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The Former Bellini Power Station: High-Energy Art 

Rossella Monaco


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In the Avvocata district, where the old village of Limpiano used to lie, now engulfed among streets whose names preserve the memory of the hamlet of the House of Pontecorvo – in the midst of narrow alleyways snaking their way up between noble palazzi, tenement blocks, churches, and monasteries – stands the white mass of the Hermann Nitsch Museum Archive Laboratory for Contemporary Arts, set up in Naples and opened to the public by the Morra Foundation in Naples in September 2008.

It is Europe’s second-largest museum dedicated exclusively to the works of Hermann Nitsch, an exponent of Viennese Actionism and founder of the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries (after which the Museum of the Austrian town of Mistelbach, a few kilometres from Prinzendorf Castle where the artist lives and works, was named in 2007). The Neapolitan institution was the brainchild of Giuseppe Morra, collector, gallery owner, and director of the museum.

As in Mistelbach – where the Hermann Nitsch Museum is housed in an old factory that used to produce agricultural machinery and tools, shut down in the late 1980s – in Naples too, the works of the Austrian artist have also been collected in a disused industrial building, a small power station, the Stazione Bellini, whose history is associated with the figure of its founder, Baron Nicola La Capra Sabelli, and the development of the Neapolitan street-lighting industry.

Following the example of the Duke of Marigliano, who financed the construction of a workshop to illuminate the Sannazzaro Theatre, in 1887 Baron La Capra Sabelli, owner of the Bellini theatre from 1878, set up a number of machines to power the facilities in the caves of the limestone Cavone hill, near the Mercatello, today’s Piazza Dante. As he considered the space available inadequate, in 1890 he decided to buy part of the garden of the old Pontecorvo Palace, which stood above the caves and the church of Santa Maria dell’Avvocata, to build a power station to produce electricity up the hill, not far from the theatre. Construction work on the plant was probably completed by 1891; in 1895, it consisted of two adjacent buildings divided into six rooms at ground level, including two main central rooms housing boilers and machinerywith three upstairs rooms used as offices. There were also some basement areas.

In 1897, after the death of Baron La Capra Sabelli, his heirs sold the Stazione Bellini to the Naples Sgi (Societàgenerale per l'illuminazione), which retained the name and incorporated it into the group’s electrical substations. It was immediately clear that the small plant, only created to supply the Bellini theatre with electricity, needed to be expanded and modernised if it was to serve the local district without overloading. Although the management began discussing the problem in 1912, restructuring work began only in 1925 and was completed in 1926.

The changes made to the architecture of the building at that time, still visible in the plan and elevation of the Nitsch Museum, involved enlarging the boiler room and placing cast iron pillars and beams in the machine room, over which an upstairs space withPolonceau metal trusses was added, as well as rebuilding the façade, made lighter thanks to four new windows and a central glazed portal; the work was completed by the addition of a straight cornice.

Now part of the Sgi network, the Bellini station contributed to the spread of streetlighting in the city of Naples, but it was unlikely to survive the reorganisation of the energy sector carried out between the 1920s and 1930s by the Sme (Societàmeridionale dielettricità or Southern Electricity Company), which acquired, or became the majority shareholder of, all the small and medium enterprises producing electricity in southern Italy.

It is difficult to retrace the vicissitudes of the former electric power station inVicoLungoPontecorvo from the late post-war period up to the year 2000, when the Morra Foundation took possession of the station on free loan for thirty years, as the city and historians alike seem to have forgotten about it, probably because it had been left in a state of disuse and abandonment for several decades.

During inspections carried out by architect Rosario Boenzi, engaged by the Morra Foundation to redevelop the facility and transform it into a museum, the only hint of the plant’s industrial past were some tracks and cranes for handling coal. Nevertheless, Morra and Boenzi agreed not to make drastic changes as the building still preserved its original spaces and the 1920’s architecture, which already suggested an idea for the future layout of the museum.

Specifically, not only was it to become a container for the collection of ‘wrecks’ from Nitsch’s actions, recomposed as installations bringing together the canvases, religious vestments, and stretchers used during performances along with the artist’s paintings and smocks, documentary photography, and musical scores – between the first Neapolitan exhibition in 1974 and 2008, but it was also to be a creative workshop, a centre for research and experimentation in the contemporary arts, as well as a repository of its many forms of expression. Taking into account its intended use, and without altering the architectural layout or the sequence of the rooms, Boenzi has designed a flexible and versatile structure over an area of less than 3,000 square metres spread across three levels. He has put every room and extension inside and outside the building to use, creating new spaces, such as the split level above the former boiler room, connecting the parts with minimal alterations e.g., through the creation of a grid staircase that joins the split level to the old staircase and restoring, in a spirit of conservative restoration, the metal Polonceau trusses on the upper floor, as well as the cast-iron columns and beams. The architect has thus obtained medium and large all-purpose ‘boxes’; they can accommodate, as required, the various activities organised by the museum from time to time and allow the planned biennial rotation of the layout and the organisation of temporary exhibitions.

The museum is divided into departments: the documentation, research and training centre, the book and media library, the independent experimental cinema department, the contemporary music audio library, and the performing and multimedia arts centre, in addition to an apartment for Hermann Nitsch when he is engaged in performances and workshops in Naples. In line with the aims of Fondazione Morra-Istituto di Scienze delle comunicazioni visive, it intends to produce, document, and disseminate contemporary art, making it better known, but also triggering a process of urban regeneration and redevelopment, starting from its very location in one of the many abandoned, unused, and underused buildings in the Avvocata district.

When asked about the choice of the former Bellini station as a suitable space for the Nitsch Museum, Morra replied that although he recognises the expository advantages and exhibition potential brought by the interaction between contemporary art and workplaces, and he considers the process of re-appropriation and re-confirmation of industrial heritage to be a logical and consequential evolution of what has been going on for centuries for the revitalisation of abandoned historical residences or religious architecture, nevertheless, in selecting a location, above and beyond any such considerations, he was guided by the same principles that led the Morra Foundation to choose the Palazzo delloSpagnolo in the Sanità district, namely the desire to set its roots in the territory and act in an area of urban decay and socio-cultural marginality, focusing first of all on creating a new use for an architectural emergency and latera driving force for the arts. The restoration of the former Bellini station and its conversion into a museum are, in fact, the initial stage of a wider and more ambitious cultural project: ‘Avvocataquartieredell’arte/the Avvocata art district’, discussed and developed with academics, residents, local associations, entrepreneurs and representatives of the municipal authorities, and presented in 2009 as part of the interest shown in the ‘Great Historical Centre’ project in Naples, with a view to valorising the Unesco site.

Pending inclusion in the forthcoming activities organised by the Naples City Council for the Great Project, the Morra Foundation has proposed turning the disused eighteenth-century convent of the Capuccinelle, a former juvenile prison near the Nitsch Museum, into a school of excellence for the arts and crafts. In the seven years since it opened, the Museum has been working to catalogue and study Nitsch’s artistic output, making it known to the public through seminars, workshops, and guided tours for students in schools, universities, and the Academy of Fine Arts, and to promote it outside Naples (currently, for example, a personal exhibition is being held at the Zac archaeo-industrial centre at the CantieriCulturali alla Zisa in Palermo, while, as part of an exchange programme, the Museo Nitsch is showing the Mistelbach canvases). It has also organised exhibitions by other artists, visual poetry events, theatre classes, debates, and festivals of cinema and experimental music, confirming Morra’swish to become a centre of creativity and a meeting place that users are encouraged to attend quite apart from simply visiting the museum.

Fonte: IL CALENDARIO DEL POPOLO  | 2015 numero 767 |  ARCHEOLOGIA INDUSTIALE luoghi per l'arte e la culturaEX STAZIONE BELLINI: L’ARTE IN TENSIONE di Rossella Monaco