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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Italy, on the Surface

Ingrid Rowland's December 17 review of The Hand of Palladio in the New York Review of Books is as much about the book's author, architect Paolo Portoghesi, as it is about Palladio. We were intrigued by the focus, having written on this blogsite about Portoghesi's Roman mosque (designed 1975; see our June 17 post) and having admired his lobby for Rome's Hotel de la Minerve (above). Rowland labels these works "dream visions," then moves on to this remarkable paragraph:

"These works have a terrible poignancy now, reminders as they are of the optimistic Italy that pulled itself from postwar destitution by sheer force of imagination--Fellini was in many ways a maker of documentaries, not fantasies--and unrelenting work. The mosque of Rome, despite its modern materials, still revels in craftsmanship, as can be seen from the specially cast prefabricated columns, the intricate mosaics, the chandeliers and fountains. That same loving care of surface shines forth in every aspect of Italian life: in Fellini, Raphael, Titian, Vivaldi; in Marcello Mastroianni's swagger, Sophia Loren's vitality, La Dolce Vita--but then it was another Italian, the Roman sage Vitruvius, who declared that perfection can be achieved only by following through on every detail of ornament. Decoration in Italy is always more than superficial embellishment; it is the essence of true civility."

Reading this passage, we were reminded of the Italian insistence on la bella figura and, more concretely, of the pristine white tops favored by many Italian women, in seeming defiance of gurgling babies and life's inevitable spills; of the care with which Italians wrap anything and everything, from a piece of fish to a bottle of wine; of those lovely notebooks, with their silver corners and Florentine covers; of the glittering surfaces of any coffee bar, toweled clean and shined at the barrista's every opportunity; and even of Berlusconi, the politican as spectacle and surface, uninterested in the hard work and compromise that genuine political leadership requires.

We were reminded of Italian postwar leadership in fashion and modern design, fields that are all about wrapping people and things in cloth and plastic and metal, all about surface. The examples are many, but they surely include Marcello Nizzoli's 1950 Lettera 22 typewriter and Corradino D'Ascanio's 1955 Vespa. The Piergiorgio Branzi 1960 photo at left
is all about surface: not only the shell of the Vespa, but the self-consciously casual pose of the man in the foreground, observing even more surface: the filming of a story about ancient Rome, made on the steps of one of Rome's modern art museums.

Rowland made us think, too, of the playful creations of Ettore Sottsass, in whose hands household objects were transformed from useful things into games and sculptures. At right, Sottsass' Carlton Bookcase (1981). Consistent with Rowland's overview and chronology, the utopian Radical Design movement with which Sottsass was affiliated was launched in the 1960s and was in decline by 1980, as the ebulient optimism that sustained it was gradually undermined.

But we remain less than fully convinced of the truth of Rowland's compelling claim. To illustrate our lingering doubts, we offer these comments on La Dolce Vita, Fellini's 1960 masterpiece.
It is undeniably about the superficiality of postwar Italian bourgeoisie culture. But our observer of that culture, Mastroianni's Marcello, while attracted to the surfaces he finds, is also disturbed, alienated, and bored. Surfaces beguile, but they are not enough--and are hardly, in Vetruvius' words, "the essence of true civility."


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