The avid traveller would know that the best way to see a city worth seeing is on foot and in broad daylight. It’s easier to be enveloped in its geographical biography, written on its streets and ensconced within its time-hallowed buildings. Such is particularly the case with most Italian cities, of which glorious charm lies in their old-world veneer. Awash with sunlight, one can gaze at them and feel as if entering a bygone realm.
But there is another less-explored way to experience these artefacts: in the dark. In more remote Italian cities the likes of Otranto and Ravenna, centuries-old basilicas and crypts abound, most of their artwork still pristinely intact, preserved through the test of time. Yet, it’s only when the sun goes down, and the thickening of shadows lend a more dramatic underscore that the lights are switched on and their architectural grandeur assumes an entirely new look.
“Most of the time, people take the presence of lighting for granted,” says Roberto Grilli, general manager of DZ Engineering, an Italian company that likens itself as a “tailor shop of light [sic]”. DZ builds and customises lighting fixtures to fit heritage buildings with an exacting precision akin to that of Italian tailors and the suits they make. Grilli and his team of 30 specialists are the illuminators behind a tableau of Italy’s safeguarded historical sites, from archaic cathedrals to byzantine monuments. While many consider lighting as an afterthought, the core of DZ’s trade goes beyond just brightening dark corners.
“At night, we give a different perception to the visitors. We create a new set of environment and emotions that are different from during the day,” says Grilli. The design sensibility of DZ’s lighting engineers is precariously hinged on having to find a delicate balance between highlighting the edifices’ best features and, at the same time, being discreet enough to be hidden from the visitors’ view.
In 2017, for instance, Grilli and his team were commissioned by the archdiocese of Ravenna and Cervia to design the internal lighting system of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northern Italian province. They obscured strips of LEDs — light-emitting diodes — behind the cornice of the oratory’s interior walls. The intended effect was achieved: the lunettes and protected mosaics that grace the domed ceiling are now framed by an adjustable light glow.
“We don’t try to recreate the sun, of course,” he quips, pointing out that a source that’s too powerful may flatten certain details. “The light has to be delicate. You need to some shadow to perceive the depth of the environment.”
Understanding and getting to know a heritage site is vital to DZ’s work. The lack of documentation of these olden constructions typically means there are no blueprints or drawings for the lighting engineers to refer to. An on-site survey is mandatory, Grilli says, in order to study and pinpoint specific conservational restrictions. This will then be followed by proposing to local zoning officials, among the world’s most stringent, to approve of their project, assuring them that the cultural properties won’t be damaged in the process.
“In a way, the fixtures need to be a reversible installation, too. So, say, if tomorrow they want us to dismantle everything, we can strip everything off quickly, and there will be no trace of the fixtures ever being there,” says Grilli. “Our approach is to be respectful. This building was here before us, so we’ll try to light it up without creating anything to disrupt it or change its soul.”
Above, a study on several of the DZ illuminators’ lighting projects.
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