Casa Malaparte: Architectuur in dienst van de verbeelding / Architecture in the service of the imagination

This letter dated May 1938 from the Italian minister for education Bottai, gave the writer Curzio Malaparte permission to build a house on a secluded stretch of jutting rock on the island of Capri. The area involved – Punto Massullo – was a nature reserve and originally closed to development. Malaparte, who had just recently returned from his two-and-a-half year exile by the Mussolini regime, had appealed to those political connections still accessible to the scandal-prone bon-vivant, journalist, writer, former political associate of Mussolini and publisher of La Stampa. The reason given for granting building permission is rather curious. Anybody who has visited Casa Malaparte on Capri will be hard put to confirm its `invisibility’, at least in the above-mentioned sense. And yet this notion, casually invoked to do someone a favour, does touch on something essential.

Like its owner – `the century’s most visible cultural figure’ – the villa on Capri, occupied by Malaparte in 1942, has been mythologized. Not just in terms of architectural history but also with regard to the villa itself. For many years the Casa Malaparte was attributed to Adalberto Libera. Now painstaking research by Marida Talamona1) has shown clearly that Libera’s design was decisively modified by a Capri architect and by Malaparte himself and that Libera renounced authorship quite early on. For this reason – and after an exhaustive analysis – Talamona inclines towards Malaparte’s assertion that this house was a `Ritratto di Pietra’, a (self-)portrait in stone. The architectural community has accused her of interpreting an architectural work in terms of myth and literature. Yet Talamona had good reasons for doing this. In this article Casa Malaparte is viewed from the perspective of film and the visual arts and of the regenerations it has inspired and endured. Casa Malaparte: obscure object of desire, projection screen, reflection. A `borrowed’ interpretation that in this case seems to be fully warranted.
It is part and parcel of the history of myths that they should now and then disappear from sight and simply be forgotten. That happened to Casa Malaparte, too. Shortly after the villa was finished, Curzio Malaparte departed as war journalist to the various fronts where he gathered the material for the two anti-war books that made him world-famous: Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949, tr. 1952). Talamona calculates that Malaparte spent no more than one year altogether in his house. After his death it seemed to have been erased from the next generation’s memory. `Curzio Malaparte died on 19 July 1957. For over twenty years the house at Massullo would remain locked, a solitary and inaccessible mausoleum that contained, like rich funeral fittings, the objects that the writer had so carefully chosen and arranged.’
On one occasion, however, in 1962, the house was stirred out of its slumber. With the instinct of the rebel Jean-Luc Godard chose the house as the location for his film Le Mépris. This film about a film is based on a story by Alberto Moravia, one of Malaparte’s friends and a regular visitor to the inspirational villa. It is the tale of a man and a woman who are drifting apart. The man has been commissioned to write a film script about the Odyssey. The two are like modern, trivial personifications of Odysseus and Penelope. Jean-Luc Godard uses the house as a disillusioning stage set, in particular the flight of steps that widens as it ascends to the roof terrace with its ship’s-deck view out over the sea. This ramp out of a classical Greek tragedy appears to lead straight into the wide open heaven of the gods. An empty heaven, of that the film leaves us in no doubt. A legendary figure from the history of film – Fritz Lang – takes his place on the terrace to direct, with American money, the adventures of Odysseus. Godard caricatures this venture by combining brightly painted plaster statues with bloodily made up actors. But when the moody, repulsive American producer (played by Jack Palance) throws the rolls of film with the first rushes around the set, he is momentarily and fittingly transfigured into a classical discus thrower.
Godard uses the Casa Malaparte’s theatrical flight of stairs to allow a stunning Brigitte Bardot to walk grumblingly up and down its steps. Brigitte Bardot was only prepared to let down her towering coiffure and the hem of her skirt in this film because she had lost a bet with the director. Jean-Luc Godard had exacted this concession by showing her that he could walk on his hands. And it is this ability to view the world upside-down that makes Godard’s early films so exciting. Plus the pleasure he takes in casually calling up and sustaining powerful images only to undermine them with an unexpected cut or an incongruous sound effect. Godard’s lament that he is unable to make a film `for eternity’ defines the artistic ambitions of this director from the younger generation. Even if this were true, it would certainly be failure at the highest level. Godard has also pointed out the difficulty he has with `framing’, with choosing what to exclude. Casa Malaparte seemed to spare him that trouble. The abruptly terminating edges of the terrace and the geometrical progression of the steep stairs gave the grandiose landscape, the interaction of the characters and just about every camera shot a stage-like frame. This villa was the ideal setting for confused human relations, yet it was basically an impassive architecture that just as rapidly sank back into silence: part amphitheatre, prison, ship’s deck, sacrificial altar and runway for a flight of thought.
Curzio Malaparte described his house as an `image of my nostalgia’. And indeed, the Casa Malaparte’s trademark, the trapezoid flight of stairs, owed its existence to a memory from his exile on the island of Lipari where there was a village church with this feature. During his months of exile Malaparte had acquired a romantic-existentialist view of life. Only poetry and art seemed to provide freedom and moral independence. Casa Malaparte is the symbol of this idea made stone.
Malaparte’s villa is full of contradictions. On the ground floor, in addition to a guest wing, there is a Tyrolean room with a faience stove; on the first floor private quarters and marble bathrooms in Pompeian style are combined with an immense atrium-like reception room. It is modern and archaic, linking romantic and classical elements. This incidentally corresponds with the theory of art Malaparte developed at that time. In 1938 he wrote of contemporary poetry: `Every liberating act leads to Romanticism, not to Romanticism as a school, a style, … but to the idea of romanticism as an essential and complementary element of classicism: without which classicism is only rhetoric, architecture, style, manner.’
When one looks at a few of Malaparte’s staged photographs of the villa, the situation becomes even more complicated. These photos showing figures disposed at random on the stairs and terrace, have the effect of montages, of compositions in the `pittura metafisica’ style. Like the surrealists’ paintings of friends, their air of mystery is deliberate. They are a choreography of isolation and individualization yet they also express the solidarity and group identity of an artistic elite.
Did the German artist Günter Förg know about these photos when his search for Italian rationalist architecture brought him to the Casa Malaparte in 1983? He photographed details like the brick awning on the terrace, which he interpreted as sculpture. The villa’s dilapidated state – the flaking paint, the cracks in the walls – demonstrates quite clearly that Casa Malaparte had sunk into oblivion. One of Förg’s photos shows a young woman in black underwear. She is rushing up the central stairs in an ambivalent gesture of flight. Förg used this photo, a synthesis of stills from Godard’s film and Malaparte’s staged photos, for the invitation to an exhibition. This typifies the strategy of appropriation that determines Förg’s relationship with classic Modern. He regards it as a backdrop waiting for an actor, sees it as invoking an attitude to life that can be recaptured and embraced. Förg likes the films of Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard. He is irritated that artists are repeatedly asked which other artists they admire. It would be better, says Förg, to ask them about the last film they had seen. His exhibition stagings of wall paintings, architectural photos, mirrors and paintings frequently deal with the theme of fractured experiences of space and identity, a sense of moving through walls and worlds that is also conveyed by Godard’s films. Jean-Luc Godard has remarked that his film Le Mépris is about all the lost souls of our Western world, the survivors of the shipwreck of Modernism. Günther Förg is one of these; he re-examines something that often seems to be regarded with dread and he comes up with an answer. Or is this mere suggestion on his part? In his paintings, sculptures and lead reliefs, the answer proclaims itself as a knock, a tone, a redolence or a scratch on the surface. This realm of echoes and imitations that characterizes the history of Modernism is the artist’s real concern. In post-utopian times this orchestrated reception stands out more starkly and explicitly.
When Förg was organizing an exhibition in Rome in 1990, the gallery owner succeeded in transferring the opening to Casa Malaparte. It was on this occasion that Förg took the well-known large-scale photos from the atrium. The focus is on the views from the windows, showing fragments of the Punto Massullo landscape, in particular the nearby Faraglioni rocks. Curzio Malaparte had persuaded a painter friend to frame the floor-length windows with the same wooden frames used for canvasses. Förg’s photos envelop the interior in a subdued blue light in order to emphasize the painterly effect of nature in a frame: the already magnificent landscape seems even more improbable, almost abstract. And at the same time the cool colours and the décor-like landscape recall the landscape paintings of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The concept of the window is an example of Malaparte’s blending of romantic and classical elements. Yet here too, just as in the construction of an open hearth with a heat-resistant window that allows the flame as it were to swim on the surface of the sea, there is another, fundamentally modern tradition at work. A 1937 article by Malaparte gives us some idea of the relationship Italians have with nature: `All of Italian civilization from the Etruscans on, is surrealist. It is a civilization that knows the limits of nature, interprets nature with irony, corrects nature’s deficient fantasy. Even the Italian landscape is typically surrealist: (…) [it lives] its own life, [it has] its own character, a value and meaning that go beyond the concept of nature and reality. [It has] its own reality, totally free of so-called realistic elements. A magic reality (…).’
Casa Malaparte, as the artists who have used it as backdrop have immediately grasped, is architecture in the service of the imagination. It is architecture for the loner who dreams a specific dream about power. This has nothing to do with the notion of the house as a social necessity and as a testing ground for improved construction techniques, such as envisaged by Libera in 1941: `We must deny the family house any character as art, and claim its aesthetic and human character.’ Curzio Malaparte and his Capri architect have designed a three-dimensional object that can only be fully appreciated from a distance. Close to, one sees only the details; the architecture disappears from sight. From the inside it is impossible to make any connection with the exterior and vice versa. In practice, however, the occupants who walked over the geometric skin of this architectural `body’ or looked out through its eyes, experienced a stimulating incorporeality. This architecture is about crossing boundaries and about surrender. Not surrender to nature or society, but to the domain of the artistic individual: the imaginary and its images.

1. Marida Talamona, Casa Malaparte, Milan 1990. English translation: idem, Princeton Architectural Press 1992. All quotations are from the English edition.

Het woord “kunst”, daar ben ik niet tot elke prijs in geïnteresseerd’. Interview met / with Aernout Mik / ‘The word “art”, you know, is not my primar