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"A house like me," said the stylish man, so handsome he could have been a movie star. Standing on the path--that dangerous serpentine of ramps and stairs clinging to the steep mountainside--he looked down to his beloved house. Blood red, it sat on a rocky outcropping in the midst of Capri's wildest terrain. The Gulf of Naples and volcanic Vesuvius lay to the north; the Sorrentine peninsula to the east; ruined, ancient Paestum to the south. The villa was hunkered down into its site, attached to the cliffs by a thin neck of land. Its shape was both familiar and unfamiliar, a collage of memories of places and things far away, lost in time. The west end had an odd wedge of stairs--wide where it joined the flat roof and narrow at the bottom, like a displaced slice of Greek amphitheater. A severe drop at the opposite end gave the structure the appearance of a blockhouse, or a primitive, sacrificial altar. The facades were severe and unornamented, and, in the style of a medieval prison, most of the windows had iron bars. Four large, panoramic windows were excepted, however. Placed so as to capture spectacular vistas, they framed, each on a side, the sea and stelae of the Faraglioni, and the thousand-foot-high precipice of Tiberius's Villa Jovis. At the south facade, flames shown through a small window set in the hearth, a misplaced beacon, pathway to the rocks. The roof was flat, with a sculptural privacy screen, a white, sickle-shaped concrete sail. Whether it was intended to invite or dissuade gawkers, it was not clear. From high up, the house looked vulnerable and dangerous, as if it could be taken by the sea, or carried off by its spinnaker sail. Carried off, perhaps on a day like this,when a raging winter surf, driven by wind and rain, sent giant waves slamming headlong into the stone cliffs below the house. More than one-hundred feet they rose, inundating the facades, the windows, even the furniture, the books and letters of the man, those remnants of his extraordinary, and controversial, political, literary, and artistic life. "This house, my 'portrait in stone,'" he mused, his features softening. "A house like me," he said again, "but which me?"
And so the scene is set, prologue for a life and a building, both apparently self-consciously constructed for dramatic effect, complete with plot twists and ambiguous morality, bad, even appalling behavior, brilliant artistic achievement, and a conditional redemption. Setting: Italy, war-torn Europe, and, briefly, at the end, Asia. Time: from the First World War through the 1950s. Our protagonists: One of the twentieth-century's most important houses, Casa Malaparte, and its owner, one of Italy's most brilliant and controversial writers, Curzio Malaparte.
Malaparte was a fascist agitator and journalist after the First World War, and a novelist of international reputation by the end of the Second. Despite his attachment to fascism in its early, revolutionary stages, his two best known novels serve as convincing recantations: Kaputt (1943) and La Pelle (The Skin) (1949) are among the most powerful and disturbing descriptions of the ravages of war as inflicted on Europe's civilian populations written in this century. At once both glib and moral, they embody the ironies of Malaparte's style, and fuel the debate over his intentions. Where enthusiasts see repudiation of a youthful romance with fascism's possibilities, detractors see self-aggrandizement and insincerity. There is a sense that Malaparte constructed his life and work for effect, and that they together can be understood as art or artifice, as one will. Irrespective of the debate, time's passage has only seen the writer's reputation grow, and this, in turn, has created a sharpened focus on the house. Malaparte's books have been translated and published internationally, his film Il Cristo Proibito is available on video, dozens of international internet citations exist, and, on the fiftieth anniversary of his birth, a commemorative postage stamp was issued in Italy. Since 1980 there has even been a planet somewhere in the orbit of a distant solar system named for Malaparte. Casa Malaparte, which was in a state of ruin by the 1960s (Malaparte died in 1957), has been restored, and is now organized as a cultural foundation, and used for seminars and cultural events.
Critics, poets, historians, practitioners from all walks of life have seen or visited the house, but each has perceived it differently: a house of rituals and rites, of mysteries beyond time and place. A surreal house built in the form of a pagan altar. A stage for the worlds of café society, haute couture, poetry and literature. An ill-gotten possession, a matter of political intrigue. A salon for Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; for Allied generals during the Occupation, and, apocryphally, for the Desert Fox, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. A film set for Jean-Luc Godard and Brigitte Bardot. A pilgrimage site, an epiphany for artists, architects, and designers from all over the world. It lives in myth, a media image as well as a physical place, an aspiration, a dream.
Essentially a stuccoed block, nine meters by forty-three meters, the house is distinguished by monumental trapezoidal stairs, that stretch across the full width across the east end of the structure, narrowing nearly to a point as it descends. A low, white expressionistic windbreak rides like a concrete sail on its otherwise flat, dangerously unprotected roof. The house seems to grow out of the rough terrain, mimicking the craggy top of the Punta Massullo peninsula it occupies--low and flat where the land is low; narrow where it is narrow. Windows, large and small, some with iron grating, some without, seem to be randomly placed, belying the order implicit in the building's elemental forms.