The relationship between form and structure in the dome of the Basilica of San Gaudenzio in Novara.
1Dipartimento di Scienze per l’Architettura, Scuola Politecnica - Genova, firstname.lastname@example.org
The dome of San Gaudenzio in Novara, by Alessandro Antonelli, is the most comprehensive architectural synthesis of the profound relationships between mechanics and geometry, material and construction, science and technology; it is compendium of science and art of building in a single architecture. The complex interrelationships between form and structure, architecture and construction, in a complex play of geometric forms and structural elements, are fully evident by complex architectural and structural system of masonry skeleton. in the Antonelli’s dome. Without going into the specifics of the history of the Basilica of Novara for which there is sufficient literature to explore, in this short note we investigate the complex and perhaps even tormented path planning and construction of the dome of San Gaudenzio. Antonelli has been able to build and raise the most daring and the tallest masonry construction in the history of modern Italian architecture. Unique work of art, not repeated, brilliant and, sadly, still little known and studied, in its innermost mysteries that embrace the art of building, and the daughter of an important maître à penser, even a symbol of constructive genius of the most intriguing characters of the Italian architecture of the nineteenth century.
Alessandro Antonelli between Philosophy and Symbolism
Alessandro Antonelli (1798 - 1888), a “minor “character of the Italian architecture of the nineteenth century, well regarded for its regional vocation in the field of architecture (Re, 1988), although well known at national level for the construction of the Synagogue of Turin (Morreale, 1988), better known as the Mole (1863 - 1889), has the stereotype of the architect-engineer-constructor. Antonelli is an architect all round, capable of using geometry and materials according to constructive-technological systems of refined wisdom. Antonelli is a lover of form, but he is also a deep knowledge of the structures and behaviour-resistant structural systems and masonry materials.
The awareness that he is magister of “geometria della riga e del compasso”, a discipline taught in the Italian ‘Scuole di Applicazione per gli Ingegneri’, where art and science of building are ‘daily bread’ for student architects and engineers (Benvenuto, 1988), provides the ability to Antonelli to engage in ‘experiments’ design and he goes beyond the canons of contemporary historical building. These charges, although conforming to the neo-classical architecture is not too rooted in the Italian context, as is the rest of Europe, for a typical Italian classicism of the past that transcends space and time, to suggest Antonelli of “dress” its architecture with classical elements, although now anachronistic for the time.
But Alessandro Antonelli is ready to go further. His ability to use masonry materials, to transform the ‘heaviness’ of masonry structural elements in lightweight structural elements but solid, in harmonious architectural figures, in complex combinations of resistant forms, in games of shapes, lights and structures. Antonelli’s architecture is not building practice, but experimentation, research, willingness to try what no one had hitherto dared groped. Well, all these components of formal, stylistic, structural, technical, technological, structural show that Alessandro Antonelli is an innovator, in some ways comparable to the great architect Antoni Gaudí (1852 - 1926), a master of formal experimentation, constructive and structural architecture.
Although the Mole in Turin is the genius of Antonelli (Rosso, 1977) for Italian architecture, the Basilica of San Gaudenzio in Novara (1855 - 1878), however, is the most refined expression of wisdom and complete construction of the architect. The basilica of Novara is an inimitable example, he has managed to combine in a work built the Vitruvian triad of utilitas, firmitas and venustas.
Figure 1 - Section of the Basilica of San Gaudenzio. State Archives of Novara.
His work goes beyond the boundaries of practice to become a wit, courage, testing, technical and structural perfection. This Antonelli’s architecture shows a ‘clever’ play of empty and full, which shows the ability of matter to rise to heights of grandeur and boldness, to quote the words of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860), rising to the rank Architecture importance of discipline that shows the real struggle of the weight against gravity.
More than a Hegelian vision of architecture, seen as a progressive understanding and revelation through the dialectical overcoming of exteriority, Antonelli contrasts between their shape, material and structure, in the spirit of the philosopher of Gdansk, the architecture, then, is driven and dominated by an irrational principle: the will as the desire (Molino 1941).
Figure 2 - Once inside view of a semicircular dome known as the “Gran Tazza”.
In fact, the will of Antonelli, is not to impress, but to study, learn and experiment with shapes, materials, structures.
He interprets the architecture, which is the Kantian distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, between what is manifested in the forms, which necessarily become transcendental material to become the subject matter, made a formal, artistic, or the architecture itself in-experimental, and therefore unknowable except through the cultural, human and artistic architect designer and builder.
In the work of Antonelli the domain of form, reason and representation becomes the domain of knowledge through matter. Knowledge is conceived as a relationship between designed architecture and built architecture, architecture bound to the forms, space and time, where the principle of causality leads to a real principle of sufficient reason for understanding the complexity of the architecture relationships between form, material and structure. In the architecture of Antonelli everything is designed with intelligence and reason, passion and artistic flair, technical and technological capacity. Nothing is left to chance, unless the case becomes for Antonelli practice and capacity planning.
If art is a work of genius - as he wrote Schopenhauer (Schopenhauer 1991) - to Antonelli, the architecture is the translation of a collection of knowledge that involves art and mathematics, numbers, geometry, shapes, weights, materials, statics, strength of materials, in order to grasp and turn into a work built universal ideas that govern the constructive ideas in architecture (Malverti 1987). This cognitive process can reproduce the ideas and then to communicate them through various forms of expression, as is the case for art and poetry. The architecture is such that, as he wrote the German philosopher, that “its origin is the knowledge of ideas, and its sole purpose, the communication of that knowledge” (Schopenhauer  1991, 223).
In this sense, then, the “genius” Antonelli translates thought into built architecture, bringing the skills and the “innate gift” to the highest degree of architect manufacturer possibilities inherent in every person, every designer in every architect. Nevertheless, the Basilica of San Gaudenzio is considered the tallest masonry building in Italy.
It is understood, therefore, the strong will that has Antonelli to go beyond the limits of human reason, even against a client blindly and tenaciously bound only to the economic side of the building. Antonelli is dedicated to design and build, thanks to a design trick that has grown step by step the dome of the basilica, an architecture that becomes the pure subject of knowledge in terms Vitruvian already mentioned. He has the ability to extract from the most recondite places of memory and knowledge and be able to abstract from particular things, be they architectural forms, structural elements, materials, objects, their relationships, connections, ability to interact within the architecture. The architecture of the Basilica of San Gaudenzio develops brilliant intuition of every shape, every structural element of any structure, forgetting their own individuality and becoming the metaphysical significance of a true ‘liberation’ of knowledge from his submission at will.
Figure 3 - System of juxtaposed columns supporting the “Gran Tazza”.
The architecture of the basilica in Novara then becomes the sublimation of a design process and knowledge of the formal, material and structural masonry. The masonry architecture is therefore considered as ‘fine art’, regardless of their destination for all practical purposes.
Antonelli’s architecture is at the service of will and pure knowledge, it promotes the intuition of ideas about the complex web of knowledge that involves the design architect at the time of the act, the objectification of his strong will to achieve the complex and translate it into simple, like the “weight, cohesion, rigidity, hardness”.
Figure 4a, b, c - Skew arches supporting the drum of the dome. In this picture you can see the stone blocks of the stiffness of the key and the system of horizontal linkage.
Its architecture, then, is referred to as a work of art but also as an example of a mastery of elementary geometry - the external dome is a circular arc (Corradi & al. 2009) - typical of a traditional mathematics recalls the use of simple tools, ruler and compass, and awareness and static material that exhibits the struggle between the weight that drags him down, making it a shapeless mass, and stiffness that gives shape and verticality.
Antonelli, thus pre-announces a revolution in art and science of building which will involve people after him more or less known as engineering and architecture, among others, Paul Séjourné (1851 - 1939), builder masonry bridges and charismatic figure of the last period of masonry architecture (Séjourné 1913-16) and the aforementioned Antoni Gaudì, whose name, the architect of God, well express the will of man to overcome the limitations of sensory experience, the material reality, with the desire to design and build architectures that transcend all understanding.
The Antonelli’s Dome
The Basilica of San Gaudenzio in Novara, then, is the most refined and accomplished synthesis of design, artistic, constructive and structural genius of Alessandro Antonelli, although the same is limited only to the construction of the dome (Caselli 1877), because the church is an eighteenth-century architecture (1577 - 1690) designed and built by Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527 - 1596).
Prior to the Synagogue of Turin (1863 - 1889), then the Museum of the Risorgimento, a work which will give great reputation for Antonelli, he is dedicated to the design (begun in 1841) and construction (1844 - 1878) of the Basilica di Novara. It is a great achievement, which shows design skills, daring construction, construction techniques and, above all, the ability to intersect with each distinct and different complexity of the shape of the building. Although this architecture is based on elementary geometry - the compass will prevail kept in the homonymous hall - its construction, and resolution of complex structural problems, committed forces and energy beyond the limits of human capability. The work of Antonelli image is then able to surprise with the construction of the unimaginable
Figure 5 - The structural system of the cone designed by Antonelli: cross-section. State Archives of Novara.
The design process followed by Alessandro Antonelli, for the construction of the dome of San Gaudenzio, shows the strong will of the architect to overcome the limitations of traditional architecture with contemporary and constructive work that needs and wants time to research and testing capacity human and properties of matter to interject in a dialectic positivist. In this sense Antonelli’s architecture enhances the progress of science, techniques and technologies and combines what is real, concrete, experimental, in opposition to what is merely formal, or in more general terms rather than abstract architecture linked to the image than to its material form and artistic.
Figure 6 - Stiffening arches of masonry cone.
Its architecture shows what is useful, effective, productive, as opposed to what is useless, vacuous as an end in itself could be the classical or neo-classical architecture. In fact, the classicism of Antonelli exceeds the boundaries of a building and above the themes dear to a culture of romantic and idealistic, so as to follow in the footsteps of the positivism of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760 - 1825) in his most important work: “The Catechism of the industry” (Saint-Simon 1823-24). This work was spread by Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857) in 1830, when the French philosopher, published the first volume of the Course of Positive Philosophy (Comte 1830). In this sense one can say that Antonelli’s positivism, put aside the idealistic philosophy considered as a useless metaphysical abstraction, is characterized by trust in scientific progress and the attempt to apply the scientific method in all spheres of knowledge and of human life and, above all, the architecture built, as opposed to what was imagined and designed in the Beaux-Arts school.
The project proposed by Alessandro Antonelli follows a strong thought, interspersed with a path to further investigation and knows how to combine the issues of art, composition, design and technicist with the existing. The idea of construction of the Italian architect, however, once a formal research, structural and technology that blends the old or the existing one, with the modern - in the sense of renewal of characters and hermeneutical principles of architecture in Heidegger’s terms - the authenticity of the building is not simply an empirical basis for understanding the design time.
The formal classicism of Antonelli is transliterated with the use of bold structural solutions, with a proper and appropriate use of materials, almost eager, with a meticulousness that may at first touch the excess (see the use of mortar, brick and tile shaped by hand in the arches supporting the drum, the use of massive stone, hard, compact, in chains, and keys and bolts of iron). Antonelli expresses a keen attention to the needs of a new technique that also wants to be spectacular, but firmly contained within the iron will and a reason that does not allow exceptions and constructive thoughts reasoned and intelligent use of materials and structures.
The design of the dome of San Gaudenzio is therefore embodied in a conceptual research, which can be summarized in a canon that sees three issues that the architect must do: the problem of architectural form, the choice of the structural model, the appropriate use of materials.
Figure 7 - Detail of the vertical structures of the cone at the extrados of the “Gran Tazza”.
Antonelli is an innovator, even if tied to their artistic skills of a classical Roman school of Architecture, or better said, the schools of Fine Arts, a classical aesthetic that emphasizes the design, the ornate architectural composition as opposed to done strictly technical, structural and material.
Figure 8 - Detail of the vertical structures of masonry cone, which correspond to the external dome.
Antonelli is still involved, although in its own way of scientific progress - and in particular that related to the mechanical sciences - that tests the ability to sense the static behavior of structural elements, whether taken individually or in the context of complex structures or issues of great complexity.
The ability of the architect is therefore to translate these insights into a process of concatenated static garrisons, heavy structures, thrusting structures, arches, vaults and buttresses in a symphony through a structural alternation of masses and voids, weights and forces, shadows and lights.
In this way step by step Antonelli rises the dome of San Gaudenzio to the highest peaks of the formal and structural research. The drum with internal and external orders of columns, pillars, and even monolithic columns, juxtaposed, and the “Gran Tazza (large cup)” that covers the circumferential perfect geometry of the transept, on which you set and from which branch off orders colonnades. And yet, the structural cone that rises to the top of the external dome that empties into a series of supporting ribs stiffened by connecting arches, vaults drilled key with an eye to maintain a sense of verticality to the top by arches and buttresses and counter-relieving arches. The boldness of the external dome, dome sheet constructed with ribs placed according to the meridians and parallels. These ribs will expose the inside of Antonelli to create voids filled only by a floor material in sheets, up to the lantern that stands next juxtapositions plans centered on the spiral staircase in masonry.
The reading of the construction of Antonelli is then like a musical score, as a symphony by Rossini, where a crescendo of artistic images, formal and structural accompanies the viewer at the top of the building where he was to stand the statue of Christ the Saviour.
From the grandeur and heaviness of the masonry of Tibaldi’s church, Antonelli moves with the lightness of the staircase built in brick and stone. From the massive structural form of oblique arches that support the drum, Antonelli moved to the subtle emptiness of the brick dome foil (thickness equal to 12 cm), covered with a ‘coat’ stone but simply pivoted in the ribs with bolts of iron, like a fabric that is covered with strong leather and hard, which stands on a powerful body muscles, but long-limbed placed around a masonry skeleton. The dome, designed and built by Antonelli, is the dominant thought of its structural design and architecture.
But in this refined process of architectural composition Alessandro Antonelli shows his great talent as an architect-builder, Maître d’Ouvrage et Architecture. He is able to use the materials with intelligence and wealth. He is a master in the choice of building elements and structures most suited to the aesthetic theme and design of its architecture.
Figure 9 - Detail of the external dome.
He turns his architecture to a formal research is not only architectural design, representation, but pure will, which has resulted in built. He is thus able to create solutions that exceed the rule of reason and form, in a marriage that only a few contemporary architects or later were able to perform with daring and skill, knowledge and courage. Antonelli’s architecture is not architecture produced by the man with inexperienced and unaware of courage that seems to defy the unconscious, but the courage of the wisdom dictated by the ancient builder.
Figure 10 a e b - The masonry structure of the cone, with the arches of lightening the stone blocks and masonry mass regularization and stiffening of the plans for the transmission of vertical loads.
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