Location: Nonantola, Italy
Client: Fondazione Villa Emma
Design team: Bianchini & Lusiardi Associati
Collaborators: Studio Fornalé engineering
2-stage design competition – 1st prize
Design level: schematic design
Net Floor Area: 700 sqm / 7,500 sqft
Construction cost: € 1,550,000
The “Davanti a Villa Emma” interpretation center, museum and memorial is aimed to present the history of seventy-three Jewish children – trying to reach Palestine escaping the Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria, and Croatia – who took refuge in Nonantola, northern Italy, from 1942 to 1943 and were thereafter helped by the local population to escape to Switzerland and, from there, to safely get to Palestine.
Combining the power of those “traces of history” (as Peter Eisenman calls them) that the place still preserves today and the Jewish archetype of the sukkah, which symbolizes the temporary refuge during the journey to the Promised Land, we conceived this building as a symbol of tolerance, acceptance, and fraternity among people of different cultural background, religion, and nationality.
We began by mapping on the site the “power-lines” – ideally representing places, events, and human relationships – which marked the life of the Jewish refugees before, during and after their stay in Nonantola.
Starting from that map, the center has been designed as a single-story construction which symbolically and physically opens onto the public realm, thus declaring its function of a place conceived to let people meet, fraternize, and learn about the exemplary history of the children of Villa Emma. The place will also be the centerpiece of an itinerary of memory throughout Nonantola and its surroundings, marked by small bronze sculptures reproducing a domestic chair as a universal symbol of hospitality.
The project subverts the traditional distinction between inside and outside, and between architecture and landscape, by disarticulating the facades of the new center and blurring its physical boundaries while, at the same time, disrupting the difference between “building” and “exhibition”; thus, the spaces were shaped by a sequence of multifunctional wood panels which form the museum’s structural frame and, at once, can be used as communication devices, supports for graphics and video-projections, archive storage units, and display cases.
The 700-square-meter center will be highly sustainable and mostly built in Cross-laminated timber though dry construction techniques; it will also feature geothermal heating and cooling, rainwater reuse, photovoltaic power generation, natural lighting, and passive ventilation.
The children of Villa Emma
The new museum/memorial is aimed to present the history of a group of Jewish children and teens who were rescued by the Delasem (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants) from Germany, Austria, and Croatia in 1940 with a view to moving them to Palestine, after their families were killed by the Nazis or deported into concentration camps.
After the group, during the journey, got stuck in Slovenia because of the German invasion of the country, the children and their guides fortuitously moved to the village of Nonantola, northern Italy, and found refuge in Villa Emma, a large semi-abandoned country house belonging to an Italian Jewish businessman, where they stayed for 18 months and fraternized with the local population, mostly consisting of anti-fascist people.
In 1943, when Italy was invaded by the German troops, the situation suddenly became dangerous and the children were hidden by the locals, led by Dr. Giuseppe Moreali and Father Arrigo Beccari (who were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations), in houses and hideouts in the village and its outskirts in order to save them from the SS who were aware of their presence; afterwards, disguised as Italian schoolchildren, the group moved to Switzerland and, from here, to Palestine.
Except for one boy, Salomon Papo, who got sick and was captured by the SS in the hospital and deported to Auschwitz, all children safely reached Palestine, where many of them still live today.
Conceptual sketches based on the “traces of history” that marked the story of the Jewish refugees of Villa Emma in Nonantola
Interior views of the permanent galleries and the center’s entrance lobby
All images © Bianchini & Lusiardi Associati