Casa Come Me

Wiel Arets and Wim van den Bergh, The AA Files, no. 18 (1989): 9-12.

In his novel La pelle, Curzio Malaparte describes how he showed Field Marshal Rommel around his house:

'I accompanied him all over the house, going from room to room, from the library to the cellar, and when we returned to the vast hall with its great windows, which look out onto the most beautiful scenery in the world, I offered him a glass of Vesuvian wine from the vineyards of Pompeii. 'Prosit!' he said, raising his glass, and he drained it at a single draught. Then, before leaving, he asked me whether I had bought my house as it stood or whether I had designed and built it myself. I repliedand it was not truethat I had bought the house as it stood. And with a sweeping gesture, indicating the sheer cliff of Matromania, the three gigantic rocks of the Faraglioni, the peninsula of Sorrento, the islands of the Sirens, the far-away blue coastline of Amalfi, and the golden sands of Paestum, shimmering in the distance, I said to him: 'I designed the scenery."' 

Villa Malaparte is situated on the summit of Punta Massullo, a promontory that juts out of the southeastern side of Capri, offering a breathtaking panorama. It can only be reached by a four-kilometer walk along a narrow winding footpath, or from the sea via a steep flight of steps cut into the rocks. The experience is that of a highly dramatic confrontation between nature and artifice, orientation and disorientation, attraction and repulsion. From sea level, the villa appears as a ritual altar high above a rustic base, or perhaps a strategically placed military bastion. Even in its massive immobility there remains a slightly menacing suggestion of sentience: it not so much rests on the rock, but crouches like a cat about to pounce. Subtle distortions in site, form, structure, function and meaning call into question values such as beauty, truth, reason, dwelling, without necessarily rejecting them. The ideal dwelling becomes a violent scene of alienation.

Malaparte had several names for his house, including 'Kasematte', or 'bunker' (related to another of the names he used, 'casamatta', or 'crazy house'), but the most intriguing of all was 'casa come me', or 'house like myself'. Whatever may be the truth about the original designer of the house—whether it was Libera, the Caprian master-mason Arnitrano, Malaparte, or a combination of all three—the evil genius was surely Malaparte himself. But who was this bon vivant, for whom truth was just a matter of interpretation?

You could say he was a hyperindividualistic poet, a near schizoid, a tinkerer, a solitarius—but he was also a public figure, an entertainer, an entrepreneur, a seducer, and master of the machine. These two sides of Malaparte's character, acting like the two centers of an ellipse, communicated with each other through the artifices he created: in the villa, his writings, and above all his life, he contaminated the codes in order to produce a condition of uncertainty and estrangement. By crossing the barriers of disciplines and distorting their language, he seems to have developed an inexhaustible source of possibilities. Although Malaparte saw himself first and foremost as writer and intellectual, whose most potent weapon and best defense was his pen, it is in his adventurous and turbulent life, and the way he dramatized it, that the key to the meaning of his villa resides.

Approached by land, Villa Malaparte first presents itself from above and sideways, giving a view of the roof-terrace with its curvilinear screen and broad staircase, which looks like a kind of two-sided theatre. The villa then disappears until one is actually ascending the monumental staircase. Originally, the entrance was within the staircase itself, as can be seen in early photographs, and thus the piano nobile would have been reached along the longitudinal axis of the villa. In fact the house seems to have been conceived of at first as a version of the classical villa type: a 'base' containing services, servants' and guest quarters; the piano nobile, reached through a porticoed entrance on the central axis, containing a vast central hall overlooking an idealized landscape, and the main living quarters; and finally an 'attic' consisting of roof-terrace and solarium. But like a film director Malaparte rearranged the 'set', gradually distorting this schema during the villa's slow genesis.

The entrance to the villa, now located in the base, consists of a rectangular opening cut into the wall, with a frameless glass door opening on to a small hall and wooden staircase which leads up to the vestibule of the piano nobile. Opposite the entrance is a small rustic room occupied by a large stove, table, and wooden benches, looking very much like the interior of a typical mountain lodge. To the left of the entrance and under the stairs, is the kitchen, and from there a narrow staircase leads down into the basement, with storerooms entered through transparent glass doors, each with the room's function etched onto it. To the right of the entrance, opposite the kitchen, another glass door, marked Ospizio (guest quarters), leads to the central corridor and guest quarters.

At the top of the stairs a quite narrow door with elaborately worked panels acts as the entrance to the vast central hall. Strikingly simple in plan, the room is 8x15 m in size and has two axes, which creates the impression of a double symmetry. But on closer inspection one sees that this is gradually distorted by the disposition of a number of architectural elements. The floor of rough stone flags reinforces the impression of an outdoor public space. Four enormous plate-glass windows (again without casings) are set into the wall, their smooth cubed moldings framing spectacular views of the landscape. Revealing the distance between nature and the viewer, they provoke a sublime anxiety. The transverse axis of the hall was defined by a Fazzini sculpture (since removed), placed between two of the windows, and a fireplace on the opposite side. The fireplace hearth incorporates a window of fireproof Jena glass, giving a view through the flames, as if on to a burning sea. Like the windows, the fireplace frames a mythical world, in which fire and water are reconciled.

This grotesque character is reinforced throughout the whole piano nobile, including the sparse and surrealistic furnishings. The tables, for instance, are composed of unrelated fragments—sections of a classical column covered with a pane of glass or a massive plank of undressed wood, or beautifully carved sections of a tree trunk with a skillfully molded wooden table-top. Their presence suggests the setting for a ritual act, while the horizontal planes reinforce the idea of the house as an empty pedestal, and the hall, by extension, as an empty stage.

At the center of the wall opposite the entrance to the main hall is a door that picks up the longitudinal axis of the villa and leads deeper into its mysterious voids. Behind it is a T-shaped antechamber of corridors, the corners of their intersection defined by a pair of book-cases with snake-like curves. At the end of the longitudinal corridor are two identical doors, the left one opening into the 'favorite's' bedroom, the right one into Malaparte's. Each room has a single window overlooking the sea and a magnificent bathroom of black and white marble, while the Favorita's room also has a corner fireplace.

A door in the far right-hand corner of Malaparte's bedroom opens into the most private space of all, his writing room, which is lined with tiles bearing a lyre motif (designed by Alberto Savinio). The transverse axis lies between two opposite windows, while a third one is the only window to take up the longitudinal axis of the villa, projecting it into the infinity of the horizon. In the corner opposite the door is a tower-like stove, and at the far end is a bookcase and desk, where Malaparte, seated on the curved niche with his back to the door, exerts his power over the villa.

Villa Malaparte could be described as a museum of thoughts which are given form and content by the building and the objects it contains, colonizing its metaphysical emptiness. Each has its own story (autobiographical), and refers to another time and place. Malaparte conducts his guests through this museum of the self, in a kind of ceremonial promenade, but in the end it turns out to be an ingenious act of alienation. The villa, Malaparte's 'casa come me', is a kind of temple dedicated to the ultimate concern of metaphysics, the principle of identity. Cut off from the outside world both physically and conceptually, it is devoted to poetics rather than discursive thought. If dwelling is the mental and material creation of a 'world', a continuous redefinition of reality, Malaparte's villa as well as his writings could be seen as a 'living macchina', a machine for dwelling through alienation, a machine (derived from the word maghos, or that which enables) which mediates between magic and might. It is an ingenious artifice, a perverted mechanism creating a kind of surreal delirium. Malaparte the architecton, who knows the causes of things and controls space and time, is master of the machine, and he leads us, his 'guests', into this sublime scenery, where we become voluntary prisoners, and then actors in the theater of his life.