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Light and artistic heritage: Tintoretto for Millennials

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Published: 4 Feb 2019
At the beginning of 2018, the lights that illuminated the Sala Capitolare in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, were the same ones that illuminated it at the beginning of 1938. Although continuity can be considered a virtue, an institution that houses centuries-old heritage like the canvases of Jacopo Tintoretto had to do something.

The electrical lighting system conceived more than 80 years ago by Mariano Fortuny was an exciting innovation and almost a revolution at a time when electricity was not yet widely used. However, it spread an average light over the whole environment, and since it projected light towards the ceiling, it left shadows across the bottoms of the pictures exhibited around the perimeter of the room. For the visitors, and anyone who cares about enhancing artistic and cultural heritage, this compromise is hard to accept.
Left - right
Left - right
At the beginning of 2018, the lights that illuminated the Sala Capitolare in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, were the same ones that illuminated it at the beginning of 1938. Although continuity can be considered a virtue, an institution that houses centuries-old heritage like the canvases of Jacopo Tintoretto had to do something.

The electrical lighting system conceived more than 80 years ago by Mariano Fortuny was an exciting innovation and almost a revolution at a time when electricity was not yet widely used. However, it spread an average light over the whole environment, and since it projected light towards the ceiling, it left shadows across the bottoms of the pictures exhibited around the perimeter of the room. For the visitors, and anyone who cares about enhancing artistic and cultural heritage, this compromise is hard to accept.
Left - right
Left - right

before/after

At the beginning of 2018, the lights [...] were the same ones that illuminated it at the beginning of 1938.
Aware of this, those in charge of the governing bodies of the school turned to iGuzzini and the Lighting Designer Alberto Pasetti to rethink the lighting design of the Sala Capitolare for the five-hundredth anniversary of Tintoretto's birth.
Light and artistic heritage: Tintoretto for Millennials
To understand the importance that light has in cultural enjoyment today, it is essential to look at the behaviour of the generation of 25- to 40-year-olds. The Millennials are used to travelling and cultivating artistic interests, but compared to their parents, they often have less spending power. As a result, when planning their cultural consumption, they try to optimise time and money, investing only in experiences that they expect to find satisfying.

Thanks to the web and social networks, they can find out about which places to visit on their own, and can decide on the basis of the opinions of other users, rather than go to a travel agency or read reviews of art exhibitions in the newspapers. When, in turn, they visit a place, they share the experience on the Internet and social media, contributing to the success or failure of museums, galleries and exhibition spaces of all kinds.

Up to 2018, tourists who entered the Sala Capitolare illuminated by just Mariano Fortuny's lamps, and then shared a dimly-lit photo of a Tintoretto painting on Instagram, or chose not to share it because it was too dark, brought negative publicity to the school, sometimes without even realising it.
Light and artistic heritage: Tintoretto for Millennials
That is why the right lighting for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, or for any other exhibition space, offers a competitive advantage; it makes the works of art attractive to an audience that can autonomously feed a virtuous communication cycle. On the other hand, there is also a risk of spreading unlimited negative feedback, and the only way of containing that risk is to promote the enjoyment of artistic heritage.

Rethinking lighting design has both artistic value and social value. Artistic, because improving the visibility of the works amounts to make a “perceptual restoration” that renews their impact and readability; social, because it invites people into the art venues who might otherwise settle for looking at the works in high definition on-line, thanks to projects like Google Arts & Culture. The importance of having people visit exhibition spaces should be highlighted, especially the Scuola Grande, which not only hosts temporary exhibitions like museums, but represents the specific context for which the works of Tintoretto were intended, and where they are preserved.

Even this immutability has a flip side, as it brings the risk of association with the idea of being static. For this reason, while solving the lighting problems in the Sala Capitolare, iGuzzini also introduced elements of dynamism that were previously unthinkable; but first things first.
Light and artistic heritage: Tintoretto for Millennials
Rethinking lighting design has both artistic value and social value.
The work lasted about a year, and involved installing about 260 spotlights, which partly exploit the structure of Mariano Fortuny's lamps, now rightfully a historical element of the room. Each contains seven or eight spotlights, oriented and calibrated to illuminate the paintings on the ceiling with precision. An almost-invisible track has been installed around the perimeter of the room to illuminate the bottoms of the paintings on the walls and the wooden sculptures beneath them. Many, including some members of the school who know it and have attended it for decades, have said that they were astonished by iGuzzini's work, and had the impression of seeing the Sala Capitolare in all its glory for the first time.

The Sala Capitolare is not lit in a permanent manner: the system can be programmed with different light scenes for special occasions, in order to create a suitable atmosphere and guide the gazes to one specific work or another. The same process of fading the spotlights gradually also stirs emotions in the visitors: this is the dynamism that iGuzzini introduced into the school, and that the hosts of the inauguration experienced with an evocative choral accompaniment.

The light in the Sala Capitolare is now more controlled, but also more dynamic, improving the basic experience of visiting for the average tourist and multiplying the experiences that the school can offer the public, in the form of selected occasions such as civil or religious ceremonies, guided school visits, concerts and conferences. Diversifying the types of lighting means being able to attract new audiences without the risk of losing others.
We would like to thank Demetrio Sonaglioni, Vicar of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.