(Photo by Gabriele Basilico, 1982; Still from Spring 2018 Yves Saint Laurent campaign video by Nathalie Canguilhem)
Curzio Malaparte was a controversial Italian writer, provocateur, film-maker, war correspondent and diplomat. His name, however, is also immediately associated to what is considered one of the masterpieces of modern architecture, Casa Malaparte, the house he built for himself on the island of Capri.
Casa Malaparte, widely regarded as one of the most unique residences in modern architecture, has traditionally been attributed to Adalberto Libera, the architect Curzio Malaparte hired to build him a house atop a cliff in Punta Masullo, Capri. Libera was already one of the most important representatives of Italian architecture, a reference for rationalists. Malaparte was at the time an influential writer, editor and journalist. The two men, however, had many disagreements regarding the design of the house and Malaparte ended up firing Libera early on and continued the house himself, with the help of Adolfo Amitrano, a local stonemason. Malaparte made considerable changes to the original plans as he built the house, so many that it would be fair to say that the result is more an expression of Malaparte’s idiosyncratic character than, even remotely, a work by Libera.
What Malaparte at first set out to build was a kind of lair, a temple of solitude. Why else choose such an inaccessible plot of land? A place where he could hide from everything and be alone. However, over time it also became a monument to himself, a house informed by his larger-than-life persona and displaying the same ambition, contradictions and ambiguity as its owner. It is the materialization of a very unique vision of the world. And while the house can be certainly admired in its abstract beauty and unique setting, perched as it is on a cliff facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, to really understand the house we must first know who Malaparte was.
Born in 1898 in Prato, near Florence, Kurt Erich Suckert was a misfit from a very early age. For the first seven years of his life he was wet-nursed and he lived with his working class foster parents. Although his Italian mother, Edda Perelli, visited him frequently and their relationship must have been relatively cordial, the one with his father -Erwin Suckert, an irascible German textile-manufacturing executive- was not a good one. After returning to his natural family, Kurt started school, but according to at least one account, he would frequently run away. Apparently, his exotic German name made him feel different from the other children. Years later, he would change his name to Curzio, so it would sound more Italian. He also invented a last name, Malaparte, which literally means “bad side”, a play on Napoleon’s last name, Bonaparte. The other names he considered, Curzio Bonalancia, Curzio Borgia-Suckert, Curzio Colonna, Curzio Farnese, Curzio Lamberti, Curzio Pratoforte, were equally pretentious.
At the age of sixteen he escaped again, this time joining the French army as a member of the Garibaldian League to fight -perhaps unsurprisingly, given the cold and distant relationship with his father- the Germans, in the First World War. He served all four years that the war lasted and rose from private to lieutenant and he even received the French Cross as an officier de grande valeur for his bravery. His exposure to mustard gas during the war damaged one of his lungs and was probably the cause of the cancer that would kill him years later.
It was after the war that Curzio Malaparte would start his career as a journalist. He worked as director of press relations for the Versailles Peace Conference and became cultural attaché with the Italian embassy in Poland, the youngest Italian diplomat ever. In 1921, back in Italy, he started his literary career and the following year, at 24, he joined the Fascist Party and even marched with Mussolini into Rome. In 1925, he was one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals”. As a member of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, he founded several publications, wrote essays and articles, authored many books and directed two metropolitan newspapers. Despite his affiliation and despite truly believing that fascism was a new beginning for Italy, Malaparte was a renegade and not a very disciplined party member. While running Giovanni Agnelli’s newspaper La Stampa, in 1929, he used this platform to criticise the regime. Needless to say, this got him fired and after receiving a severance package he decided to move to Paris.
For the regime, Curzio would always be –as his invented last name implied- on the “bad side”. He was above all a freethinker and his writing would frequently get him into trouble. His book Technique du Coup d`Etat, published while in Paris, was highly critical of Hitler, Lenin, Trostki and even Mussolini. For this and other sins (the secret service found criticism of high-ranking Italian officials in his correspondence) he paid a price. He was expelled from the fascist party and sent to internal exile on the island of Lipari, off the coast of Sicily, where he lived a mostly solitary life, accompanied by his dogs and permanently guarded by carabinieri. Solitude was hard and according to his own account, he would spend hours barking at the dogs and some people from the island thought he had gone mad. This experience would definitely play a role later on, when designing his villa in Capri.
His life would change dramatically a few months later, when he was allowed to move to Ischia and then later to Forte dei Marmi, a seaside holiday spot for the wealthy in northern Tuscany, where he spent his time in the company of rich and well-connected friends and was even allowed the use of a state-owned Alfa-Romeo. He also bought Villa Hildebrand, which had been the residence of Italian writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. In 1935, he was finally allowed to move around freely, but only after his friend Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs, personally interceded.
In 1937, Malaparte founded a literary and art magazine called Prospettive, which was openly political and pro-government during its first two years -so as to secure public funds from the regime- but evolved to become a more liberal magazine, focused on literature and which published articles by the likes of André Breton, Federico García Lorca and James Joyce, among others, and also essays on surrealism and existentialism. Malaparte was an “independent” fascist, more of an opportunist than anything else. He was also was a very low intensity antisemite. Despite laws and policies in Italy becoming explicitly antisemitic towards the latter half of the 30’s, Malaparte continued seeing his friend, journalist and novelist Alberto Moravia, for example, who not only had a Jewish Venetian father, but also two cousins who were founders of the anti-fascist resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà.
It was also in 1937 that Malaparte decided to buy some land in Cape Massullo, a promontory in the southeast of the island of Capri, to build himself a house. The property is only accessible on foot, after a long walk through a pine forest or sometimes by boat, but only when the sea is calm. Obtaining the necessary permits to buy and build on such a remote enclave, a protected and non-building zone, was not easy at all and was only possible thanks to Malaparte’s powerful political connections. He then commissioned Adalberto Libera -one of the most important architects of the Italian Modern movement- to design and build the house.
According to Libera’s son, Malaparte and his architect would often meet in an old trattoria in Rome and spend hours discussing ideas for the house, drawing sketches on the paper tablecloth. The relationship between Libera and the very opinionated Malaparte was far from easy, however, and at some point Malaparte decided to continue the project without the architect. It is impossible to know for certain how much of the design was actually Libera’s, but recently-found letters and documents appear to suggest that the final design was mostly Malaparte’s. Especially the characteristic shape of the house, with a monumental stairway leading up to the roof. That seems to have been Malaparte’s idea, probably inspired by the Chiesa dell’Annunziata in Lipari, where he spent part of his internal exile.
(Curzio Malaparte posing in front of Chiesa dell’Annunziata, in Lipari; Casa Malaparte)
Libera, in fact, never claimed authorship of the house. Drawings and plans from this period (made by a friend of Malaparte’s, who was a painter) indicate a constant evolution of the design, mostly focused on the interior, which explains the random distribution of windows on the facades. An architect’s approach -especially a rationalist like Libera- would have been completely different. The southeastern façade, for example, the one directly facing the sea, is particularly unimpressive and seldom appears in photographs. A single, awkward window in the center of a plain wall, seems to indicate that this was a house designed from within, with absolutely no consideration to what happened outside. No architect of repute would miss such a unique opportunity to make an architectural statement.
The building permit for the house was granted in September 1938 and construction began in 1939.
Between 1939 and 1943 Malaparte went to war again, this time as war correspondent for Corriere della Sera. He was sent probably in an effort to keep him busy and from creating more embarrassment and trouble at home. It would not work. He travelled to Africa and Greece and wrote a series of articles about human right abuses. In 1941 he was sent to cover Eastern Front, where he was given unprecedented access by the Nazis and he reported on the horrors of war. He was also in Ukraine and Russia, and accompanying pro-German forces in the forests of Finland. His reports, which graphically described the massacres he witnessed, were often censured by Nazis and Fascists. Mussolini’s regime arrested Malaparte several more times during this period, in 1938, 1939, 1941 and 1943. This time, he did not end up in Forte dei Marmi but in Rome’s infamous Regina Coeli prison. He would be incarcerated again in 1944, after the publication of his novel Kaputt, in which he narrated his experience as a correspondent and denounced the horrors and futility of war.
When on leave and when not in prison, he would return and continue work on the house. When away, he would write letters to Amitrano, his constructor, with detailed instructions about what parts of the house he expected to see finished when he came back. Amitrano would have to continuously demolish and rebuild parts of the building if Curzio didn’t like them. Construction was further complicated because they were not allowed to transport materials across the island. Everything had to be delivered by boat. The people of Capri did not like Malaparte. They felt offended by the way he spoke about them in his books or articles. Malaparte, who never refrained from offending someone, described them as perverted, among other things.
Malaparte apparently longed for a life of tranquility and seclusion. He was, after all, an early and relevant exponent of the Strapaese ruralism movement, which criticized modernism and cosmopolitanism. One of the reasons he frequently clashed with authority was that he considered that Mussolini’s regime, with its frequent contradictions and turn towards a dictatorship, was not true fascism, which in his view was rural in origin. Casa Malaparte is in a way a return to the essence of that idealized vision of country life.
Strapese and Stracittà were two literary and cultural movements in Italy. Both were important for fascist literature but they held opposing views that clashed. The former advocated a return to traditionalism and populism, it was also anti-American and anti-European; while the latter showed interest in movements like Surrealism and magic realism and in following general trends in European literature, it wanted to articulate fascism with modernity. Because Malaparte was so contradictory in his affiliations, he was difficult to classify. He was an adherent of Strapaese, but his literature definitely had elements of both surrealism and magic realism. In fact, Stracittà was incubated in the pages of Novecento, a magazine Malaparte founded with Massimo Bontempelli.
In his novels and short stories, Malaparte would frequently appear as himself, a literary device similar to what in art is known since the Renaissance as the inserted self-portrait. It can be confusing and difficult to know when the stories or parts of a story are autobiographical, because you simply cannot separate fact from fiction. In one book, for example, he has Nazi general Edwin Rommel visit him at Casa Malaparte, something that never actually happened. But Malaparte liked to provoke, enjoyed ambivalence and was not afraid of being outrageous or uncovering uncomfortable truths. He was fascinated by violence, power and the dark side of human nature, but he also denounced the horrors of war. His political interests were extreme to the point of being ridiculous.
Curzio looked like a movie star, he was a dandy, wore bespoke suits and shaved his legs, armpits and even the back of his hands. According to people who knew him, Curzio was successful with women; but because he was such a narcissist, in Casa Malaparte he conceived a special room, separate from his, for his female lovers. He called it la favorita suite. Women, the misogynist Curzio said, were a catalyst for creativity, but they could not actually sleep with him.
He was contradictory and ambiguous in almost everything he did. His house is Capri was a sanctuary that he built supposedly to protect his intimacy and creativity, open to the sea, surrounded by nature. Interestingly, though, the interiors appear to want to replicate the cold and austere conditions of a prison cell, something he was of course very familiar with. It is striking for the home of a man who led such an intense life and who travelled so extensively to be so cold and spartan, but then again, it was not really a home. It was more like a second residence. This house was a place for solitary confinement and contemplation of nature, but it was also a place for performance.
The house was not exactly what we would call a refuge, it has two floors and quite a few guest rooms. Because we know Malaparte had no particular interest in conventional family life -as the dandy and playboy that he was- this can only be interpreted as a desire to have the house permanently full of people. And he did in fact have frequent visitors, and loved to entertain artists, politicians and military officers, but he did not actually live there full time. He once wrote that it was impossible to write there, because it was so cut off from the rest of world. For real inspiration he would prefer Paris. Malaparte was theatrical in every imaginable way, when he was away on assignment covering wars, he would send his dogs Eolo, Febo, Vulcano, Apollo and Stromboli, postcards from exotic places.
Casa Malaparte was undoubtedly the house of a divo, a theatre where every element was carefully choreographed, from the inside layout and the placement of windows –which were framed, like paintings- to the rooftop terrace, a kind of stairway to infinity, almost a place of worship. As can be seen in photographs, the house is anything but domestic. Common areas are not meant to be cozy. Rather, they are frugal, unadorned and seemed designed to create an impression. There is correspondence of Malaparte to his workers indicating that he wanted the house to “have a hard character, like a prison, almost, like a fortress, as I have written in the preface to the second edition of my Fughe in prigione”. A fetishization of his past experiences as a prisoner, no doubt. It seems as if everything in the house was more about performance and the experience than about modern comfort.
Nowhere is this more so than on the stairway that leads to the terrace, the defining element of the house. A platform from which to admire the overwhelming spectacle of the surrounding nature, which includes I faraglioni, three big rock formations protruding from the sea. According to legend, this type of formations near the coast represent the giant rocks that cyclops Polyphemus threw at Ulysses’ ship after being blinded, in the Odyssey. This is a place that brings to mind ancient rituals, oracles and mythological gods. It is a place for contemplation but also representation. In fact, the stairway is reminiscent of the minimalist set designs of Adolphe Appia. It also looks like a Greek theater in miniature by the sea, like those in Tindari (Sicily), Delos (Greece), Apollonia (Libya) or Antiphellus (Turkey). Whatever happens below, it is the stairway that makes the house so iconic. Originally, Malaparte put a railing around the rooftop, to prevent people from falling down the cliff, but he later removed it.
(Left: stage design by Adolphe Appia, right: Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris)
If the figure of Curzio Malaparte is not better known today it is, to a great extent, because of his shameless defense of fascism during his earlier years. However, the reality was much more complicated. Malaparte was above all an opportunist and a free spirit. He was amoral and politically inconsistent. He criticized and made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as well, and he wrote about the abuses of fascism and the pointlessness of war, paying dearly for it. He also denounced the hypocrisy of Allied forces during the liberation. Yes, his writing was corrosive and his books were full of characters who were toxic, sexist, racist and homophobic, but no one described the horrors of war in such harrowing detail and in doing so, made sure we had a record of what happened. Like Hemingway, he witnessed the moral ruin of his world in two world wars, in the first as a soldier and in the second as a correspondent, and he survived it all and showed the world what it was like.
Curzio Malaparte admired fascism, but he was also fascinated by anarchism and later he inclined towards communism. He even embraced Catholicism before he died, after being an atheist his whole life. Malaparte was never easy to categorize. He was ambiguous, slippery and loyal only to himself. He was vigorously independent and he loved ruffling feathers, provoking the powerful and most of all, the bourgeoisie.
Towards the end of his life, when he became interested in Maoism, he was invited to Beijing, where he met Chairman Mao himself. He became infatuated with the cult of personality, just the way he was captivated by Mussolini in his youth. So much, that in one last surrealistic gesture he bequeathed his Casa Malaparte to the People’s Republic of China. Curzio Malaparte died shortly after returning from Asia, from lung cancer in 1957, in Rome.
The Italian government and Malaparte’s heirs successfully contested the will and won the case. The property where the house stands belongs today to the Giorgio Ronchi Foundation, a scientific foundation, and is used only for study and cultural events. Malaparte’s great nephew Niccolò Rositani Suckert maintains the house.
In popular culture, Casa Malaparte appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie Le Mépris, featuring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Jack Palance. The film is based on the novel Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon) by Alberto Moravia who, as we saw earlier, had been a friend of Malaparte. Karl Lagerfeld visited the house for five days in 1997 and took a series of Polaroids, which were published in book. In 2013, Casa Malaparte was the setting for an Ermenegildo Zegna Uomo perfume advertising campaign by director Jonas Åkerlund. In 2017, Kate Moss appeared, resembling a young Brigitte Bardot, in a video for Yves Saint Laurent, Spring 2018.
If there ever was a house that was marked by the personality of its owner, it’s Casa Malaparte. It was Curzio’s greatest work, his pièce de résistance, it just happened to be a work of architecture. A unique creation, devoid of all the excesses of his literary style and of his flamboyant public persona. Built brick by brick, without any architectural training and with the help of a local stonemason, he produced the most conceptual and modern of buildings, one that is rural and honest in its simplicity and at the same time evocative of ancient mythology. Was it already there when Icarus was learning to fly?
Malaparte consciously chose the most remote place in the island, where nature is ferocious and cruel. Like Tiberius, the Roman emperor whose villa is around one kilometer away, Malaparte was seeking seclusion, he was escaping from everything. The red house surrounded and dwarfed by rugged rocks seems an appropriate metaphor for a man battling his ghosts and his memories. The soldier in his bunker and outside his tortuous life.
To quote the man himself: “Case come me…il mio ritratto di pietra”.
(Photo: Karl Lagerfeld)
(Video for Yves Saint Laurent, Spring 2018, by Nathalie Canguilhem)
(Video for Ermenegildo Zegna’s Uomo perfume, by Jonas Åkerlund)
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