In Palermo, a historic-iconic location, Palazzo Butera, is opened to the public with the objective of becoming a new epicenter of art and culture. This is the challenge met by Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi, who have transformed the building into a generous house-museum-laboratory for the city
General coordination Marco Giammona – Architectural and museum design Giovanni Cappelletti
Work supervision Giovanni Cappelletti, Marco Giammona, Tomaso Garigliano
Collaborators Dario De Benedictis, Salvatore Pagnotta with Alexia Messina, Amalia Randazzo
Structural design Alessandra Giammona, Marco Giammona, Dino Spitalieri – Physical plant design Giuseppe di Natale (collaborator Giampiero Urone) – Construction ATI Gangi Impianti s.r.l./Emmecci s.r.l. – Technical supervisor Santino Patti – Technical director Roberto Ciralli – Restoration Vittoria Maniscalco – Worksite foreman Gaetano Alaimo – Security coordinator Giuseppe Angilello
Photos Alberto Ferrero – Article Antonella Boisi
“My hope is that the palazzo can become a new gate on the sea for the historical center of Palermo, because art, history and culture can become a new source of life for the city,” says Massimo Valsecchi, collector, patron and deus ex machina of the project of restoration and transformation of Palazzo Butera.
The building located in the heart of the historic Kalsa district was made starting in 1692, based on a project by Giacomo Amato, and it is one of the most fascinating estates in all of Sicily due to its imposing Baroque design and its magnificent decorations.
Massimo Valsecchi purchased it, together with his wife Francesca Frua De Angeli, in 2015. The palazzo – still a construction site, at the moment – is being partially opened to the public in its new role as a museum space in coordination with Manifesta 12 Palermo (the traveling contemporary art biennial, from 16 June to 4 November 2018), but it will live on well beyond these dates, with a concrete, detailed commitment to multiple phases that will continue in the future.
Giovanni Cappelletti has done the project of architectural and museum design in the conversion and restoration of the building, while the engineer Marco Giammona is responsible for the overall coordination and the structural design. Cappelletti, with two decades of experience in museum design, developed during the years in which he worked as a project manager in the studio of Mario Bellini, has been involved in two projects in Milan with Massimo Valsecchi, for the exhibition on Christopher Dresser at the Triennale (2001) and for the show Il Tesoro della Statale at Rotonda della Besana (2004). A long-term friendship that was the prelude for this great adventure.
Arch. Cappelletti, first of all why did the Valsecchis, in your view, after years of being based in London, choose precisely Palermo for this ‘virtuous project’ we can only hope will have many emulators?
“I think that in a moment in which major geo-political issues were emerging (from Brexit to the drama of migratory flows, in short), they understood the great potential of Palermo, the capital city of an island – Sicily – that in the middle of the Mediterranean has always been a place where the acceptance and integration of different peoples and cultures have represented foundation values of the city’s identity.
Today, more than in the past, this geographical centrality puts Sicily – and Palermo, as a result – in the condition of being able to play a role as THE place from which to begin to rethink European identity, starting with values of solidarity and inclusion, and basing that identity on the rediscovery of a cultural foundation shared by all the peoples of the Mediterranean, as the origin of a new, shared humanism.
This common base can be supplied by art, by its capacity to cast a crosswise gaze on phenomena, to speak directly to individual sensibilities, bypassing the filters and barriers each of us instinctively erects when it comes to comprehension of experiences ‘other’ than our own. For Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi art possesses a profound educational value, a shared value that crosses various sectors and the narrow enclosures of types of knowledge. For them, art has the fundamental function of encouraging the transmission of knowledge, precisely across a different intertwining of knowledge, awareness and experience.
This crosswise gaze finds a suitable level of expression in their collection of art objects. Through the juxtaposition of art objects, always of the highest quality but from different epochs and styles, it is possible to stimulate the formation of a visual approach that embraces and reconciles cultural differences. Hence the need to make this collection somehow public, to display it, and through it to indicate the possibility/necessity of a perspective that is open to a variety of experiences.
The purchase of Palazzo Butera responds to precisely this need. With its rather délabré appearance the building has been the starting point for a complex project that transforms the desire for grandeur and the arrogance of the princes who in the 1600s and 1700s wanted this palace, which with its length of 110 meters and area of 7000 square meters blocked the view of the sea, into a space open to the public, crossed by a route that mends the relationship between the sea and this part of the city: a gate open to the Mediterranean.”
On a concrete level, what does the new Palazzo Butera give to Palermo?
“The demonstration that intervention in such a complex, risky context can lead to excellent results. This alters the image the city projects outward, while at the same time it becomes a possible model of reference offered to encourage other private realities – Italian but also and above all foreign – to tackle similar projects.
One very positive factor to emphasize in our experience has been the harmony of intentions between us and the city, and the heritage authorities, in the formulation of the project itself. In the perspective of the transformation of a large historic private residence into a public resource shared with the community, from the start of construction in 2016 the response on the part of these institutions has been positive, translating into an acceleration-simplification of bureaucratic procedures to obtain permits, something quite rare in a case of private initiative. This has made the work more rapid, which is very unusual for a site of such importance.”
When you first visited the building to understand how to approach its restoration, what was the most stimulating imagery?
“It was not just imagery, first of all. We listened to what the building had to say, through its existing features. This suggested the themes on which to work, and it was if all the interventions designed from that point on were somehow independently oriented towards bringing out the latent potential of the place. But all this happened with an approach that was not just conservative, but also innovative. The dialogue has always been between a factor stemming from history and an intervention made to let it be passed down in history. This intervention has become a linguistic factor that in order to function fully had to take our contemporary world into account, though without overwhelming the original language of the building.”
In which design episodes can we most clearly see this effort to not repeat the past, embracing an international perspective on the future?
“I would say it can be seen in certain circulation nodes that have been made to function in a different way, with a few strategic alterations; in architectural details that help to simplify the interpretation of the monument, clarifying certain relationships; or in solutions – like that of the so-called Sala Radice – that were not originally envisioned, but emerged from the discovery of unusual situations that translated into design stimuli. To grant a sense of unity and recognizability to the interventions, we made the choice of using just a few materials: iron left in a natural state, and polished concrete.
The first was used for the new doors, the new staircases, and also for the furnishings in the courtyards. The second was applied for all the new floors of the exhibition spaces on the ground level. Both these materials communicate an unexpected softness of tones that blends well with the old stones. In short, there has been a mixture that produces a result that is consonant on a different plane. We were also aided by the fact that the building has a structural layout – a monumental red marble staircase, initially made based on a design by Giacomo Amato, perhaps the greatest of the architects of the Baroque in Palermo, and a service staircase placed on the opposite side from it – that makes it adaptable to conversion as a museum-foundation open to public use.”
After completion of the work, slated for 2019, how will the complex by organized?
“On three levels towards the sea and five towards the city (considering the two mezzanines). A ground floor for temporary exhibitions (mostly of contemporary art, but not exclusively), with spaces for educational activities and a refreshment area.
A first mezzanine with four rooms for the use and residence of scholars and artists. A first piano nobile – excluded for the time being from public visits – for the private residence of Francesca and Massimo, including spaces set aside for site-specific projects by contemporary artists in the full perspective of a house-museum (in this sense, the so-called Sala Gotica with the project by Anne & Patrick Poirier is just the first example), next to islands that will host conferences, workshops and a summer school.
The second piano nobile will contain rooms for the collection of Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi. Then the second mezzanine will include four more ample residential spaces for guests, and a route – open to the public – through the trusses and wooden beams of the restored eaves, one of the most interesting experiences in the circular visit itinerary.”
Palazzo Butera has 118 windows with marvelous views of the Gulf of Palermo. How did you approach the theme of the relationship with such a strong landscape?
“The incredible outdoor belvedere offered suggestions that have become design stimuli, ideas for new routes, spaces, perspectives. Of course one of the problems was not to distract visitors from the art on display. Sooner or later the worksite will be finished, but the museum will remain a work in progress. It will adapt to the works it hosts, also those that return here, like the ones the Valsecchis have lent to the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford. We are counting on their presence!”