Exhibitions News

Calatrava ‘thrilled’ with major Vatican show

An exhibition of the Spanish architect follows the Holy See's first pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale

Calatrava’s model for the St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero will be shown for the first time in the Vatican exhibition

The Vatican is to host an exhibition devoted to the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It is the first time that the city-state has organised a show of work by a living architect and follows the inauguration of the Holy See’s first pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale—moves that “reflect the continued opening of the Vatican and the church to the art of our time”, says Micol Forti, the head curator of contemporary art at the Vatican Museums and the curator of the Calatrava show.

The exhibition, which opens next month, will include models of signature projects by Calatrava, such as his new designs for the St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on the site of the World Trade Center in New York and his transportation hub at Ground Zero, as well as plans for the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. These will be shown alongside the architect’s geometric portrait paintings, watercolours and sketch books.

The original St Nicholas church was destroyed when Tower 2 of the World Trade Center collapsed on 11 September 2001. Calatrava’s new church will rise at the eastern end of Liberty Park and is intended to be “like a powerful flower in the centre of an area with immense dimensions”, he says. “It is a small church, 17.7 metres in height, but I have never done so many preparatory watercolours and designs. The hours invested have allowed me to meditate more than ever on light and how it should filter into only some areas. There will be a double dome of translucent marble and in the night, it will seem like a body of light.”

Bringing art forms together

The title of the show, “The Metamorphosis of Space”, refers to “the main narrative thread in Calatrava’s work, which is the possibility of defining a new spatial harmony,” says Forti, who first met Calatrava in 2011, when they were both named cultural counsellors to the Vatican for five years. Forti compares the Spaniard to the great Renaissance architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti, and says she had two guiding principles when organising the display: to demonstrate the variety of Calatrava’s work as an architect, engineer, sculptor and painter and to “emphasise the coherent dialogues” he establishes between the different art forms.

“The movement of the body in his drawings, for example, resembles an architectural form; his watercolours depicting a twist of the thorax remind us of the inclination of a bridge,” Forti says. The show will highlight these links by juxtaposing, for example, a model of one of Calatrava’s towers with one of his vertical sculptures.

Restored exhibition space

The show will take place at the Braccio di Carlo Magno, the left wing of St Peter’s Square. This space, which was designed as a grand hall for the entrance of carriages by the great Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, has been totally altered over the centuries. For this exhibition, it has been restored almost to its original state: the mezzanine at the entrance has been removed, enabling the space to be lit by the dome above and restoring the sense of scale and light intended by Bernini. In addition, walls have been taken down, some of the brick floors have been made visible and glass doors now give direct access to the Vatican Museums.

Calatrava, who says he loves Rome and visits the city several times a year, declares himself thrilled to be showing at the Vatican. “It is much more than an honour,” he says. “On my last visit to St Peter’s, I walked through Bernini’s colonnade at dawn and was then able to admire Michelangelo’s dome from inside the Vatican’s gardens. For me, this architecture sums it all up.”

“The Metamorphosis of Space”, Braccio di Carlo Magno (5 December-20 February 2014)

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