Restoring the church of San Giovannello in Marsala: a tale of family ties and lighting design

Author L&L Communication Team / arch. Domenico Nuzzo
Category Tales of lighting design
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There are stories that feature architecture and big businesses – stories of huge, futuristic projects using brand new, ultra-technological materials that gleam under the camera flashes at their inauguration.

Then there are the stories that tell of architecture and people, of vocations handed down through the generations, of lengthy renovations involving labours of love and little pieces of memory carefully stitched back together.

In Sicily, the renovation of a church dating back to 1441 inevitably leads us to the second type of story, made even more authentic by the family values that intertwine in a perfect, profoundly Italian project.

The backstory

Standing in a narrow street just outside the centre of Marsala, the church of San Giovannello was a victim of the World War II bombings in 1943: the bombs demolished the apsidal area, leaving the church without a roof and most of the perimeter walls. This left the church’s interior exposed: after a Baroque makeover, there were two chapels built into the walls, with the ornamented cornices typical of Sicilian Baroque.

Restoration work began in the 1950s, overseen by local architect Domenico “Mimì” Nuzzo, who focused on the portal in the Chiaramontan style. One of the characteristics of this Gothic art movement that developed in Sicily during the 14th century is stone dressings with zigzag motifs on pointed archivolts.

Mimì used red paint to number the stone ashlars that formed the arch of the portal; this numbering was to allow him to replace the stone blocks in the correct order.

Work was then halted for decades, a recurring theme in too many Italian narratives, even today.

In 2018, architect Giovanni Nuzzo was appointed by Marsala City Council to complete the project begun by his father. He conducted structural and conservation analyses and enlisted the help of a member of the third generation: his son Domenico.

In addition to continuing the family mission, the two architects wanted to reforge the broken links in the urban fabric and rescue this space from the clutches of weeds and neglect to give it a fresh start. Their dream was to use the space for social and cultural events.

The entrance arch

Work started again with the entrance arch, the most distinctive part of the church and unfortunately the most damaged. The destruction caused by the bombing had been compounded by the effects of atmospheric agents, and it would not be enough to restore the existing elements – a partial reconstruction would be necessary.

They decided to use the fascinating but complex ancienttechnique of lost-wax casting. This involved creating a plaster cast of the stone that makes up the arched portal and casting bronze at a temperature of around 1200°C. This allowed them to reconstruct the missing part with a material that is structurally solid but also obviously new – something known in architectural circles as an “honest repair”.

Former church of San Giovannello, Marsala, Italy. The partially reconstructed entrance arch

The partially reconstructed entrance arch

The perimeter wall and the apsidal area

In the same spirit of making the reconstruction obvious without altering the site’s historical authenticity, the architects filled the void left by the collapsed perimeter wall with 53 vertical cor-ten panels. The spaces between the panels allow passers-by to see inside, especially in the evening when the lighting is on and the panels are outlined against the light.

Some of the cor-ten panels were bent to symbolise the suffering of the war. There is a similar symbolic reference inside: in the apsidal area, which was also reconstructed as a cor-ten backdrop, a long vertical slit is made even more dramatic by the light emphasising its inner thickness.

Former church of San Giovannello, Marsala, Italy. Cor-ten panels along the perimeter

Cor-ten panels along the perimeter

Former church of San Giovannello, Marsala, Italy. The cor-ten element that replaces the former apsidal area

The cor-ten element that replaces the former apsidal area. Bright 1.0, 3000K, 2W, 10° Find out more about the product

Light en plein air

And it was light that returned this location to its place in the history of Marsala at the end of 2020. Lighting breathes new life into this structure, in its new form en plein air.

The 3000K warm light and elliptical optics of the linear profiles that illuminate the external wall accentuate the remains of the variegated plaster. Inside, the grazing effect of the narrow optics does honour to the partially reconstructed pilasters, and the cornices and arches.

Neva 1.0, 3000K, 18W, 10x40°

Neva 1.0, 3000K, 18W, 10x40° Find out more about the product

Neva Mini 1.0, 3000K, 9W, 11°

Neva Mini 1.0, 3000K, 9W, 11° Find out more about the product

The choice of projectors mounted on cor-ten posts reinforces the new urban look of the former church of San Giovannello: an indoor space that has become an outdoor one, a wound in the urban landscape tended to by the Nuzzo family of architects and where a new cultural project for Marsala can now be built, fostering historical memory in that embrace between the stone and metal of the portal.

The projectors’ soft, generous light floods the space and readies it to welcome the people who will take part in new cultural events. That same light, filtering between the cor-ten panels, acts as an invitation to passers-by to peek inside.

projector for outdoor applications, 3000K, 10W, 63°, cor-ten / Neva Mini 1.0, 3000K, 9W, 11°

projector for outdoor applications, 3000K, 10W, 63°, cor-ten

Architects Giovanni and Domenico Nuzzo

On the arch, you can still see the red numbers on the ashlars – Giovanni and Domenico decided to leave them as a testimony to the work started by Mimì.

Former church of San Giovannello, Marsala, Italy. Detail of the entrance arch

Detail of the entrance arch

Go to the project photos