PRINT Summer 1997


WHEN IT CAME TO WRITING, Curzio Malaparte was a man on fire. He was a journalist and essayist, a novelist and a playwright. When it came to politics, Malaparte was a human weather vane. He was a republican, a nationalist, a fascist, and a communist. While he was dying of cancer in 1957, Malaparte turned the Roman clinic where he was undergoing treatment into the set of a postwar opera buffa. Lying in state, he was paid homage by the most notable of his countrymen, joined the Communist Party, converted to Catholicism, and then, totally synchronized with the prevailing power structure, expired. The fifty-nine-year-old writer left behind a literary legacy that, in its opportunistic relationship to historical “necessity,” mirrored nothing less than the convulsive contractions that led to the birth of modern Italy.

If there was one constant in the contradictory trajectory of Malaparte’s life, it was his fidelity to a dream he embraced in 1938. The topic of his fantasy was nothing remarkable—a retreat where he could pursue his writing without distraction. The location was, however, the stuff of legend. Malaparte fell in love with a rocky peninsula called Capo Massullo on the coast of Capri. Barely 100 feet long by 30 feet wide, bounded on three sides by cliffs plummeting 650 feet into the Mediterranean Sea, Capo Massullo is a tapered finger sticking out into an eternity of blue. In Curzio Malaparte, Capo Massullo found both a lover and a colonizer.

The house Malaparte dreamed into being is arguably the century’s most eloquent marriage of landscape and architecture. Initially, Malaparte consulted with Roman architect Adalberto Libera, but the final product is definitely more a concrete poem by Malaparte than a blueprint by Libera, who, in truth, never advanced his identification with the house’s authorship. Lounging like a lizard in the sun, Casa Malaparte stretches the length of Capo Massullo. It is a simple rectangular structure made of native stone, sheathed in plaster and painted a Pompeian red. The floor plan for the two and one-half levels is modest, austere really. If it weren’t for two applied elements, Casa Malaparte would simply be a marvelously situated holiday villa. However, the two elements Malaparte chose to complete his house signify the difference between felicitous choice and ecstatic realization.

On the landward end of Casa Malaparte, a trapezoidal staircase ascends the exterior of the house, widening as it climbs toward the limitless sky. In profile, the shape cuts a sheer diagonal into the volcanic rock. Head on, the staircase is as ritually suggestive as a Mayan pyramid. Its purpose is rational—to provide access to the flat plane of roof terrace—but mounting the thirty-three steps to an altar of roof suggests an ancient, even sacred choreography. Once the roof has been reached, Malaparte’s second element appears. An extended comma of white plaster, rising to around eight feet and creating a barrier wall at the summit of the steps, initially blocks the view toward the precipice. Move around it and the wall begins a gradual, insistent decline until it merges with the roof. The gesture is as insouciant as that of an aviator tossing a white silk scarf over his shoulder to catch the wind. Again, the purpose—privacy from prying eyes is immediately perceivable. Yet architecturally, the effect is riveting. Crowning a house that is a hymn to the rational, Malaparte’s comma is a diversionary and magical piece of lyricism. The writer referred to it as a “sail” and, indeed, it serenely guides the house into a celestially surrealist orbit that denies the right-angled mass of its core.

In 1943, one year after he was in residence, Malaparte wrote: “Today I live on an island, in a harsh, melancholy, and severe house which I have built alone, lonesome on a cliff hanging over the sea: a house which is the ghost, the secret image of the jail. The image of my nostalgia.” The “jail” is Lipari, the island to which Mussolini exiled him in the ’30s. There he became obsessed with a staircase leading to the church of the Annunziata that would become his inspiration for Casa Malaparte. While the house may be the author’s “image of the jail,” he was truly a bird in a gilded cage—a cage that secured him a place in the twentieth century far more influential than does that of his writing. Casa Malaparte occupies that moment of rupture—of summation and advancement—that permits a culture to identify the best of what it has been and might be. At once, it provides closure and inspiration. It is a capriccio in which the classic and the modern are caught and held in an embrace by the same, never to be repeated melody.

When Malaparte died, he left his house to the People’s Republic of China. As he had dubbed his legacy “casa come me” (house like me), his bequest was suitably perverse. Six years later, in 1963, Jean-Luc Godard (another occasional Maoist) assembled a house party at Casa Malaparte that would forever consign its then-moldering beauty to immortality. Godard’s guests were Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang. The occasion was the filming of Contempt, Godard’s adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s fashionably lassitudinous novel Il Disprezzo. Now, more than thirty years later, Contempt remains one of the most gorgeous, austerely giddy films ever made. It is also a love poem to the isolate splendor of Casa Malaparte and does what no documentary could, which is to show how the careless, solipsistic rhythms of the house’s occupants are heightened simply by being framed within the house itself. Inside Casa Malaparte, surrounded by views of a beauty that would in earlier times have frozen the soul, the characters in Contempt indulge in idle flirtations, vainglorious pronouncements on the gravity of art, and games where power and its abuse are meaningless divertissements. Only the character of the director, played by Fritz Lang, functions with a goal as he shoots a very Godardian version of Ulysses on the roof, with only the sky as his limitless set. What Godard found on Capo Massullo was curiously akin to what Malaparte found on Lipari: “Too much sea, too much sky, for such a small island, and such a restless soul.” The ravishingly forlorn ending of Contempt is an astonishing cinematic equivalent to Malaparte’s own epic despair: “The horizon is too broad, I drown in it.”

Contempt will be rereleased in the US by Strand/Rialto on June 27.