The Teatro Sociale in the old town of Bergamo was built at the beginning of the 1804, but soon after the inauguration, the noble theater lived ups and downs, until all activity ceased in 1929. From that moment took turns a variety of uses of the building such as cinema or space for exhibitions and numerous projects were drawn up in order to swap to other functions calling for its complete abandon and destruction; the fact of being almost ruined was also its fortune because no project was realized for 80 years.
During the seventies and the eighties, several individual projects were designed in order to convert the spaces of the building to other functions like lecture halls, shopping mall, cinema etc. Only thanks to important contributions like the one of Prof. Cesare Brandi, that defined the idea of dismantling the Theatre like a “monstrous project that shouldn’t even be discussed at the beginning”, the building was preserved from the complete dismantling.
The architecture of the theatre was in a very advanced state of degradation: the rows of boxes, were unsafe for the neglect of time and inaccessible for any use; the area of the audience and the rooms of the theatre had undergone rearrangements and did not meet any current comfort and safety standard. The overall covered surface of the building summed up to 4100 square meters, while the portion aim of the intervention exceeded the 3500 square meters.
The initial objective of the promoter, the Municipality of Bergamo, was to retrieve only the ground floor of the building. The remaining portion was considered unrecoverable, but the project was able to return the whole structure at its original function as a theatre, overtaking the initial objective.
The philosophy adopted for restoration was not inspired by the school of pure conservation, nor the in-style recovery, although philological; the designers have been inspired by a sort of "Critical and Conservative Restoration", an approach that includes measures not deliberately prevaricating or breaking compared to traditional materials found in the building, with an approach that does not want to stand out on the existing, but to restore decorum and unity only if possible, without the need to retain outright or to act with imitative integrations and additions.The design team had to deal with complex and conflicting requirements as the preservation of the historic look of the building and of its decorations, respecting the present requests for accessibility, comfort and safety. The design process has involved the group leader, Eng. Arch. Nicola Berlucchi, as responsible for architectural and restoration aspect, The Studio SPC for the analysis of structural aspects and Intertecnica Group for the problems connected with systems and their integration with the historic building. Other consultants were asked to advice about safety (Arch. Silvano Pezzetti), fire protection (Eng. Luigi Biscardi) and stage and sceneries (Eng. Franco Malgrande).
The project has been forerun by a survey and a detailed analysis of the materials, the structures and the decorations, in order to calibrate in advance the interventions. The restoration began with the strengthening of the wooden rows of boxes thanks to a new steel counter-structure. Then, the area of the stage was modified in order to create three new levels of dressing rooms for the artists, a new elevator for the orchestra pit, a steel-and-wood structure for the stage and the new steel structure for strengthening the area of the stage and supporting the new flies. After the completion of heavy building and strengthening interventions, the decoration restorers began to work on the plastered walls of the ground floor (entrance area), on the surfaces of the corridors, on the plastered wall of the boxes and on the survived decoration on the wood parapets of the “cavea”. Meanwhile, the electrical, plumbing and the air-conditioning systems were implemented and integrated in the preexisting structure, in order to reduce demolitions. The refunctionalization has been completed with the mounting of new wooden doors and windows, of the lighting system, of all the furniture, of the seating and of the stage audio and video systems.
The restoration of decorated surfaces represented a delicate aspect of the work as well as it represents what visitors mostly see and judge. The history of superimposed pictorial layers was reconstructed to create a reliable frame of the phases of intervention on decorations, necessary reference for the general definition of the approach to restoration.
The aim of the restoration was to preserve and restore all original decorations, to complete the gaps and the missing parts, to stop the decay without deleting the sign of time and to altering the old and damaged appeal. The works wanted to avoid a new and “fake” look and erase a 200 years long history made even of degradation and carelessness.
The decorations of the wooden parapet, only partially preserved, were originally made by the famous painter Sanquirico with a monochrome chiaroscuro technique. For these surfaces we chose to respect and maintained a "ruined" appearance, lowering the tone of bigger lacks and of the portions with wooden integrations, even because of the absence of the original decorated ceiling. So, we deliberately chose not to apply a new covering layer for preserving the impression that characterized the theatre over the past 50 years, however, well aware that the appearance of the original nineteenth century theatre, as seen by nobles of 1800, was "without exposed wood" and made of precious and coloured marbles.Even the original wooden ceilings of the boxes have been restored after the careful removal and consolidation of each panel. In accordance with the general attitude of the restoration, it was decided to veil the lacks and not to reconstruct the individual decorations, except for small gaps.The viewer may consider conflicting each other and maybe bizarre some of the colour combinations, but this was the theatre in its moment of maximum splendour and this is what has survived: a theatre built by private shareholders, who loved to decorate their stages even differently one from each other, that wanted poor materials in flooring and archways but faux marble and sometimes merry and bright colours on the walls and in the main hall.
The final result was a theatre as if it had been well maintained over time, softening the effects of degradation and abandonment. Where was a wreck now there is a fully air conditioned and lighted theatre with a highly asymmetric presence of decorations, depending on the degree of weathering and anthropogenic degradation happened during the years of abandonment, but with a more readable and clear decorative frame. In the last year, the Teatro Sociale was opened for shows, conferences and cultural initiatives (both publicly and privately produced) for more than 80 days per year, hosting approximately a total of 25.000 spectators. The programs for the future are even more ambitious.In conclusion, we believe and affirm that it is possible to adapt ancient monuments to modern requirements, but with a careful study that minimizes the impact and with solutions that comply with the building and its history. We’re are not allowed to erase centuries of constructive and decorative traditions developed by our predecessors in the name of new technologies and materials that often turn out to be obsolete or harmful after just a few years of usage.
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