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Making Sure No One Cries ‘Fuoco’ (Fire) in This ‘Teatro’ (Theater)

Built in 1854, the Piccinni Theater (formally known by its Italian name Il Teatro Comunale Niccolò Piccinni) is the oldest artistic venue in the theater-rich Italian city of Bari.

Exterior shot of the Teatro Piccinni
Built in 1854, the Teatro Piccinni is the oldest artistic venue in the theater-rich city of Bari, Italy.
Credit: Diana Cimino Cocco

Constructed of wood and stone, the Piccinni featured an elegantly decorated, horseshoe-shaped performance area with a gallery and four tiers of boxes seating 800. With the passing of time, however, the municipal structure proved to be too small to meet all of Bari’s entertainment needs, so the larger Petruzzelli Theater was constructed between 1898 and 1903 to provide more space for the city’s performing arts. 

Interior of the Teatro Piccinni: Horseshoe-shaped performance area with four tiers of boxes
The Teatro Piccinni features an elegantly decorated, horseshoe-shaped performance area with a gallery and four tiers of boxes seating 800.

On the night of Oct. 26, 1991, the Petruzzelli was destroyed by an arsonist’s blaze and the Piccinni once again became the main venue for Bari’s operatic and theatrical communities—a role that the older theater would carry out until 2009 when the rebuilt Petruzzelli was opened. During this period, the Piccinni Theater underwent its own program of restoration and upgrading, and that is when the expertise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was called in. 

Working as a team in 2002 and 2003, fire engineers from NIST and architectural/urban planning specialists from the Polytechnic University of Bari (PUB) chose a novel approach to bring the 150-year-old theater in line with current Italian fire resilience and safety standards without sacrificing the building’s historical appearance and function. Instead of following a prescriptive process where only specific (“prescribed”) methods and materials may be used to meet codes, the NIST and PUB experts opted for a performance-based plan. In this more flexible process, a building is brought up to code by choosing the most appropriate designs and technologies to achieve a desired performance while blending as seamlessly as possible with the existing environment.

The project began with a comprehensive “physical exam” of the theater’s structural and decorative features using endoscopes, sonic and acoustical analyses, and other nondestructive assessment techniques. Computer models were created to study and understand the structural behavior of different building sections such as the roof trusses (supports). Wood samples, colors, finishings and other decorative elements were scrutinized, even microscopically, to ensure that they would be maintained, restored or replaced to their original state.

NIST Computer Model of the Teatro Piccinni
A NIST computer model of the Teatro Piccinni showing how additional exit stairs could be built into the theater’s existing shafts.
Credit: Richard Bukowski

Once the character of the entire theater was scientifically captured, the NIST/PUB team developed and implemented a plan for modernizing the Piccinni for fire resilience and safety while keeping it firmly anchored in its historical roots. Visitors see the Piccinni as it appeared in 1854, but behind the scenes, there are now sprinklers and a gaseous fire suppression system, steel reinforcing bars and fire-resistant materials added to the wooden infrastructure, additional fire exits, smoke detectors and a computer-controlled building environment (including lighting, airflow, temperature and security systems). 

Avanti con lo spettacolo!  (“On with the show!”)

Did You Know...?

  • The Piccinni Theater is named for composer Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800) who was born and lived most of his life in Bari, wrote operas for French Queen Marie Antoinette and lived under house arrest for four years after the King of Naples falsely accused him of sympathizing with French revolutionists.
  • The theater’s main hall and stage have “double smoke detection systems” that utilize both spot (where smoke is detected by an optical or ionization sensor) and beam (where smoke blocks a beam of light to trigger the alarm) smoke detectors, as well as continuous air sampling and analysis for smoke-related particulate matter.
  • Now-retired fire researcher Richard Bukowski, who was the NIST contributor to the Piccinni Theater fire protection improvement effort, led a 2004 study that showed individuals may only have about three minutes from a smoke alarm’s first warning to escape from a residential fire. This was far less time than the 17 minutes recorded in NIST’s initial tests in the 1970s, with the difference attributed to the construction materials used in contemporary furnishings.

    – Michael E. Newman

    Created June 20, 2017, Updated February 8, 2019