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Francesca Storaro

issue 46 December / January 2008/9

She may be the daughter of the ‘maestro of light’, but Francesca Storaro has earned enough accolades to be viewed as a highly skilled lighting designer in her own right. Jimmie Wing took a trip to Italy to ask her about her experiences and her philosophies.

Investigating the standing of independent lighting designers in Italy, mondo*arc had an interesting meeting with with one of Florence’s most successful and prestigious international architectural houses. The news did not bode well. “Here in Italy,” we were informed, “architects deal directly with lighting manufacturers who usually have their own lighting consultants and we also have our own in-house lighting designers. That is the established way things are here.” A possible conflict of interest? “No, because if the quote from one lighting company is not satisfactory we simply approach another one.” Is the situation likely to change? “No, because that’s the way things are - the way they have always been so there’s not much need for independent lighting designers in Italy.” Really?

Francesca Storaro began her illustrious career as an independent lighting designer helping her father light Michelangelo’s architecture at the Piazza del Campidoglio. Since graduating, she has lit luxurious restaurants, exhibitions and historic castles in the hills around Rome where she grew up. Her most recently completed project is the Domes of Correggio. Having established herself as one of Europe’s ‘s leading lighting designers, she is currently working on major international projects in Beijing, Shanghai and New York City.

As one of Italy’s few truly independent lighting designers, she is diplomatic about challenging the established system of major architectural companies that work directly with lighting  manufacturers: “I have an excellent relationship with lighting manufacturers since there is a great deal of collaboration. For me the union of different skills is essential since it ensures the quality of the project.” Indeed. She continually varies the choice of lights from project to project and has no qualms about mixing different manufacturers lights on the same project to perfectly suit each unique situation. She adds that things have changed a lot in Italy over the past 18 years, “That is since I got started in this magnificent job, which makes it possible to combine the technical and the creative sides. The profession of Lighting Designer is one that is being increasingly recognised. And clients are more and more alert to the importance of the Culture of Light.”

The Piazza del Campidoglio project was a collaborative one with her father ‘Maestro of Light’, Vittorio Storaro, the multi Academy Award winning cinematographer. “I was a university student studying architecture,” she explained, “and was preparing for my lighting engineering exam. My father had been asked to do the lighting for Piazza del Campidoglio. So we brought the two things together: the Campidoglio project for my exam and for his work. That was when I fell in love with this profession. I realised that was my path, an architect yes, but an architect of light, bringing all the culture of light that I had learned in those years through my father, not to the cinema, but to my area of interest, architecture.” Begun in 1990, that project was finally realised in 2002.

Storaro explained further: “The mission of the Campidoglio lighting project was to visualise the architectural concept of the Equilibrium of Michelangelo, through the lighting visualisation of the four primary elements of life, enunciated by the Greek philosophers. Water, earth, fire and air; that in the union of colours that represents them, form a concept of Visual Equilibrium: THE ENERGY, THE LIGHT,” she emphasised.

Her experience at Campidoglio explains why she decided to become a lighting designer but was there any conscious decision to stay clear of the film industry? “I have never been attracted to the cinema,” Storaro revealed, “and I have never worked in film, my passion has always been, and always will be, architecture, the Architecture of Light.”

Francesca Storaro works from her studio office at Castel Gandolfo, next door to the San Tommaso Da Villanova church designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in a charming village square fronted by a glorious entrance to the summer Vatican residence of the Pope. “My life is very simple,” she says modestly. “In the morning I am a lighting designer, in the afternoon I am the mother of a very beautiful girl called Eleonora. I take home my laptop, I help my daughter with her homework or take her to the swimming pool or to see her friends. Sometimes, when I have to inspect venues or carry out testing I am away all day at work, or sometimes for one or two days, but these are exceptions.” Despite growing up in the milieu of movie stars and celebrities, her somewhat more unruly classmates attest that she was always diligent and well behaved in school.

What are her thoughts and feelings having the huge responsibility of lighting the wondrous achievements of some of the world’s greatest artists such as Michelangelo and Correggio? Awe inspiring creations that are known to have brought lesser mortals to tears. “Of course for me there is great emotion,” she admitted. “What I’m trying to do in my work is to translate the language of architecture, sculpture or painting into the language of light. The most beautiful thing is the harmony and union between different arts.” Could it be that she is able to handle this so well because her father is one of the world’s greatest cinematographers? “Yes, my father is the greatest cinematographer in the world, but for me he is just my father.”

Francesca Storaro still collaborates on various projects with him. In a travelling exhibition of 150 photographs from his films entitled ‘Scrivere con la Luce’ (Writing with Light), they wanted to have optimal lighting. “So we designed a light tripod called the Visionario with a a self-supporting and portable design base,” she related. “It was made according to our custom specifications by FontanaArte. The Visionario acts as a support for the photographs and permits lighting without dazzle and without reflections, uniformly lighting the whole picture.”
And what are her views on impending national bans of incandescents and the world-wide LED explosion? “It is always wrong to generalise I feel, since every project needs its own light and needs the most suitable light source depending on the project type. I do not believe that incandescent sources can be fully replaced by other source types,” she continues, “since these could never offer the same light and colour performance as incandescent. In the same way I do not believe that LED lighting, currently enjoying a boom, can completely replace other light sources, due to both the colour rendering index and the optical limitations of projectors.”

Unafraid of using vibrant colours to express lighting themes, Storaro lit different areas of Palazzo D’Arnolfo to correspond with different stages of construction through history. The use of a white light of various tonality gives prominence to the different parts and constructive phases of the Palazzo: those realised by Arnolfo, were lightened with white light, characterised by a warm solar tonality; a white light with a cold lunar tonality was used to lighten the following interventions of the arcades. The tower, the element of completion of the Palazzo that was already present in the original sketch, was lit with warm light in orange tones. The portico, a void realised soon after, today represents an important element of the city life and was lit with cold blue light. The overhanging façade was lit with neutral white light as an element of the union of the entire architecture.

Storaro recalled one of her most rewarding experiences as a lighting designer: “I was looking at the Palazzo D’Arnolfo when a father with a child stopped in front of it, and the father said: ‘Do you see the yellow part of the building? That is the original Palazzo, that now is revealed with light. Through the light you can find something that was hidden by history.’”

How was the recent Correggio project realised? “We attempted to interpret the language of the painting of Correggio in terms of the language of light. Thanks to Professor Marina Vio’s scientific advice regarding spectrocolorimeter studies of the domes, the results showed that the cathedral dome fresco depicting the Assumption of the Virgin uses predominantly cold, lunar colours, while the fresco of St. John with Christ in the centre uses strong warm, sunny colours. Correggio’s dialogue between the cool, lunar tones of the cathedral and the warm, sunny tones of St. John is precisely what we have attempted to explain as the language of light. While it is true that the use of light is ‘artistic’, it is consistent with the integrity of the work of art as a whole. Thus Correggio uses the language of light and illuminates his paintings in a manner that respects, again, the work of art. All of this would have been no more than an idea without the collaboration of many knowledgeable people working in their specific fields,” Storaro adds emphatically. “Anyone working in the visual arts expresses their creativity with the use of technology. Therefore, we are very thankful to Erco for their high-quality technology, Dr. Nava for collaboration and the architect Caprotti for planning consultancy. We have used their ‘illuminations’ and they designed some special projects with us to obtain the desired effect. This enabled us to concretise our idea and express ourselves. Collaboration among various experts is fundamental – it was a team effort,” she explained. “An idea is not an idea when you have it, only after it has come to fruition. Then the dream becomes a reality.”

Always diplomatic and full of respect for her fellow lighting designers Storaro is averse to changing existing projects and will not comment on any projects she dislikes. Rather, she prefers to comment on the one she does like.

Francesca Storaro was undoubtedly fortunate in having the guidance of her famous father and while this may have opened doors for her it’s a well known maxim that these doors close very quickly and the entrants are ejected if they don’t have the talent and ability to back up their admission. Rising to such a formidable challenge, she has become one of Europe’s leading lighting designers. The world awaits.


Francesca Storaro Francesca Storaro
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