John Ganz on “Casa Malaparte: Furniture”

Curzio Malaparte, Lipari, Italy, March 1934. Photo: Wikicommons.

“OH, WE WILL NOT BE COMMENTING ON THAT” was the answer I got from a gallery representative at the opening of a show of furniture designed by the Italian writer and filmmaker Curzio Malaparte at Gagosian’s space on Park Avenue, New York. The “that” in question was Malaparte’s prominent membership in Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, a fact that is not mentioned in the press release. Instead, the text supplies euphemisms, calling him a “provocative writer” who was “notorious for his oscillations between the ideological extremes of the era.”

The reason for this evasion is not hard to fathom: “Casa Malaparte: Furniture” is a commercial proposition, and if the crowd at the opening is any indication, it’s likely to be a successful one. It drew both the evidently rich and those who would like to appear rich. Would-be socialites had their friends make TikToks of them traipsing around in front of the furniture and massive photographs replicating the house’s vistas of the rugged Tyrrhenian coast and its towering sea stacks. Perhaps they imagined themselves in Godard’s Contempt (1963), part of which takes place at Casa Malaparte, or, just as likely, as Kate Moss in the Saint Laurent ad that was also shot at the villa. The objects on display—a large table consisting of a solid carved-walnut slab on pine legs; a console comprising an undulating block of solid walnut resting on two pockmarked and flecked fluted columns fashioned from tuff; and a long walnut bench sitting on sections of white Carrara marble columns—were what the gallery tastefully calls “editions,” which is to say they were copies, based on Malaparte’s original designs for the villa, their reproduction supervised by his great-grand-nephew Tommaso Rositani Suckert. A select clientele can now purchase a piece of history, or at least a replica of it. Of course, they might be unaware of or simply uninterested in the real content of that history.

Considering Malaparte’s origins in Tuscany’s artisanal petite bourgeoisie and his life of tireless social climbing, there’s something fitting about his work ending up in the domain of those aspiring to The World of Interiors. He was born Kurt Erich Suckert in 1898 in Prato to an Italian mother and a German father, the latter sometimes identified as a textile executive and sometimes as a master dyer. (The second, more salt-of-the-earth origin story may be the result of Malaparte’s postwar attempt to ingratiate himself with the Communist Party; Malaparte moves in the space between self-mythologizing and downright mendacity.) At age sixteen, during World War I, he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion, an early indication of his lifelong elitism and love of war. When Italy joined the war on the side of the Allied powers, he was incorporated into the Italian Alpine forces and decorated for valor. In the ferment of interwar Italy, he bounced around in an avant-garde that combined experimental literature and art with radical politics, flirting with both the revolutionary left and the right, but his journalistic career didn’t take off until he joined Mussolini’s Fascisti in the early 1920s. Antonio Gramsci, the great theorist of the Italian Communist Party, pegged him as a “wild arriviste with a streak of chameleonic snobbery.”

Curzio Malaparte’s 1941 Casa Malaparte living room with furniture, Capri, Italy. Photo: Andrea Jemolo/Scala/Art Resource, NY.

During the Fascist era, he claimed to have taken part in the 1922 March on Rome, the coup that brought Mussolini to power; afterward, he professed to have invented this story to further his career within the regime. In any case, with his new, Italianized name, Malaparte—a play on Bonaparte, substituting mal (bad) for bon (good)—he became a spokesman for the most extreme wing of fascism, pushing Mussolini to take revolutionary action against the remainder of the pre-fascist state. Malaparte’s politics were first and foremost antibourgeois: Fascism promised to revive a world of heroism against liberal decadence. His attack on the bourgeoisie came from both above and below: On the one hand, he agitated for a plebeian uprising, and on the other, he cut a debonair, aristocratic figure, seeking a career in diplomacy, challenging rivals to duels and strategically employing flattery and wit to advance himself in high society. The liberal journalist Piero Gobetti wrote that Malaparte was an “admirer of regicides and courtiers . . . politics for him are a game, the cult of surprises.” Gramsci concurred: “To achieve success he was capable of any amount of mischief.”

In fact, Malaparte’s taste for mischief would jeopardize his career. After the consolidation of the Fascist regime, he attacked former allies and distanced himself from the party’s ultra-fascist wing, befriending members of Mussolini’s inner circle. But he couldn’t resist taking potshots at Il Duce and got himself sacked from his prestigious newspaper editorship. He moved to Paris, where he became famous for his 1931 Technique du coup d’état, a kind of artist’s manual for insurrection, using as examples Napoleon, the Bolsheviks, and Mussolini. The book dismissed Hitler, who had not yet seized power, as a “caricature of Mussolini,” a “reactionary,” and a “woman” who was possessed, like “all dictators,” by jealousy. The problem for Malaparte was that the Hitler of this period was not violent enough: Rather than unleashing his brownshirts against the state, he was pursuing legal means to power. Hitler, a vulgarian whom Malaparte likened to a jumped-up Austrian shop clerk or a waiter, offended Malaparte’s taste as much as his politics, but for Malaparte these were much the same thing.

Malaparte’s politics were first and foremost antibourgeois: Fascism promised to revive a world of heroism against liberal decadence.

Technique du coup d’état earned Malaparte admirers on both the left and the right all over Europe, but its not-so-veiled criticisms of Mussolini did not ingratiate him with the bosses back in Rome. When the posts he felt he deserved failed to materialize, he began to lash out at his former patrons, like Italo Balbo, the flamboyant fascist aviator who was one of the most popular figures in the regime. In a letter intercepted by the secret police, Malaparte said Balbo had become fat. This was the final straw. When Malaparte returned to Italy, he was arrested and put into exile on a desolate island off Sicily. For the next several years, Malaparte moved through a series of rather cushy house arrests and semi-exiles. He cultivated ties with Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, who sprang him from his confinement.

In the late 1930s, Malaparte started the magazine Prospettive, dedicated in equal part to praise of the regime and advanced literature. He also began work, with the help of the Fascist architect Adalberto Libera, on his villa, located in a remote and wild section of Capri. (Malaparte apparently hated the word villa: It sounded too bourgeois.) Malaparte said Casa Malaparte was a “house like me,” and the furniture on display at Gagosian certainly reflected his refined machismo. Like Malaparte’s journalism, the table, the console, and the bench spoke an eloquent rhetoric of power, albeit in a more concentrated and understated way. On a purely aesthetic level, the designs are exquisite: Austere and sumptuous, imposing and reclusive, they reconcile elegant restraint with a sublime sense of overwhelming nature. Malaparte wrote of being attracted to the “ferocious” quality of this part of the eastern coast of Capri and its “incomparable, cruel strength,” and these pieces quite literally domesticate that wildness. The dark, twisting legs of the walnut table suggest both the movement of the sea and brawn in exertion, a distillation of earlier Futurist experiments in capturing pure movement and energy. The columns holding up the console and bench hint at the classical world’s monuments to gods and conquerors. The materials themselves are signifiers: The dark walnut conveys a brooding masculinity and isolation; it is also favored by gunmakers for rifle stocks. Soft, volcanic tuff was a common building material for the Etruscans and early Romans. To protect the porous stone they would have placed stucco or marble over it; exposed and weathered, it suggests ruins and distant antiquity. Carrara marble, quarried in Tuscany, is the monumental material par excellence, the stuff of the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column.

Curzio Malaparte, Casa Malaparte, 1941, Capri, Italy. Photo: Cornelli2010/Flickr.

The pieces, especially in front of the replicated landscapes of Capri, evoke pagan altars, dedicated to the cult of the author’s ego as much as to spirits of nature. The house itself even has a templelike aspect, with steps leading up to a roof terrace that overlooks the sea. But while the pieces communicate power and myth, they are not without humor. A writer of clever turns of phrase, Malaparte has the same facility in visual media; the lively curves are droll, and the simple and striking ingenuity of these designs suggests sallies of wit: successful bons mots more than overwrought soliloquies.

After the fall of Mussolini, Malaparte nimbly switched his allegiance to the Allies and served alongside the American army in Italy. He was often shocked and indignant that this did not entirely clean the slate with some of his contemporaries. There were those he could not charm or seduce. Malaparte’s diary describes a scene at a party in postwar Paris where Albert Camus pointedly remarks that those like Malaparte should have been shot. He had achieved international literary celebrity again for his macabre and surreal novel Kaputt (1944), based on his experiences as a war correspondent on the Eastern Front. It was followed by The Skin (1949), chronicling postwar Naples. In his novels, Malaparte’s fabulist streak serves the truth: He did not shrink from recording the enormity of what he witnessed; the wild exaggerations accurately portray the reality-shattering horrors of the war. It is not the place of art reviews to hand down indictments or sentences, but there’s an ironic justice in the fate of his work in this show. The house and its furniture were supposed to be the expression of Malaparte’s artistically formed inner life, an attestation of his ego’s uniqueness and superiority, his escape from everything humdrum and bourgeois. Now they are reproduced as design pieces for tastefully appointed living rooms. Casa Malaparte, perched on its cliffside, brings to mind another literary allusion: the terraces of Dante’s mountain of Purgatory, where penitent souls must experience the opposite of what they lusted after in life. One can imagine Malaparte’s gloomy shade, pouting on the bench, forced to listen to boring conversations for what feels like an eternity.

John Ganz is a writer living in New York.

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