinary historical, artistic, social and cultural value, an icon of 20th-century Italian design that needs attention, awareness and daily care.
After 1997, when the Shop was closed down by the Olivetti company, a period of inappropriate use of these premises as a shop for tourist items had begun. Assicurazioni Generali, the company that owns the building, undertook its restoration in 2010, conducted under the direction of Gretchen Alexander Gussalli Beretta and under the supervision of the Superintendency of Architectural Heritage and Landscape of Venice, represented by Superintendent Renata Codello. The restoration also saw the collaboration of Tobia Scarpa, who had worked alongside his father in the design and construction of the Shop.
The restoration project lasted a year and proved to be complex because of the precarious situation of the environment. Preceded by a long phase of analysis and study, it involved a complete survey of the materials used and their constructional organisation, with in-depth investigations and widespread sampling of the wooden, stone and metal surfaces, but also of the electrical systems and lighting system and with detailed identification of the missing elements of the furnishings.
This extremely careful and accurate restoration work in 2010, in advance of the re-opening of the Shop to the public, not only had the great merit of bringing to light, maintaining and enhancing the original materials, colours and solutions – together with their “patina of time” – but also, thanks to the joint work of the professionals involved, the restorers and the Superintendency, resulted in a collection of information and a shared knowledge of the property.
On completion of the work, the management of the Olivetti Shop was entrusted to FAI, which has been taking care of its management, care and daily monitoring with a view to preserving this monument of extraordinary historical, artistic, social and cultural value for future generations.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The restorers and craftsmen who continue to work on the conservation of the Olivetti Shop today are the same ones who worked there eleven years ago: some of them belong to historic Venetian companies that can boast of having assisted Scarpa in the creation of the Olivetti showroom in 1958, such as the carpentry workshop of Augusto Capovilla and the blacksmiths at Officina Zanon. From their memory, their ability to observe and their acumen, we have learnt how to “listen” and check the health of the Shop every day.
In December each year, a joint inspection with the entire team of technicians and restorers, in the presence of the owners, provides a thorough check on the state of conservation of the property: The glass mosaic and wooden floors, the polished plaster and Aurisina stone cladding, the black Belgian marble basin and the statue of Alberto Viani, the typewriter shelves and the lighting fixtures are all inspected. The conservation records are then checked and updated, and the space is photographed in order to plan the maintenance work to be carried out in subsequent months, taking advantage of the winter closure.
THE CHALLENGE OF EXCEPTIONAL TIDES
The care of the Olivetti Shop goes beyond mere material conservation: it is a challenge in which one is called upon to manage a delicate balance, constantly threatened by one of the main problems afflicting the city of Venice and its Lagoon: exceptional tides. Increasingly numerous in recent decades because of global warming, the exceptional tidal waves are the result of sixty years of devastation of the Lagoon, compromised in its morphology and functioning, and now transformed into a sea arm.
When the high tide exceeds 95 cm in height, the water from the Lagoon floods the entire Piazza San Marco and also enters the Olivetti Shop. The ground floor literally “soaks” under several centimetres of brackish water, which corrodes the metal of the gates and doors; then, once it has receded and evaporated, leaves damage to the lower parts of the smooth lime walls and the stone and wooden elements. In a year, the Shop can go underwater up to 30 times: each time, as soon as the tide recedes, the wet surfaces are carefully washed with fresh water and monitored.
After the 1966 flood, in which the water level reached 194 cm, the electrical sockets and switches on the ground floor of the badly damaged shop were precautionarily moved above one metre in height. The modern tidewater pumping system, installed during the works in the 2000s and since then subjected to six-monthly maintenance by a specialised company, together with the metal bulkheads installed to protect the two entrances, prevented serious damage during the exceptionally high water of 12 November 2019, when the tide level was just 7 centimetres lower than in 1966.
“NUDO AL SOLE”
The greatest damage was caused to the gilded bronze statue “Nudo al Sole” by Alberto Viani (which had been carefully restored a few months earlier), which was immersed in more than 25 cm of water. The brackish water infiltrated the hollow work, exposing the material to the risk of oxidation. The work, cast in bronze and then gilded, had been created by Viani in 1956 but it was Scarpa, fascinated by the particular chromaticity that distinguishes it from the artist’s other “nudes”, who chose to place it above a fountain in black Belgian marble, covered by a veil of gently moving water, creating the original play of reflections that characterises the entrance to the Shop.
The position of the statue, which leans because of corrosion of the supports and has therefore been partially submerged in water for some time, has required special maintenance over the years to maintain its lustre. In the 2019 intervention, it was lifted, as was the basin that houses it, in order to proceed with the maintenance of the fountain’s hydraulic system; this was followed by a careful mechanical polishing of the black marble of the basin and a cleaning of the bronze of the sculpture, marked not only by permanent contact with the water of the fountain but also by the occasional immersions in the brackish water of the Lagoon. The cleaning was followed by the application of suitable protection. Once restored in the “workshop” specially created inside the Shop, the Nudo al Sole was placed back on the basin on new stainless steel pins and in axis, to ensure minimum contact with the water of the fountain and, consequently, better conservation over time.
The intervention, carried out by Generali, was also supervised in collaboration with FAI’s technicians, who documented the various phases.
Caring for and maintaining the Olivetti Shop means dealing on a daily basis, with care and awareness, with a jewel of twentieth-century architecture, a precious and delicate space characterised by traditional materials typical of Venetian architecture, but interpreted by Carlo Scarpa’s mastery in technical solutions and original details.