Saturday, 12 October 2013

Behind the scenes at the bank

It would be fair to say that the headquarters of the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia in Campo Manin does not feature highly on any list of the city's most loved buildings.

It's an ultra-rare example of modernist architecture in the city and so, the complaint goes, it doesn't fit the surrounding environment. I don't think it's such a bad building - in other cities it might be thought of more highly - but there's no denying that it seems strange and out of place at first sight.

The history behind it is interesting. Towards the end of the 19th century, the city wanted a permanent monument to Daniele Manin, the hero of the rebellion against the Austrians. As a result, the church of San Paternian (already closed by Napoleon) was demolished to make way for the statue of Manin, and the square was renamed in his honour. In 1883, the first Cassa di Risparmio was opened there. By the 1960s, the bank had outgrown the building, and a new one was commissioned which opened in 1972. So it's worth stressing that the new building replaces one less than a century old - it's not as if one of the truly historic monuments was demolished to make way for it.

The architects were Angelo Scatolin and the great Pier Luigi Nervi.We had the chance to take a proper look around it during a one-day event called "Il Palazzo - Arte e Storia nelle banche" (think of it as a banks-only equivalent to "Doors Open Day" in the UK). We were taken round by one of the bank staff who explained its history. On the very first day of business, he told us, the bank took the grand total of 1.5 lira in deposits; the one from a bishop and the half from an ordinary member of the public.

I really like the interior, which feels spacious and full of light, due to a ceiling supported on just four pillars. I wasn't sure if I should take photographs or not - banks, understandably, get twitchy about that sort of thing - but the guide was quite happy for me to do so. Architecture students, he said, are always particularly interested in the staircase which shows the influence of Scarpa.

Beyond the architecture itself, there's some interesting art to be seen, and midway through the tour we were handed over to the bank's archivist. One of the board rooms holds one of the preparatory designs of the Paradiso, the full-scale version of which can be seen in the Palazzo Ducale. Another holds a portrait of a Venetian nobleman that is commonly attributed to Tintoretto's son Domenico. But, in the  opinion of the archivist, it may be something far more exciting : the lack of a signature and pentimenti (found throughout Domenico's work) might mean it is actually the work of Tintoretto's daughter Marietta, la Tintoretta.

He took us through to the archive itself, where he put on a pair of white cotton gloves and reverentially took down a small book, perhaps no more than 5" by 3". The Life of the Virgin, he announced, and turned to the beautifully illustrated front page. Painted by Giovanni Bellini with a brush made, it is said, from the hair of a newborn baby.

The  book, bound in Hungary,  was thought lost until an antiquarian in Vienna came into possession of it in the early 1990s, not long after Hungary had re-opened its borders. Funding was found to secure its return, and so the archivist travelled to Vienna, handed over the money, and returned to Venice with a book illustrated by Bellini tucked into his jacket pocket. He was, he told us, too scared to transport it any other way.

As I said, the building itself is a controversial one. But in its own, unique way, it's one of the most interesting in the city.

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