The Classicism of Modernity

Furniture designed by the writer Curzio Malaparte for his celebrated house on Capri is now going into limited production, and exhibited at London’s Gagosian Gallery. The richly symbolic pieces can be seen as temples to domestic rituals within an interior classical landscape, says Robin Monotti Graziadei.

Buildings.

Words
Robin Monotti Graziadei

Photos
Darlusz Jasak, Sebastiano Pellion di Persano

From the point of view of his architect Adalberto Libera, the Italian writer and diplomat Curzio Malaparte was far from the ideal client. He commissioned Libera to design a project for planning permission to build a house on a protected landscape on the island of Capri, proceeded to obtain the permission with his architect’s drawings, and asked the architect to provide construction drawings, but only passed the plans to his builder Adolfo Amitrano, going on to change the project entirely during construction, becoming immersed to the point of designing his own interiors, with the help of Alberto Savinio – painter, writer and brother to Giorgio De Chirico.

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Alberto Savinio, ‘I miei genitori’ (‘My Parents’), 1945, lithograph on paper, 13 1/4 × 19 7/8″. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Malaparte asked Savinio to design the lyre motif for the ceramic tiles in his study floor, recalling Orpheus, the legendary poet and musician whose myth predated even Homer’s, and whose lyre appeared in a sketch in Goethe’s ‘Italian Journey’. It is also believed that Savinio designed the living room sofa. The extent of Alberto Savinio’s influence on the interiors is difficult to ascertain precisely, although it is safe to say that the furniture in the living room, whether drawn by Savinio himself on commission from Malaparte or not, could be described as Savinio-esque, by anybody accustomed to Savinio’s drawings and paintings.

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Above: original walnut and pine table at Casa Malaparte

The intellectual climate in which Malaparte chose to take over from his architect could be understood in context of a 1921 seminal work of writing on architecture by Paul Valery called ‘Eupalinos: Or The Architect’. This is Valery’s writing of a new Platonic dialogue, in which Socrates, in conversation with Phaedrus, elaborates on how knowledge requires form to be embodied, and how creating forms is a requisite for self-knowledge. It is this journey of self-knowledge that Malaparte – despite his architect’s wishes – decided to embark on when choosing to oversee every minute detail of the Casa Malaparte. It is from these details, such as the furniture, that we can attempt to forensically reconstruct Malaparte’s journey of self-creation through form.

Original walnt and tuffa console

In order to begin to understand Malaparte’s furniture we need to begin by looking down, at the floor of the living room of Casa Malaparte – the room for which Malaparte conceived these site-specific items of furniture. Its surface is finished with sandstone slabs from Castellamare di Stabia, in the region of Pompeii. And Pompeii is our first clue to the ancient world references that permeate the house. Malaparte wrote a short story, called ‘Almost Murder’, which details a night-time dream-like visit to the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii. The story is included in the collection entitled ‘Woman Like Me’ which Malaparte wrote as he was building the house, which to this day forms the most precise key of interpretation to the Casa Malaparte, like a Rosetta Stone to Malaparte’s architectural fantasies set in a natural landscape belonging to the mythology of a bygone classical era.

Above: original walnut and Carrara marble bench at Casa Malaparte

The way the slabs on the floor of the Casa Malaparte are laid out in the ancient Roman opus incertum arrangement, recalls the slab layouts of the surface or summum dorsum of ancient Roman roads. We are in the living room of Casa Malaparte but we are also on a street in Pompeii, on one of those ancient Roman public roads, or viae publicae that perhaps leads to a temple. The furniture, sparse as it is within this extended interior/exterior acts as the domestic temples emerging from this classical mise en scène.

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Above: original walnut and Carrara marble bench at Casa Malaparte

We see two fluted, cylindrical columns of Carrara marble with a flat walnut horizontal spanning across them. This is Malaparte’s temple-bench, positioned in front of the glass backed fireplace like the seating of an altar to Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth or her Roman successor Vesta. Spiralling flutes carve out the columns in a walnut and line table-temple arrangement. This table is sometimes positioned in front of the large landscape window also framed in walnut, a picture window which represents the landscape as if it were the artistic creation of the Greek goddess of the earth Gaia, or her Roman equivalent Terra, which is still the Italian name for earth – as used in Malaparte’s other short story ‘Earth Like Me’. The walnut temple-console is held up by fluted columns, and forms the view looking back towards the entrance wall. It seems to signify the altar on which vestiges of the external world are left when visitors enter the main sacred space of Malaparte’s domestic rituals, the ‘atrium’ as Malaparte called the living room in his 1949 novel ‘The Skin’.

Additional images of furniture in situ at Casa Malaparte

Malaparte’s furniture – the console, bench and table in the living room of Casa Malaparte – can be seen as temples to domestic rituals within an interior classical landscape, recalling the ruins of the classical world within Capri itself – such as Tiberius’s villa – and across the Gulf of Naples, such as Pompeii and Herculaneam, and perhaps even more specifically slightly further south, to Paestum’s older Greek temples, dating back to the Magna Graecia of 550 BC. Here we find what was known as the Temple of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, then renamed as Temple of Hera, the goddess of women. What remains of the first one of these temples of Hera consists only of fluted columns with an architrave above, recalled by the walnut architrave-like bench-top above Malaparte’s fluted columns. This is perhaps the most important context to remember when looking at Malaparte’s column-raised furniture.

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Top: Malaparte at Paestum in the 1930s
Above: ‘Casa Malaparte: Furniture’ is at the Gagosian gallery, Davies Street, London, from June 15 until September 19, 2020

Tommaso Rositani Suckert, a great-nephew of Kurt Erich Suckert (the real name of Curzio Malaparte), has recreated some of these items of furniture which are now displayed in the show entitled ‘Casa Malaparte Furniture’, currently at the Gagosian Gallery in Davies Street, London. This gives British audiences a chance to see these accurate replicas of Malaparte’s furniture. However, in order for these pieces to be fully appreciated as both site- and person-specific works, the context of these works in relation to the living room of Casa Malaparte and all the classical associations that were in their author’s mind when he conceived this space and the Casa Malaparte itself should not be forgotten.

Additional images of the gallery installation

Additional images of furniture in production

‘Casa Malaparte: Furniture’
Gagosian Gallery, London
15 June to 19 September 2020
Details: Gagosian.com

2020-06-22T18:07:45+01:00

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