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The haven of memory


Francesca Gottardo on Cardillo’s Specus Corallii project in the Paolo Portoghesi magazine Abitare la Terra

Abitare la Terra 41


When my thoughts are anxious, uneasy and bad, I go to the seashore, and the sea drowns them and sends them away with its great open sounds, purifies them with its noise, and imposes a rhythm on everything that in me is disoriented and confused.—R. M. Rilke

The slow, gradual process of sedimentation and erosion, leading to the formation of grottoes thanks to the incessant to and fro of waves, appears to create this unusual space in which the noise of the sea rhythmically breaking on the shore resounds as if amplified by the echo of a shell.

To reach a sort of hypogeal area, a safe haven, visitors have to follow the path of the water, forced through the narrow, compressed space of a tunnel of arches which, arranged in succession, imitate impetuous waves and sea currents chasing after one another. Then, at the end, they are surprised by the large open spaces that unexpectedly open up in front of their eyes. Drained of its strong directional energy it is here that the water looses its swirling, eddying nature and becomes calm; this is where it creates the ideal, deep and half-lit environment in which shells and the special, precious formations called corals can grow and proliferate. “Here in these shells we see the housing of the life of the sea. It is the housing of a lower order of life, but it is a housing with exactly what we lack—inspired form. In this collection of houses of hundreds of small beings, who themselves built these houses, we see a quality we call invention. The beauty of their variations is never finished. It is not a question of principle of design. This multitudinous expression indicates what design can mean. Certainly divinity is here in these shells, in their humble form of life.”⁠[1]

The Sala Laurentina of the Cathedral in Trapani was inspired by the evocation of grottoes and corals, spellbinding architectures of the sea. The restoration by Cardillo gives the Sala Laurentina back to the city as a representative and emblematic space of local history and traditions, both indissolubly linked to the sea.

In fact, the formation of grottoes intimately depends on the presence of water, indispensable for the karstic system to evolve; water shapes the system by passing through its cracks in order to spark the corrosive process, leaving behind big, accessible, empty spaces and silty sediments of earth and sand. In the same way, the geometric form of the shell, “that possesses the narrative of its individual growth … as well as the story of its evolution”,⁠[2] presents traces of the gradual process of its growth, visible in the extraordinarily dense signs on its surfaces. These sedimentations involve a slow movement; they mark the passing of time, in which nothing is destined to remain the same, but to gradually change. Coral, in particular, is created when the blood spurting from Medusa’s severed throat comes into contact with the air and is turned into stone,⁠[3] or at least this is what Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses; it is the expression of the vegetal, animal and mineral kingdom and represents the ultimate concept of transformation, evolution and regeneration.

Matter and memory become stratified on the walls of the Specus created in the Sala Laurentina, the old oratory now completely renovated and turned into the custodian of the city’s history. The space designed by Cardillo is a homage to the multifaceted culture of Trapani; it is nourished by the spirit of the place, i.e., the sedimentation of stratified knowledge which in time becomes memory.

The architect explains: “by conjuring up the mysterious dimension of a submerged world the Specus Corallii narrates this imagery which, from the sea, has for centuries sedimented the meaning of life in the city and its landscape.” It is an explicit reference not only to rupestrian architecture, deeply rooted in local building traditions, but also to the typical culture of Trapani, especially the art of manufacturing coral. Coral has always been part of the life of the city thanks to the extensive coral reefs just off its coast. In fact, this raw material is used to produce priceless, symbolic, but also curative and apotropaic objects often destined to embellish the grottoes and nymphaea of gardens or so-called wunderkammer, cabinets of curiosities and treasures.

Cardillo’s extremely effective design narrates the symbiotic relationships between sea and land, a relationship that is very much alive in the city of Trapani. Just as it was for Ulysses, land is the point of departure and arrival of a journey not only towards self-knowledge, the seat of sacredness, but also towards the overcoming of one’s own limits. Dante recalls that the sea Homer’s hero wished to sail to slake his thirst for knowledge represents the link between man and the unknown. The persistent series of arches towering over the green waters of the walls of the entrance hall and continuing like a spyglass until the oratory ideally represent the stages of this journey; on the horizon, like the Pillars of Hercules, they establish the boundary between the finite and infinite, certainty and uncertainty, order and chaos. Once beyond the pillars, darkness gives way to light, doubt to knowledge, becoming to being, and disorder to harmony.

Matter, light and colour are the tools of Cardillo’s language; in particular they are one of the main topics of his architectural research focusing on the Specus as a primordial archetype. Already tested in other important works, the theme of the grotto expresses the profound sense of his complex but minimal architecture which, in turn, like Homer’s challenge, intends to overcome its limits by measuring itself against the finite nature of space and geometric structure in order to come closer to the infinite.

Cardillo often softens and dissolves these boundaries in a tactile irregular surface made of small impalpable grains and coarse corrugated grooves, unexpected thicknesses and unanticipated depressions. Unlike the base and floor lined with geometrically defined blocks of calcarenite stone, the indefinitely granulose surface of the walls and ceiling of the oratory room is made by mixing limestone, sand and pozzolan dust with a nuanced coral colour. The special composition of this mixture is enhanced by the oblique light pouring in through the windows.

Finally, the wooden inlay in the oratory floor, shaped like the silhouette of a boat at anchor, represents the final destination in the journey and expresses the peaceful stability of a safe haven, far from turmoil and danger; it is the metaphor of a hard-earned balance achieved in harmony with oneself and nature.

The Sala Laurentina, destroyed during the Second World War, is reborn as an oratory and multi-purpose space. Photography: Antonino Cardillo

The Sala Laurentina, destroyed during the Second World War, is reborn as an oratory and multi-purpose space. Photography: Antonino Cardillo


  1. ^ F.L. Wright, The Living City, New Jersey, Horizon Press, 1984.
  2. ^ G. Bateson, Angels fear, New York, Bantam, 1987.
  3. ^ Ovid, The Metamorphoses, IV, 740‑752.