Words by Sara Pierdona
Images from Miguel Flores-Vianna and Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Renzo Mongiardino: the once-in-a-generation Italian design master whose influence on Cabana could scarcely be more significant. Sara Pierdona goes in search of the mystery and magic behind Mongiardino's mastery.
To Martina Mondadori, founder and editor-in-chief of Cabana, he was, “The Master of Illusions”. To Umberto Pasti, writer and botanist, he was, “The King of Fiction”. In the Cabana office, his influence is undisputed. He is, of course, Renzo Mongiardino, the celebrated Italian architect, set designer and decorator, twice Oscar nominated for best scenography and the brains behind the unique design of Casa Cabana, Mondadori’s exquisitely photogenic childhood home in Milan; its operatic interiors remain an integral part of the Cabana world.
And yet, there is a mystery to Mongiardino’s story, a question we must ask ourselves: how is it possible that this brilliantly inventive architect – a visionary talent who furnished the most sophisticated homes of the international jet set for half a century – plunged at one point into relative obscurity, or disavowal by architectural historians? Giovanni Agosti, an art critic and one-time neighbor of Mongiardino, has attempted to explain this. Perhaps it was because Mongiardino designed few public buildings; perhaps because his style was against the mainstream du jour; perhaps it was due to the ideological distance of the academies from the microcosm of his powerful patrons. But what if it was none of these; what if it was because of his enigmatic, mercurial personality? What if his tendency to elude definitions and sow mysteries was an effect he deliberately sought?
After all, his work was inimitably imaginative and difficult to define. Visiting Mongiardino-designed houses, which wise owners have preserved over the years, is a visual treasure hunt, an aesthetic experience quite unlike any other. Among his signature recurring features, one will find false doors, visual trickery and plays on perspective; trompe l'oeil; Archimboldesque; frescoes imitating marble and fabrics imitating frescoes; surprising details that emerge only after long observation; and antiques and common objects juxtaposed with nonchalance and irony. Entering his rooms always feels like a treasure hunt and is an aesthetic experience quite unlike any other.
Born in Genoa in 1916, Mongiardino recognized the prodromes of his vocation when, aged 12, his family moved into a particularly sumptuous mansion. For the first time, he saw empty halls and rooms, spartan before being filled with furniture and decorative objects. His mother commented at the time: “It's so beautifully empty. It will be difficult to furnish it.” And yet, soon after the furniture arrived, was arranged, and gradually took over the once-empty spaces, creating a convincing atmosphere.
For the young Mongiardino, his mother’s words proved unforgettable, representing a challenge he would dedicate his life’s work to. In 1936, he moved to Milan to study architecture – graduating with Italian Master, Gio Ponti – and, in the 1950s, took on his first work as a stage designer; this led to collaborations with leading lights, including Franco Zeffirelli, Rudolf Nureyev and Peter Hall. Soon after, Countess Cristiana Brandolini D'Adda asked him to renovate her Venetian country estate, Vistorta, which launched his career in interiors; immediately afterwards he decorated the houses of Cristiana’s brother, Gianni Agnelli, and his friend, Stavros Niarchos. Almost overnight, Mongiardino found himself with some of the most incredible clients of the century.
Every house has its secrets. But in those designed by Mongiardino, secrets abound and become more intriguing. Like theatrical trapdoors or labyrinths, they appear to be contrivances of which only the creator knows the exact function and purpose. Later, the inhabitant of the house is benevolently made aware of them and becomes an accomplice, the custodiam of the secret. Former clients speak of committing to an “act of faith”.
So it was at the Odescalchi Palace; a disproportionately high ceiling was in the process of being lowered when Mongiardino, taken by inspiration, halted works. Instead, he diverted the laborers to construct a monumental nine-meter-high Turkish tent, which, once completed, became iconic and much imitated.
When Paola Zanussi, Martina Mondadori's mother and a close friend of Mongiardino, requested that Casa Cabana be decorated in her favorite colors - blue, green and red - Mongiardino, ever inscrutable, came up with his own color scheme for the living room: black. "It is difficult for the author's precise vision to be perceived by the customer,” Mongiardino explained. “Predicting the finished, which is not always easy for the architect, is almost always impossible for the client." He concluded: "Only trust can reward the client." Cristiana Brandolini D'Adda developed her own strategy for managing the mercurial designer during their many creative disagreements, telling Cabana: "Since Mongiardino had a bad temper, I changed things behind his back."
There was a time, at the peak of Mongiardino's popularity, when even being accepted as a client was at the whim of his mysterious, instinctive motivations. Alessandra Zampolli recalls the genesis of her house in Via Borgonuovo, Milan: “My husband, Egidio, and I were leaving a house designed by Gae Aulenti, in which steel, leather and hypermodern forms predominated. I warned Mongiardino that we would not have any antiques to bring to the new house, nor a precise vision of how to furnish it, even though I knew it would be a disincentive for him. I heard him hesitate over the phone. Then (we were perfect strangers) he said, “I hear a foreign accent, am I wrong?” I told him I was Chilean and very nostalgic for the light of my country. This was enough to make him passionate about the project and decide that our flat on the fifth floor should resemble a greenhouse full of flowers.”
To his clients, Mongiardino always maintained strict confidentiality. A friend shares: “When he decided to publish his book, which he wanted in the form of a manual with practical instructions and an easy style, he refused to include the high-sounding names of his clients.” This admirable discretion proved a major problem for publishers, however; for months, no one would publish his book.
His homes, like his character, display a fertile tension between the public (visible in his excellent recoveries of the ceremonial halls of ancient formal palaces) and private (manifested in extremely intimate rooms, always in the half-light, echoing with clues). At the beginning of his book (eventually published in 2001, three years after his death), the house is described as, “a refuge that defends us from the crowd, a pleasant, unarmed citadel”.
Towards the end of the book, however, he refers to an aesthetic revelation he had during WWII, when bombings uncovered once-inaccessible houses. He writes: "The sun came into the houses, illuminating the golds with blinding lights; and a glimpse of a room full of Baroque architecture showed every passer-by furniture, chandeliers, lamps, sofas, all still intact... Rooms that had been dozing for years were publicly displayed. I thought then that those ruins should remain as such, stopped in time, relived in the present."
His artisans and craftsmen were, perhaps, the only people with whom he renounced his charming ineffability. Mr. Donato – a skilled carpenter who for decades made Mongiardino perfect copies of 18th-century furniture, and who now maintains a tiny workshop in Milan’s Viale Marche where he builds intricate models of churches and bridges – remembers the elevated, sometimes esoteric language with which Renzo explained his ideas. When he insisted the designer “explain it better”, Renzo would retort, “Bravo. Don't be like the others who pretend to understand but don't. Let's draw it together, so we both understand it better.”
Designer Mario Bonacina, whose family business, Bonacina 1889, crafts exquisite rattan furniture, retains a vivid memory of Mongiardino’s sketches, drawn with a very soft pencil, often not on a table but on the bed in his room, where he received suppliers in his dressing gown. “He was very interested in our archives, in pieces from the late 19th century to the 1920s. He would take those models and refine them according to his own style.”
It is still possible, particularly in Italy, to play detective and explore the trail of references left by this enigmatic creative genius. While Italy is home to many well-preserved Mongiardino houses, admirers and design lovers need not wait for an invitation; there are glimpses of his mastery and inspirations in public spaces too.
In Venice, there is Caffè Florian, which the designer so admired (in his words, the finest example of architecture “for small rooms”); in Rome’s Via del Leoncino, a shop window in démodé style displays Mongiardino-designed lampshades still produced by the shop's craftsmen; in Milan, the iconic green and yellow Ristorante da Giacomo, which he designed in 1989, and in New York, the tearoom at The Carlyle, a magnificent Turkish-style parlor surrounded by hand-painted wall panels inspired by Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
Remembering the mysterious, masterful Mongiardino, Winston Churchill's nostalgic words come to mind: “The old world, in the hour of its twilight, was beautiful to behold.”