If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.

(The Merchant of Venice)

For many who have been hypnotized by the haunting beauty of Venice, the lagoon of romance recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the titles “City of Water,” “City of Canals,” “City of Bridges,” “City of Masks,” “Floating City,” and “La Serenissima” lift this ancient wonder from its peaceful waters, once delicately protected by an oligarchic and liberal republic, and honors the diplomacy, justice, and prosperity it had always been known for. Despite having survived centuries of political and military turmoil from the outside world, Venice has always carried its throne of serenity as echoed by its glorious Venetian Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance and Rococo architecture.

This very same tone of serenity now radiates through the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where eleven extraordinary chapels had been built by selected excellent world architects to grace the Venetian 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale in 2018. It was the first time the Vatican City had participated in the Biennale Architettura by the promotion and coordination of His Eminence Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture, and design by Italian architecture historian Prof. Francesco Dal Co and Dr. Micol Forti. Based on inspirations from Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel built in Stockholm in 1920, the Chapel in the woods as it had been called, erected a “place of orientation, encounter, meditation and salutation”. This parallel theme breathes through each of the unique structures designed by Teronobu Fujimori (Japan), Javier Corvalán (Paraguay), Norman Foster (UK), Andrew Berman (USA), Eva Prats/Ricardo Flores (Spain), Francesco Cellini (Italy), Smiljan Radic (Chile), Sean Godsell (Australia), Carla Juaçaba (Brazil), Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal) and Francesco Magnani/Traudy Pelzel (Italy).

What more perfect way to sing praises to the grand Vatican Chapels Pavillion of the Holy See than an orchestra of eleven heavenly musical compositions dedicated to each chapel by Italian musician and composer Antonio Fresa. Fresa, who has scored for movies produced in Italy, Argentina and France, has also been nominated as Best Musician at David di Donatello and Nastri D'Argento for the animation movie Cinderella the Cat in 2018. He was also the author and orchestra conductor of the song Imparare ad Amarsi at Festival di Sanremo 2018 featuring singers Ornella Vanoni, Bungaro, and Pacifico. In collaboration with Giorgio Cini Foundation, digital interpretation lab D’Uva and independent record label Adesiva Discografica, the album Vatican Chapels. A soundtrack experience sets a wonderful journey of peace, spirituality and co-existence with the natural forest and tranquil waters surrounding the setting of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Fresa remarks:

I was told about this project few months before I went and I must say that to me it was shocking to walk in the woods, right in front of San Marco square, and to find myself immersed in contemporary architecture. The conception of this exhibition is for me a very highly creative gesture. The relation between the sacred and the arts is renovated at a very high level, both technically and philosophically. I've kept going back several times from Napoli to Venice to be sure of every single composition I was writing for each of the chapels. The source of inspiration has been so rich that I have spent few months studying the process for each construction, trying to reach the heart of the project, the materials, the space, the spirituality, the distance from religion and the embrace of the pilgrims. The dimension between the symbols and the space is somehow a subliminal source of inspiration, as well as geometry, numbers and the relationship with time signatures, circular motion and repetition of patterns.

Summarizing the notable features of each chapel architecture below, Fresa further narrates how his music flows with each design.

Terunobu Fujimori. Cross chapel (song: Hope in G major)

The first track in the album, dedicated to Terunobu Fujimori’s chapel creation, uses the cross as the ultimate symbol of Christianity. Instead of hanging the cross, Fujimori’s incorporates it into the interior structure of pillars and beams, wrapping the roof and the wall, “like a panel around the vertical and horizontal wooden framework.” Gold leaves are embedded on the cross to emphasize the shining light descending from the skies and the ascension of Christ. The exterior is made of charred timber in black, suggesting quiet prayer. Fresa explains: “Hope in G major is a suspension from my West to the East, an inner journey that contemplates in solitude the harmony of forms and the textures of materials.”

Javier Corvalán. Nomadic chapel (song: Uneven Mallets)

Corvalán’s Nomadic Chapel, resembling a floating spaceship, has liberated the circular form, free from touching the earth, and supported solely by a large L-shaped steel arm resting on a wooden tripod. When standing in the center of the sphere, one gazes at a three-dimensional cross, suspended among the trees, that reflects an elliptical shadow on the ground. “If the time comes the chapel can leave the lagoon, to reach other lands and find a new support, a rock, a cross, under another sky. But the circular space that contains it will not change." Inspired by an asymmetrical shape, Fresa “recreates an atmosphere of percussions that rhythmically reproduces the circularity—a piece with a strong cyclic matrix, but in seven octaves, an odd time, an ‘asymmetrical’ time.”

Norman Foster: Crosses morphed into a tensegrity structure (song: Through)

The chapel design concept is based on three crosses set in a latticework framework of slender timber beams, “supported by steel columns and cables, and covered in jasmine vines.” Foster intended the chapel to allow light to breathe through the space and provide shade. As he explains, "Our aim was to create a small space diffused with dappled shade and removed from the normality of passersby, focused instead on the water and sky beyond—a sanctuary.” For Fresa, the entire chapel sounded itself like one musical instrument. “I wrote a piece for five flutes, one low, two high and two in C to bring back the sensation of the wind passing through the architectural structure that modifies and modulates the air. The quintet of flutes illuminates the sense of sound and architecture to coexist in a profound way.”

Andrew Berman. A precise form of anonymous origin (song: Triadic)

The simple structure of the chapel makes use of readily available materials: wood studs, white rafters, translucent polycarbonate, and black painted plywood, expressing humility in a spiritual alcove. “The covered porch is a place for all to gather, a place from which to look out and survey one’s surroundings.” Fresa’s “composition is built on the concept of the number three, as if to reflect the architectural structure set on three sides: a trio of strings—viola, violin, and cello— that resonates on a three-quarter piece.”

Eva Prats and Ricardo Flores. The morning chapel (song: 37 Choirbytes)

"To be on an island and then inside a garden allows a state of being where one’s mind can drift to a peaceful place of reflection.” The Morning Chapel is an excavation in a terracotta-toned wall, parallel to a path, with a door that allows you to step out to the forest, as though one faces the “favour of the unknown, at risk of disorientation.” As the chapel name suggests, the chosen site lies on the eastern part of the island to capture the early morning sunlight, which bounces on the burnt sienna coated walls. Fresa “experimented in digital art with a virtual digital chorus of real sampled voices. The music file has a weight of 37 megabytes.”

Francesco Cellini. Not a project; a reflexion (song: Modality in F)

Cellini’s stoic design consists of black and white planes that fold to form seats and surfaces. The architecture is not meant to represent religion, but rather a gathering sanctuary for reflection, blending the interior with the exterior of trees and natural environment. Barely touching the ground, Cellini states: “It invites a precise consideration, almost exclusively architectural and necessarily abstract, of the meaning of sacred spaces, of their proportions, relations and functions.” Fresa interpreted the “two geometric monoliths that fit together, horizontally and vertically as a single chord, on the Fa note, which is repeated but with a different nature: minor, major, seventh, dominant, and so on.”

Smiljan Radic. A chapel as a roadside shrine (song: From a Single Note of Wood)

In Chile, it is said that a shrine by the road is a “trap for the soul.”, which is often abandoned in its simple austerity, but desires a certain greatness. Radic’s chapel wishes to harmonize the two elements of monumental and domestic living through the enormous concrete cylinder with its honeycomb-like texture, thin walls, and open roof. The large wooden door, hung in an unusual angle, creates a bold impression. Fresa used the circular structure to “build on the peculiarity of a constant note that repeats itself, from beginning to end, and to associate it with the wooden element, the center of the work, trait d'union that puts in contact the earth and sky.”

Sean Godsell, A dynamic entity capable of surviving thousands of kilometers away (song: If I Want a Bell)

For this steel framed container-looking tower chapel, Godsell originally envisioned the bell towers of Venice that open to the spectacular Venetian skyline. By creating this same effect, the four sides of the tower open as awnings to reveal the altar, and the vertical doors form a cross. “My design extends that idea to make a relocatable chapel that can be transported, erected, re-packed and transported and re-erected wherever the need exists," Godsell elaborates. Fresa describes the imagined resonation of the bells in his composition. “The music becomes an architectural and archetypal element, simulating the sound movement of the bells, and asks the listener to turn his gaze towards the portion of the sky that seems to be alone. Only the fresco that divine nature has designed closes the upper perimeter of the work.”

Carla Juaçaba. A bench and a cross (song: Chordal Mirrors)

Perhaps the simplest chapel in this project, Juaçaba’s design is merely composed of four steel beams—an ensemble for the bench, the other for the cross—with mirrored surfaces reflecting the natural surroundings. Juaçaba remarks: “The Chapel is almost invisible. It is an ethereal project that speaks metaphorically of the passage of life, of existence and of non-existence.” Fresa was able to interpret the “geometric concept of specularity through the crosses—an expanse and a vertical one—very similar to the structure of the composition, with alternating chords, from the lower part of the piano to the upper part.”

Eduardo Souto de Moura. No, it is not (song: Motion)

The chapel designed by the Portuguese architect was not meant to be a chapel, but rather an enclosure of four elongated walls in Vicenza stone ashlars, with a surrounding ledge along them for sitting, and another stone at the center for the altar. Souto de Moura considered “an isolated element, free from the beliefs of specific religions and detached from our usual conceptions.” Fresa cleverly worked around a contrast between the rough stone’s “classical aspect and a contemporary setting by utilizing an electronic timbre in a sample orchestra, embroidered with a series of piano plots and synthesizers. The composition is made mainly with audio samples, and toward the end there is a Gregorian chant, which is whispered and is lightly audible.”

Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel. Asplund Pavilion (song: Close Afar)

Finally, we come to the Asplund Pavillion that gave birth to the inspiration for the Vatican Chapels project. Applying traditional Nordic woodwork, the pavilion is shaped as a shingles hut, supported by wood portals and a vertically pitched roof. The exterior wooden shingles and the interior’s light wood exude a beautiful contrast of soft light and shadow, “alluding to the multitude of the Nordic forest and giving the building a strong, timeless character. Fresa “works on harmonic reminiscences, echoes of timbre that bring back the distance between the chapel and the places of civilization.”

After almost three months of closure due to the current pandemic, it comes as a most embracing relief to have the San Giorgio Maggiore Island reopened for the public. The viewing of the chapels, which continues until the 25th of November this year, absolutely rekindles an adventure for the soul during these uncertain times. Like Dorothy in the forest of The Wizard of Oz, one may at first, feel inhibited and overwhelmed by the vastness of the woodland, yet be gradually uplifted by the innovative architectural presence and powerful message of each chapel design.

The melodic experience shimmers through a broad spectrum of encounters and sensations right in the core of nature, further deepened by the outstanding music of Antonio Fresa’s Vatican Chapels. A soundtrack experience, which can be downloaded at the time of the tour booking1>/sup>. Alas, Venice rises to its highest plateau of Serenissima like never before.

Fresa concludes:

The heart of this project is the live experience of the encounter between music and architecture. Whereas ‘live’ is the architecture, everyday it is different because of daylight and nature growing all around. Music is, in this case, the prefabricated expression of art creating the sound design for this incredible experience.

1 The first live performance of the Vatican Chapels project will be held on September 3, 2020 at the Malibran Theatre, Venice, with the prestigious Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice.