Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Casa Malaparte, the scene stealer from Godard's famous film "Mepris" is considered one of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th century.
But can we even call it architecture? Or is it really a piece of sculpture? Who designed it, Italian writer Curzio Malaparte or Italian architect Adalberto Libera? This architectural enigma continues to provoke.
Popular mythology (and Wikipedia) all make the claim that although Malaparte orginally hired Libera to design it, they parted ways during the process and Malaparte built it “himself” with a local stone mason. (This might explain the tremendous weathering, water damage, and structural issues that Casa Malaparte has.) Originally built from 1938-43 there is no doubt it is a master piece of modern architecture.
The layers that obscure the real history of this building might have something to do with the involvement of writer Curzio Malaparte whose Wickipedia entry reads like an absurd take on some sort of Bond villain. Even his name is a work of fiction- originally born Kurt Erich Suckert he chose Malaparte (meaning bad side) as a playful riff on Bonaparte (good side). While it is widely acknowledged that he was imprisoned by Mussolini on multiple occasions -the accounts vary tremendously. According to some he was a political opportunist who originally embraced fascism, participating in Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, but fell out of favor and was imprisoned under a loose house arrest. Some accounts say that he lived at Casa Malaparte during this arrest, others claim the location of one of his many imprisonments inspired the design of Casa Malaparte.
Some biographies claim the reason for his arrest was his writing, others fabulously claim it was due to his mocking Mussolini’s choice in neckties. (I hope this is true) He was released from house arrest in time for WWII and dispatched to the Eastern front as a war correspondent. This experience formed the basis of his book Kaputt, which blurs the line between reportage and fiction. (1) He was eventually sent back to Italy where he was imprisoned again (by Mussolini).
In 1947 he settled in Paris. After the war, he continued to write as well as directing a few movies, even producing a variety show called Sexophone. (Get it? Sounds great.) He became a fervent communist after the war and made a trip to China shortly before his death in 1957. Some claim this is the reason he painted Casa Malaparte red over its original white.
Adalberto Libera’s son tells quite a different story.
“...my father and Malaparte often met in a trattoria in the center of Rome – one of those old fashioned restaurants with paper tablecloths – to talk about the project of this villa in Capri. They discussed at length, and drew sketches on the paper tablecloth. My mother kept three of those tablecloths for a while, but unfortunately they went lost in one of the moves after the war. They were obviously the fruit of the encounter of two great minds. But try to imagine this: Curzio Malaparte tells Adalberto Libera he would like a “staircase to infinity” for his villa. It is one thing to say it, and another to design a triangular staircase that can actually open to infinity… To each his own, I guess.”(2) (Team Libera all the way here.) He goes on to say that Malaparte was hated by the locals in Capri and forced to use materials from the site because the locals wouldn’t allow him to transport materials across the island.
According to Herbert Muschamp's New York Times article ”Prisoner of Beauty” it was architectural historian Marida Talamona whose 1992 book re-attributed the design to Malaparte. In the article Muschamp makes the claim that the exterior stair case was modeled on the “wedge shaped entrance to the church” on Lipari where Malaparte was imprisoned and that the bars on the windows were reminiscent of a Roman prison where he stayed. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen bars on windows all over Renaissance buildings in Italy… While Herbet Muschamp’s very poetic article makes a strong case for the universal power of heroic individual expression the question remains unanswered-was Casa Malaparte the vision of a single man or the result of collaboration between many?
Either way with its location on a precipice overlooking the bay of Naples, stairway to heaven, and stunningly simple interiors made of stone and plaster it is a work of austere and terrifying beauty. Its easy to understand why this mysterious building has attracted so many artists, filmmakers, and architects to make the pilgrimage to this remote spot on the island of Capri.
Disclaimer. I have not yet read Marida Talamona’s book on Casa Malaparte. (because it's out of print and a used copy is $128)
Call me jaded, but I can easily imagine Libera sketching out a conceptual design over cozy lunches with Curzio only to have a “falling out” when Libera started asking to be paid to produce real drawings. I can also easily imagine that Curzio felt that a concept was all he needed to build and there was no need to pay Libera for more. But then again I have a vivid imagination.
It seems only fitting to toast this architectural icon with a cocktail whose history is equally murky and just as hotly disputed- the Negroni.
1.Culture Trip May 2017 Curzio Malaparte Eccentric Ideologue or Dangerous 'Fascist' Pen Reece Choules
2.Italian Ways April 2014 Interview with Allesandro Libera by Francesco Andreani and Paolo Mattei
Sadly Francois Halard's haunting book of photos of Casa Malaparte is out of print but you can look at it here
You can find used copies of Marida Talamona's book here
The following websites have more gorgeous photos and stories about Casa Malaparte
Check out the exhibit on the furniture from Casa Malaparte at the Gagosian Gallery London here