At the turn of the year, a restored print of Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) was screened in Helsinki. The second coming of this nouvelle vague cult film was widely covered in the media, and the stars, Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, and Fritz Lang, who played himself in an important minor role, were given a lot of attention.
Yet one of the stars of the film was little mentioned: the central setting of the film, Casa Malaparte, a small black pearl of architecture in Punta Massullo on the isle of Capri. Not only has Godard's film been restored; so also has the building, which until recently had for a long timelanguished in a state of dilapidation and neglect. Its curious origins and later history have recently been thoroughly explored, and several articles and books have been published on the subject in Europe and the United States.
Godard proved indeed to possess an eye for architecture by choosing this building as the setting of this film about filmmaking, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. In Finland we also have a patriotic interest in the place: at the time of its construction between 1941 and 1943, the builder of the villa and in fact its designer, the famous Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, worked in Finland as a war correspondent for Corriere della Sera, the Milanese newspaper. Malaparte's coverage at the front created a heroic legend of Finland, based both on fact and on the high-flying fantasy of the writer.
The villa represented Malaparte's protest against the artificial Capri style: ecclectic kitch, which according to him had been spread along the rugged beauty of this Naples Bay island from the 19th century onwards by Germans and other newcomers, destroying the purity and simplicity of the traditional Capri house.
For Malaparte, the villa seems to have been an emphatically personal, almost programmatic issue. He characterised it as a "self-portrait cut in stone" (ritratto pietra) or a "house like me" (casa come me). Deported in 1933 by the Fascists to the island of Lipari, north of Sicily, the writer described his experience of imprisonment and the house that emerged from it in his novel The Skin (La Pelle, 1949):
"Cell 461 remains in my soul as its secret character. I feel like a bird that has swallowed its cage. The cell is within me like a child inside a pregnant woman.
"I now live on an island, in a melancholy, austere house, which I have built myself on a solitary cliff by the sea. The image of my longing."
When Malaparte started the project, he initially had an architect for it: Adalberto Libera, the famous Italian Rationalist. Yet the final version is mostly by the writer, as recent research has clearly pointed out. Libera drew the sketches, but these have little to do with the final outcome. Malaparte describes the situation as follows: "When I was building the house, I did not need architects or engineers (save for a few bureaucratic formalities), but a simple master builder, the best of all, the most candid, straightforward one I have ever met."
Malaparte realised his self-portrait in stone in cooperation with Alfonso Almitraro, a local mason. The stairs that lead to the stunning roof terrace and widen upwards he borrowed from the well-known church of Lipari, the island of his imprisonment.
During the construction, the house was moulded like a sculpture. The placing of the entrance, the shape of the curving wall of the roof terrace, and the colouring of the external walls were all changed several times before Malaparte was satisfied. For a war correspondent stationed in Finland the role of architect required active correspondence and telegramming as well as lengthy visits to the site.
The outcome is to say the least as unconventional and compelling as Godard's film, which was shot there 20 years later.
The Pompeian-red building prowls the horizon on a high cliff like a lurking alligator, cat, or casemate. Its ambience curiously integrates clumsiness, coarseness, and elegance -it is simultaneously archaic and modern.
The spatial configuration of the villa fails to meet the most conventional expectations. The gable wall oriented to the open sea only has a single small window from the study and not a large living-room window framing the panorama of the horizon, as one would tend to expect. The large living-room in the middle of the oblong building is like a small castle courtyard. The floor, made of rough stone slabs, is dominated by a heavy wooden table, one of the walls by a great open fireplace, and another wall by a relief by Pericle Tazzini, a contemporary of Malaparte, with interweaving human figures reminiscent of the erotic facade reliefs in the ancient temples of Kajuraho, India.
The four large windows of the living-room open on both sides of the building towards the steep cliffs descending down to the sea: east and west. The highlight of the views is the back wall of the fireplace, made of glass and allowing an opportunity to enjoy the view also through flames. The fireproof glass was ordered from the Zeiss factory in Jena.
In "The Skin" Malaparte recounts how Erwin Rommel visited the house in 1942 before the battle of El Alamein; he asked the writer if he had bought his house ready-made or designed it himself. Pointing towards the sea, Malaparte replied that the house had been there, but he had designed the landscape.
Rommel never actually visited the house, but the anecdote works just the same. The building celebrates the landscape.
Malaparte died in 1957; in his will, he donated his villa to the People's Republic of China as a base for cultural cooperation. His estate, however, contested the will, and after a long history of dispute -involving the shooting of Le Mépris, which had Maoist undertones - the building was finally given to a foundation governed by Malaparte's estate. The building has now been carefully renovated by the foundation.
Writer and architect
Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957), originally Kurt Erich Suckert, was an Italian journalist and writer who documented the changes in politics and culture with the sensitivity of a seismograph or water vane from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The editor-in-chief of the Mussolinian La Stampa, Malaparte was deported to the island of Lipari in 1933 for his too liberal opinions. During the Second World War he worked as a war correspondent in Poland, Ukraine, and Finland. On the basis of his experiences he wrote Kaputt (1944), a reportage novel mixing documentary material and grotesque, humorous, and apocalyptic visions. On hearing of the fall of Mussolini, Malaparte returned from Finland to Italy in 1943 and was one of the first Italian officers to join the Allied Forces. He described the final events of the war in Italy in The Skin (1949). In 1950 he wrote and directed a film called Forbidden Christ; its musical score, which is also by Malaparte, carries an allusion to a Finnish folk song, "Karjalan kunnailla".
In Finnish literature Malaparte remains as a caricature: he was the inspiration for Santa Rosa, the Argentinian war correspondent messing about in his fur coat in Armas J. Pulla's "Jees punamultaa, sanoi kersantti Ryhmy".
Besides Pulla, there was another French speaker in the communication office of the Finnish war HQ: Matti Kurjensaari, who guided the energetic Italian around the front and later provided the Finnish translation of Kaputt with a foreword. The Finnish approach to Malaparte can be concluded by an assumption that in the communication office he may also have encountered Olavi Paavolainen: two sensitive, wavering European soulmates.
After the war Malaparte came close to the Communists and developed an interest in Mao Ze Dong's China. The last act of the religiousless writer's restless search took place on his deathbed, when he both joined the Communist Party and asked for the last rites.
Malaparte was involved in the changing ideologies of his day, yet never failed to challenge the dominating one. He was a prominent figure in politics, culture, and high society; according to Alberto Moravia he made himself a cult, playing the role of himself. Malaparte did this with such a spirited devotion that he gained popularity not only in post-war Italy but also abroad, and his works still have not lost their attraction.