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Carlo Scarpa changed a war-ruined fifteenth-century palazzo in Palermo into a magical and surprising treasure house, in which, sadly, not all of his inventions can be enjoyed today.

A short walk from Mura delle Cattive (literally, the wall of nasty women), which is the last remnant of the old coastal Kalsa wall in the Sicilian city of Palermo, stands the Palazzo Abatellis. During the 1940s. Allied bombing of Palermo's port damaged what had remained of this not especially remarkable fifteenth-century palace. After the war came an undertaking to restore the palace to its original form. In 1953, with work nearing completion, the authorities invited Carlo Scarpa to adapt the palace to display the medieval and modern collections then housed in the National Museum of Sicily.

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As expected, Scarpa created a series of small, modern interventions that showed deference to the past while embracing the future. As usual, he worked with local craftsmen, respecting their expertise while making recognizably contemporary forms. Another notable feature of Scarpa's approach was the way in which he deliberately exploited the accidents of light to accent particular exhibits. Sadly, here, as in most museums and art galleries, modern conservators are all powerful and windows are now screened. But if you are lucky enough to find a staff member who shares your appreciation of Scarpa, blinds and windows can be surreptitiously opened, and if no one is around you might even be able to climb the hexagonal stepped concrete stairway--now deemed unsafe for the public because it has no hand rail and examine the door details at the top.

Perhaps I am irresponsible even suggesting these things, as I would never want anyone to put themselves in danger, but who hasn't wanted to touch an object to appreciate its form or venture behind a closed door? They may wear out a little quicker, but then nothing is meant to last for ever.

Photographs by Richard Bryant
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Title Annotation:Delight
Author:Bryant, Richard
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:299
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