The Future of the Archivio Luigi Nono

Text and Photography · Date 12/8/2016

The Fondamenta Sant’Eufemia, on the Venetian island of Giudecca, is a street that parallels the water. Its presence, rising out of the waves, feels almost arbitrary. Between storefronts numbered 610A and a chipping 655 is a lane where houses in red and gray give way to the same color scheme in smaller scales: the brick walls of houses and the polished tiles of a former convent. There is a piazza with a gray church, set against a slightly grayer sky. Next to it is the Archivio Luigi Nono. Here, the manuscripts and papers of the Venetian master of sound, silence, and space are kept.

At the turn of the 20th century, Giudecca was an island of gardens. As years passed, factories replaced them. Cross the bridge from the Calle Cosmo to the Calle Convertite, and you can still feel traces of what Margaret Plant, in her 2002 history Venice: Fragile City, referred to as a “sad sub-standard air.” Then again, the most imposing (and gorgeous) building on the island, the Molina Stucky, is now a glamorous Hilton hotel. “The Giudecca has changed totally since Nono was living and acting here,” Nuria Schoenberg-Nono told me on a recent visit. (Full disclosure: my travel costs were paid for by Casa Ricordi, which publishes Nono’s scores.)

Schoenberg-Nono is the founder and president of the Archivio Luigi Nono, the daughter of Arnold Schoenberg, and the widow of the Venetian composer. But she prefers to define herself through her own work at the archive: “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, what an honor to meet you.’ But they mean, ‘What an honor’ because I’m Schoenberg’s daughter, which doesn’t mean a thing. I could be Schoenberg’s daughter and be absolutely idiotic and do all kinds of terrible things. I’d rather have people know that I can also do something. Now that the archive goes so well, I don’t get that so much any more.”

The continued progress of the archive, a major component of her life’s work, has her worried, though. In 2015, an outsider businessman with a bullying Twitter account (he got into a very public argument with Elton John) named Luigi Brugnaro was elected mayor with support mainly from the region of Veneto, rather than from the city of Venice itself. Since, he has threatened to sell art from Venice’s collection to fill its public coffers. He is a right-of-center populist in a place used to politician-intellectuals from the left.

The archives that Schoenberg-Nono has organized for both her husband and father’s estates have been forced to move before. In 1995, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute left the University of Southern California. “It was a purpose-built building, it was really beautiful. And they’ve taken it down in the meantime, and they’ve put up a skyscraper,” she said. (The archive is now kept in Vienna at the Arnold Schoenberg Center.) The original home of the Archivio Luigi Nono was a space with two large rooms near the Hilton—but “it cost a fortune, and we didn’t have the money to pay for it, unfortunately,” Schoenberg-Nono said. Its current home, in the Convento de dei Santi Cosma e Damiano, is on lease from the city; a deal set up by the former mayor and philosopher Massimo Cacciari, a friend and admirer of Nono’s work, the kind of mayor who wrote academic essays on Nietzsche.

Brugnaro, in contrast, is “against intellectuals, and everything that has to do with culture,” Schoenberg-Nono said. The Archivio receives no funding from the city; what money there is comes from the region and some donations. It’s enough to support two part time positions, besides Schoenberg-Nono’s work. In addition, Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions will enter the public domain in 2021, meaning that another important stream of income—royalties—will dry up. “Until now, Venice has endured, fragile and vulnerable to the elements, corroded by water and atmospheric alteration, by tides high and low,” wrote Plant. At the Archivio Luigi Nono, there’s a sense both of fragility and endurance, made all the more potent by the many things that make it worth protecting.

An essential goal Schoenberg-Nono has for the foundation is openness. When she got the lease for the current space, she sat down with Giorgio Mastinu, an architect, and “mapped out the entire project on the floor with adhesive tape,” Mastinu told me. He “wanted to have a unique space with minimal partitions. From the entrance, you can see right through to the back wall of the large room and get an overview of everything that’s going on.” Large windows look out into a garden in the courtyard, a reminder of Giudecca’s romantic past.

Walk-ins are welcomed, and there is no requirement that visitors present credentials of any kind besides an interest in Luigi Nono. During my visit on November 24, Schoenberg-Nono greeted a pair of musicologists, a pair of doctors, and a Nigerian salesman warmly. When she used to organize lectures on Nono’s work by scholars, she required them to explain their work in layman’s terms.

Lining the walls of the foundation are translucent cases in which boxes of Nono’s color-photocopied sketches and manuscripts are kept. On one, Nono had written the name Gabrieli, the Renaissance composer whose spacial works were an enduring influence, and whom Nono saw as quintessentially Venetian. Visitors can take them out, pick them up, touch them, and get in close. Schoenberg-Nono showed several pages and said, “To me, it’s a big difference to see something like this than to see a little black square on the computer,” referring to microfilm, which most foundations use. “You get the temperature and energy that’s in this work when you see them this way.”

The contrast to the Basel-based Paul Sacher Stiftung, which I’ve written about in detail, was striking. That foundation, an archive where the papers of many essential 20th-century composers are kept, is accessible only by appointment, restricts its visitors to those who are qualified, and makes documents available only on microfilm. “That’s Fort Knox,” Schoenberg-Nono said. “I just recently went there for the first time and it scared me to death.” The small corridors and underground safe made her feel claustrophobic. Besides that, she said, “The philosophy is very different,” citing the Stiftung’s policies of access. It is important to her for people to be able to encounter Nono in Venice, his home. Nono was also a socialist who wrote music to elevate the working classes. It seems obvious he wouldn’t have wanted his archive to be a rarified, restricted place.

Stefan Litwin, a pianist who has performed lecture-concerts on the works of Schoenberg and Nono with Schoenberg-Nono, also emphasized the importance of being able to touch and feel the sketches at the archive. “An archive has to be a practical place,” he said. The open and welcoming policies of the Archivio Luigi Nono make it a useful and satisfying research center. But there’s also something palpably deeper at work there. Litwin recalled his performances with Schoenberg-Nono by saying they were “like a family trip.” Watching her hands as she touched Nono’s sketches and a thick book about Arnold Schoenberg’s life, I realized: what really makes the Archivio Luigi Nono different from the Paul Sacher Stiftung is something far more basic than architecture or access. The difference is love.

Is the Archivio Luigi Nono safe for the future, under the Brugnaro administration? Lucio Rubini is the author of a book, with Maurizio Busacca, called Venezia chiama Boston. The slogan was taken from a Brugnaro campaign poster: the goal, perhaps not entirely serious (like the painting threat), was to make Venice a university city with economic power deriving from research and innovation. Rubini thought that the real reason people, especially in the cultural world, were on edge was because of Brugnaro’s style: his ownership of a basketball team, rudeness and use of Venetian dialect. “Many people are scared of him just because of this argument,” Rubini told me. The real focus of his administration, though, is to rebalance political power away from the old city and towards the surrounding region, Brugnaro’s base.

Schoenberg-Nono hasn’t received funding from the city of Venice since before Brugnaro’s administration, so what will most likely result in the next few years is neglect. The question is whether the neglect will be benign. In 2019, the Archivio Luigi Nono’s lease is up for renewal by the city, which makes Schoenberg-Nono nervous. Some sources of funding the foundation relies on may not be around much longer; nor can the city be counted on to make up the difference. “Ever since I had my 80th birthday, which was four years ago, people have been saying, ‘Well, Nuria, what’s going to happen when you’re not here anymore?’ I agree that it’s something to think about,” Schoenberg-Nono said. During the tour of the foundation, she told me, “Time goes very fast when you get old.”

Asked about the future of the archive he designed, Giorgio Mastinu, the architect, said, “It could definitely be a problem. But it’s now a cultural landmark—in the city, in Italy, in the world. I believe (and hope) that no mayor would dare to undermine the activities of the archive; because then the entire world of culture would be against him.” Stefan Litwin, the pianist, told me that “everything Nuria touches is incredibly fertile,” and added that the foundation “will be able to go one without her.”

Schoenberg-Nono’s fears about the future are not unfounded. Nor is there reason to give up hope. The Archivio Luigi Nono could move elsewhere, but would likely lose something essential about itself. That makes it a creature of its hometown. With Venice, worry about the city’s continued existence is as much a part of its myth as its enduring exquisiteness. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Genghis Khan, “Perhaps I am afraid of leaving Venice all at once, if I speak of it.” Maybe this fear is necessary to keep something so delicate and beautiful alive. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.