“A house like me!” was the motto of Italian journalist, writer and diplomat Curzio Malaparte, whenever he would talk about his house, built on a steep cliff in Capri.
Incredibly difficult to access, only reachable by foot (via a 50 minute walk from Capri’s piazzetta) or by boat, the building enjoys semi-mythical status.
Its faded Pompeian-red masonry, the reverse pyramidal stairs leading to the flat roof, and the windows looking out at the breathtaking landscapes live forever in popular imagination.
Casa Malaparte – never say “Villa Malaparte” as the writer hated the term “villa” and the bourgeois values that go with it – in no time became an icon of modern architecture and Italian lifestyle.
Everybody knows about it, many have seen it from afar, very few have been so privileged to be able to visit it, stirring up envy in everyone else, me included.
Nothing about Casa Malaparte is ordinary, starting with its first owner.
Half German, half Italian, Malaparte was born Curt Erich Suckert in 1898.
Initially an early supporter of Fascism, due to his independent streak, in 1933 Malaparte was stripped of his party membership and sent to internal exile for five years.
Hinting of the character’s grandstanding, which probably didn’t help him make amends with the Fascists, his pseudonymous surname, adopted in 1925, meaning “wrong side”, is a play on Napoleon’s family name “Bonaparte”, which means “good side” in Italian.
Thanks to influential connections, not the least of which was his friendship with Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law, in 1938 Malaparte was freed and, again thanks to influential connections, managed to buy some land and obtain the permit to build on one of the most remote and beautiful spots on the coast of Capri. He then commissioned Adalberto Libera, arguably the most powerful Italian architect of the time, to design him a house to sit on the cliff. Pretty soon after, Malaparte fell out with Libera, got rid of him, rejected the original project almost entirely, and went on to build his eponymous house by himself.
Ever since, the house rested there, on Punta Massullo, like a giant sea creature sleeping on the shore, or a mysterious wreckage re-surfaced from the abyss.
There, in 1963, Jean-Luc Godard shot Le Mépris, which follows the intricate relations of a producer, a director, and a screenwriter, struggling with a film adaptation of the Odyssey.
Besides the fact that Casa Malaparte is the only thing that makes sense in the entire movie, Godard, I’ll give him this, had the happy intuition of connecting the house with ancient Greek mythology. The staircase does evoke a ritual setting, a ceremonial altar, or an ancient theatre overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Architect John Hejduk’s poetic words echo:
“It is a house of rituals and rites, it is a house of mysteries, it at once brings forth the chill of the Aegean on the horn head of past sacrifices, it is an ancient play placed in an Italian light. It has to do with the primitive gods and their unrelenting demands. […] It has to do with the hollowness of caves and the inaccessibility of the sun. It has to do with the abandonment of abstraction and the seduction of the lyrical”.
Fashion loved the house too: Vuitton, Dior and Zegna have shot campaigns up and down the stairs.
Karl Lagerfeld visited the house at the end of the 1990s and took a series of pictorialist photographs as a memento. “Casa Malaparte is a vision of a man with no visible influences,” he noted. “The moon, when it came out, slid down the famous stairs leading to the flat roof of the house – the magic terrace floating high above the sea.”
The destiny of a modern building, if it’s really special, is to become a classic.
Since day one, Casa Malaparte has deceived fate, becoming modern and classic at the same time – something you cannot say about many works of architecture.
La Pelle (The Skin), Malaparte’s controversial novel, perfectly sums up the bewilderment, the sense of awe, and the slightly surreal character of the place.
In one passage, the writer shows a guest around:
“He asked me if I had bought the house already built, or if I had designed and built it myself. I replied – and it wasn’t true – that I had bought the house already built. And with a broad gesture of my hand, indicating the sheer view of Matromania, the three gigantic rocks of the Faraglioni, the Sorrento peninsula, the islands of the Sirens, the blue distances of the Amalfi coast, and the remote golden glow of the Pesto shore, I told him: ‘I designed the landscape’.”