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How to Light Ancient Roman Cathedrals

By Bianca Husodo

 
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Hidden in the garden at the back Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale is a brick building. Its facade unassuming, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia has stood the test of time ever since it was built in the fifth century by Galla Placidia, the sister of then-Roman emperor Honorius. Inside, ornate mosaic monuments — some of the earliest from Italy’s Christian Byzantine epoch — still perfectly decorate the dome ceilings. “As you can see, the light sources placed on the columns are almost hidden,” says Roberto Grilli, the general manager of DZ Engineering, an Italian engineering company that lights monuments, archaeological sites and historic buildings. “You can’t see where they come from, and it’s meant to be that way.” (Credit: Alessandra Baldoni)

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Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Discretion is at the crux of the lighting engineers’ design sensibility. Here, the storied “The Good Sheperd” mosaic art, circa 450AD, which hangs atop the entrance of the oratory, bolstered by the illuminating LED strips that are obscured atop the cornice. (Credit: Alessandra Baldoni)

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The Crypt of Santa Maria Annunziata Cathedral, Otranto

Located in the underground belly of Santa Maria Annunziata Cathedral in Otranto, this crypt runs below the apse, the presbytery and part of the hall, and dates back to the 11th century. The DZ team used minuscule adjustable and made-to-measure LED projectors, installed at the base of the capitals of the crypt, to emphasise on the artistic details of the interior, and also, to be receptive to the various events that are held at the crypt, from sightseeing to prayer vigils. (Credit: Pio Tarantini) 

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The Crypt of Santa Maria Annunziata Cathedral, Otranto

“Because it’s underground, the light needs to be on for about 12 to 14 hours a day. It was important to find a powerful, reliable source with long lifespan to avoid maintenance work,” explains Grilli. “So we customised the solution: we made micro sources and the cabling was done with a type of mineral cable that looks like copper, which blends right into its setting.” (Credit: Pio Tarantini) 

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Abbey of San Leonardo, Manfredonia

Built in Apulian Romanesque style, the Abbey of San Leonardo is an ancient complex in Puglia that dates back to the 12th century, consisting of a church, a monastery and a former hospital which will soon house the San Leonardo museum. Grilli and his team were tasked with the internal lighting of the abbey’s church and monastery, but also, its external areas. (Credit: Cosmo Laera)

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Abbey of San Leonardo, Manfredonia

“Here, you can’t see the lighting sources. We didn’t use poles or anything,” says Grilli. The DZ team utilised white-coloured LED that is similar to the hue of the abbey’s stones. “For old architectural sites, we need to be as hidden as possible to the visitors. 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.” (Credit: Cosmo Laera)

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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.