PRINT March 2000


The surroundings become a museum of the soul, an archive of its experiences; it reads in them its own history, and is perennially conscious of itself; the surroundings are the resonance chamber where its strings render their authentic vibration. And just as many pieces of furniture are like moulds of the human body, empty forms waiting to receive it . . . so finally the whole room or apartment becomes a mould of the spirit, the case without which the soul would feel like a snail without its shell. . . . The ultimate meaning of a harmoniously decorated house is, as we have hinted, to mirror man, but to mirror him in his ideal being; it is an exaltation of the self.
–Mario Praz, An Illustrated History of Furnishing from the Renaissance to the 20th Century, 1964

The work of Francesco Vezzoli is essentially digressive, so let me begin with an illustrative digression of my own.

Mario Praz (1896–1982) was one of those glittering Renaissance minds who nowadays seem to exist only in the imaginations of other writers. His interests were prolix and his prose, in its lavish conversational ambience, was more Walter Pater than Walter Benjamin. Yet buried in the gorgeousness of his words is a direct, acerbic intelligence that is an odd blend of the Age of Reason and the Machine Age. He left behind an avalanche of books (The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, Machiavelli and the Elizabethans, and Mnemosyne: The Parallel Between Literature and the Visual Arts, to name but three), and his extraordinary appreciation for the decorative arts is now memorialized in Rome’s Museo Mario Praz, where his myriad collections are housed in an environment that visually parallels his 1964 decorative sermon. If all of this sounds a bit precious, it is. But the preciousness is fueled by passion and its aim is ever to persuade.

Praz provided Luchino Visconti with the inspiration for his elegiac twilight film Conversation Piece/Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974), in which an aging aesthetician meets, accepts, and affects the future. An autumnal Burt Lancaster plays the character modeled on Praz and a Lamborghini-sleek Silvana Mangano embodies everything that threatens his “mould of the spirit.” The film’s title (whether in English or Italian) pays homage to Praz’s 1971 book, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America. Improbably, the Visconti film, Praz, and Mangano are all sweetly interwoven in Francesco Vezzoli’s absurdly compelling video project An Embroidered Trilogy.

Each segment of the trilogy was realized (somewhat indifferently) by a different director, and each is a chain of intertextual digressions. The first, OK, The Praz Is Right!, 1997, is the work of John Maybury (completed the year before the release of his film about Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil) and features Iva Zanicchi, the hostess of an Italian game show called OK! The Price Is Right, who earnestly lip-synchs her way through a pop song while posturing in a room in the Museo Mario Praz. An impassive Vezzoli sits on a sofa embroidered by Praz while stitching a portrait of the author on his embroidery hoop. What is in no way apparent is the fact that Zanicchi, as a young singer, vocalized on a song featured in Conversation Piece.

The second segment, Il sogno di Venere, 1998, was shot by Lina Wertmüller (director of Love and Anarchy, Swept Away, and Seven Beauties, all of which featured Giancarlo Giannini, the star of Visconti’s last film, The Innocent [1976]). The setting of the video is divided between the house of Suso Cecchi D’Amico (one of Conversation Piece’s screenwriters) and a Roman nightclub, Officina. It features the actress Franca Valeri (a comedic interpreter of the kind of bourgeois women played with ruthless self-loathing by Mangano). Valeri is first seen reclining in Vaselined serenity on a couch embroidered by Mangano and, later, grotesquely voguing to a Kraftwerk recording while Vezzoli, astride a dormant motorcycle, works on an embroidered portrait of Mangano.

The third segment, The End (teleteatro), 1999, was filmed by noted cinematographer Carlo Di Palma and stars Valentina Cortese (the epitome of a clichéd Italian diva in François Truffaut’s Day for Night [1973]), who was, over a decade earlier, Mangano’s costar in Richard Fleischer’s weird non-epic epic, Barabbas (1962). Shot in Cortese’s operatically decorated Milanese apartment, The End documents the actress delivering the lyrics from the Beatles’ “Help!” as if they were a soliloquy from Orlando Furioso. After pummeling an already literally bruised Vezzoli (sitting impassively with his embroidery hoop), she careens through the apartment in a muscatel ball gown devouring every overripe piece of decor in her wake. It’s a performance that cannot possibly have been directed, and its ambiguous verismo is truly disturbing. What’s particularly creepy about The End is that it’s never remotely clear who is in on the joke or, for that matter, if there’s a joke to be in on.

Vezzoli’s more recent project, A Love Trilogy: Self Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf, is less complicated than its predecessor if far better made. The sound track is Pop Lite Piaf, and that’s okay. Marisa Berenson is still as gorgeous as she was in Barry Lyndon (1975), and that’s comforting. Her gowns are all Valentino couture, and that’s glamorous. Vezzoli appears for a moment as a groom left standing at the altar, so while he’s still modestly in his project, he nevertheless remains politely in the shadow of his diva. Berenson disciplines herself to cry and lip-synch to Piaf so she’s invested enough to show she cares about Vezzoli’s vision. Clearly a lot of phone calls were made to obtain the gowns, get the hair and makeup people, and arrange for the luxe locations. Yet the result is a bit like catching a whiff of perfume lingering in an empty elevator. You’re left craving the kind of loony, morbidly chic anomie that informed Richard Avedon’s memorable TV spots for Calvin Klein’s Eternity. The brilliance of Avedon’s commercials lay in the ambiguity of his motivation: Is he knowingly or naively superficial? That question also animates Vezzoli’s Embroidered Trilogy but, unlike Avedon, the product he’s pitching is more ambiguous. I think it is a nostalgia for the kind of overripe glamour that, say, Ross Hunter poured into his Lana Turner vehicles (like Portrait in Black [1960]). The virtue of the Embroidered project—in which the artist appears improbably ensconced in the lairs of aging divas—lay in the transgressive promise of violating the wall between life and art. The flaw of the over-art-directed Love project is that the wall remains all too firmly in place as lovely tableaux drift by like swans on a placid lake.

Vezzoli isn’t alone in his obsession with iconic divas and cinema legends. In Great Britain, Douglas Gordon has been deconstructing and recontextualizing the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, among others. In America, T.J. Wilcox has created a charming cycle of films that embroider together such disparate historical/film/fashion icons as Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer, and Kate Moss. In France, Pierre Huyghe has arranged complex cinematic portraits (both tender and caustic) of the woman who dubbed Snow White’s voice into French for Disney and of the German actor Bruno Ganz. All of these artists are sampling and reclaiming the past, to rearrange and inhabit its contours with their own sensibility.

Let us return to Praz, but for “furnishings” read “cultural signifiers”:“In general patricians who inherit splendid furnishings from ancestors move among them naturally and, even if they care for their inheritance, they never hesitate to mix the modern and the antique, odd chairs and signed pieces, with an aloofness that [the] author of The Courtier would have approved. But the true enthusiast of furnishing is like the herbalist who selects each flower, gathers, assorts, harmonizes, and never tires of seeking perfection.” Vezzoli, like Wilcox and Huyghe, is a “true enthusiast,” and his instinctive arrangement of cultural vagaries would, I think, have been endorsed, if with a raised eyebrow, by the progressively embraceable Praz. Truly, the Praz is right!