convento cappuccini Grottaglie

Stone and architecture: the vaults of the Capuchin convent in Grottaglie with Marmomac Academy

Stonework is at the heart of architecture, not just as prominent aesthetic elements that also enhance buildings in terms of durability, but also as fundamental structural components. Thanks to their geometric fittings, these stones allow constructions to maintain their form when dry assembled.

This is possible thanks to stereotomy, a discipline where different geometric, mechanical, and design knowledge combine to achieve astonishing architectural results. Marmomac has always recognized the value of stereotomic science, which often goes by the sidelines, and has never missed an opportunity to highlight it, giving it the space it deserves. This was evident at their Academy meeting in September 2023, where they explored a remarkable example of Italian stereotomy, the vault of the Capuchin convent in Grottaglie, in the province of Taranto.

design and stereotomy

Before focusing into the vault of the Grottaglie convent, it’s essential to delve more deeply into stereotomy. This term, derived from Greek (stereos – solid, tomè – cut), generally refers to the science of cutting solids. More specifically, it’s the art of cutting a solid to create something that has been conceived on an ideal level. Compared to other more common construction techniques based on the use of small stone elements or standard bricks – used in more complex structural layouts – the geometric study anticipates the design of the individual pieces. These pieces are then crafted specifically to realize the envisioned architectural structures.

Thus, the stone – from being a simple structural element – becomes a unique component of a construction that could not exist without that particular cut. In stereotomy, its blocks and wedges are designed off-site, then dry-assembled to form a structure that maintains its shape thanks to the geometry of the stone. Stereotomic design, as described, has historically been used mainly to study and complete architectural roof structures like vaults.

contemporary design usage

Nowadays, the architectural element of the vault has fallen out of use, and including it in construction projects might seem anachronistic. However, stereotomic design is not without utility in today’s context. Contemporary architecture, driven by the logic of mass production, lacks the unified design thinking that characterizes stereotomy, which should be revived, especially given today’s available technology.

Various design software allows architects to conceive unique architectural products, capable of meeting the increasingly popular demand of our time: the need to stand out by showcasing exclusive creations. Thinking in stereotomic terms – while leveraging the technological capabilities of advanced tools that open up scenarios previously unimaginable – allows to fulfill this request in the field of architecture, restoring a central role to stone in project definition.

Just as it happened almost 500 years ago with the vault of the Capuchin convent in Grottaglie, the subject of the September 2023 Marmomac Academy meeting chaired by Professor Cosimo Monteleone, professor of Descriptive Geometry and Digital Representation of Architecture at the University of Padua.

stone usage applied to the vaults of the Capuchins in Grottaglie

The vault of the Capuchin convent in Grottaglie, built in 1546 by the friars themselves, is an architectural element worth special attention, being a paradigmatic example of the application of stereotomy. On one hand, this structure fits exactly into the Apulian tradition, because it was built with tuff, a magmatic rock very present in the heel of Italy. On the other hand, it totally departs from it, because, at that time, domes created by the intersection of cylindrical and spherical textures were typical of the area bordering the Spanish city of Murcia, not Apulia.

Contemporary technologies have made it possible to digitally decompose the vault of the monastery, analyzing in detail the geometric composition of this “Spanish-like” intersection, stemming from stereotomic knowledge. The cylindrical weaves are composed of star-shaped architectural elements that complement the foundational elements of the spherical weaves, which fill the “empty stars” (allowing the two weaves to interlock).

This implies that a wise stereotomic study was conducted upstream. It considered the characteristics of Apulian tuff, geometrically adapted them to create unique shapes functional to the specific dome structure, and finally utilized them to give life to one of Italy’s most precise examples of stereotomic design: the vault of the Grottaglie convent.

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